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Shiv Sena-BJP Split

POLLS TURN FRIENDS INTO FOES

By Nikhil Gajendragadkar

Maharashtra is in election mode and mood. Two phases to civic bodies are over and now the big test is near. Five municipal corporations will go to the polls in less than two weeks. Mumbai, Thane, Pune, Nashik and Nagpur cities are already witnessing heightened political activity. The centre of attraction will be election of Mumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC).

This time around elections to these civic bodies are more interesting because the Shiv Sena has severed ties with its long time ally the BJP. On 26th January in a well-attended public meeting Sena chief Uddhav Thackeray announced the decision to call off its alliance. He also said that his party did ‘rot’ for 25 years in the alliance, making the BJP see red. Interestingly, the Shiv Sena has not pulled out of the coalition government in the State.

Though the timing of Thackeray’s announcement surprised many, the decision itself did not shock political circle or supporters of the two parties. This was bound to happen. For many months, Uddhav Thackeray has been criticising the BJP, both in the State as well as Centre. He was in fact more hostile towards Prime Minister Narendra Modi after the ‘demonetisation’ scheme or ‘note bandi’ as is popularly known. Thackeray blamed Modi for the hardship that the common people were forced to go through. He and his ministers in the State government complained about not getting enough freedom to carryout work. Further, they also grumbled about how some elements (reference to BJP ministers and perhaps even Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis) were blocking their developmental activities.

Even before elections for Zilla Panchayats and Municipal Corporations were declared, talk of ‘going alone’ was getting louder among workers of both parties in Pune and Mumbai. After the declaration of dates for the polls, few rounds of talks were held between the two parties on seat sharing. But these collapsed as both sides remained adamant on their respective demands. According to the BJP leadership, the talks didn’t fail on the grounds of seat sharing but on the point of ‘transparency’ in governance.

In first two phases of civic bodies’ election– which were held in predominantly rural and semi- rural area of Maharashtra—the BJP made good gains and emerged as the front runner as far as number of chairmanships it won. Emboldened by this breakthrough, the mood in the State unit of the party for going alone in major Municipal Corporations got strengthened further. But as it has an alliance with the Shiv Sena it chose to refrain from going public. And, it was the seat sharing talks which provided the opportunity they were looking for.

Ironically, Thackeray’s announcement came as blessing in disguise for the BJP. Soon after, Fadnavis retorted saying, ‘they’ (Shiv Sena) will be shown their “Aukaat” (Hindi word, meaning ‘showing their place’). This, set guns ablaze from both sides. The Sena is criticising Modi directly through their Marathi daily mouthpiece ‘Saamana’. The rift was evident in an event held last month in Mumbai, where Modi had gone to lay the foundation stone for a proposed Shivaji Memorial to be built in the sea near Mumbai. First Thackeray was not invited. Then somehow he got a place on the dais. When Modi and Uddhav came face to face, Modi did not even smile, nor did he mention him in his speech.

However, the paradox is that both the parties need each other. The Sena needs the support of BJP to run the BMC, and the BJP needs the Sena legislators to keep afloat the Fadnavis government in the State.

But now the battle lines are drawn. Both the allies will confront each other. It goes without saying that the fight will be intense in Mumbai. The Congress and Nationalist Congress Party are other players but as of now they are not a major force to reckon with. The Sena’s decision to end alliance with BJP is an attempt to regain its primacy in State politics. And, the Mumbai Municipal Corporation is not only its stronghold but its survival depends upon it. In the alliance the Sena would have had to forego some seats to the BJP. That would pose a danger of losing out some key areas of the metropolis and shrinking of its base.

While the Sena has tried to expand its base in the State, its claim to be a powerful party has failed to make inroads in many parts of Maharashtra. It is now in power in Aurangabad Municipal Corporation, but that is an exception. Alliance with the BJP helped both parties to emerge as an alternative to the Congress. Traditionally, Pune district was either with the Congress or later Sharad Pawar-led NCP, but that too has changed with last 2014 Lok Sabha elections. Now BJP has gained an upper hand in Pune city.

As is known, the Shiv Sena’s main agenda for long has been ‘Marathi Manoos’ (Marathi person), which it later turned to ‘Hindutva’. And, thus BJP’s Hindu centric policies complemented the Sena. But afterwards, the BJP veered round a larger development-oriented programme. This led to Sena’s anti-migrant stance losing sheen and the votes drifting towards the BJP, as seen more prominently in Mumbai — a cosmopolitan metro. Recall, in 2014 Assembly elections were held along with Lok Sabha polls. Then too, the Shiv Sena chose to contest alone. But in that contest the BJP emerged as the single largest party and Sena lost much ground in the State.

Now Mumbai is the only last bastion of the Shiv Sena. It needs to reinvent itself as a regional party with a distinct agenda. Perhaps, it may have realised that in the changing social scenario, an anti-migrant policy will not help. In addition, Raj Thackeray’s Maharashtra Navnirman Sena (MNS) also uses Marathi and anti-migrant chant. Thus, the big question before the Shiv Sena is how to protect its Marathi vote base and garner non-Marathi, non Hindu votes.

So far, it has avoided the traditional rhetoric against migrants and protecting Marathi Manoos. The party is now focusing on the development it has brought to Mumbai, such as coastal roads, drinking water projects etc. Uddhav has taken up the subject of transparency too, as the Economic Survey-tabled in Parliament before the Union Budget noted that the BMC has the ‘most transparent governance’.

Apparently, some surveys undertaken in late December or early January, suggest that Shiv Sena will retain power in BMC this time too. And that may be one reason why the Sena took the bold decision to cut ties with BJP. On the other hand, the BJP looks more confident because of its recent success in civic polls and people’s backing to Modi, post-demonetisation.

The BMC election is thus crucial for both. If Shiv Sena manages to win it this time too, then BJP will be forced to tow its line and need to accept it as ‘big brother.’ But if the BJP wins the polls, then the Sena will find it very difficult to keep its foothold in the State. Which way the wind will blow, will be worth a watch, even in this season of State Assemblies going to the Polls. — INFA

(Copyright, India News and Feature Alliance)

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