The Sena clearly needs to rethink its overall ideology, but on current form, where it seems nothing more than a party eager to grab power and pelf, it is on the way to self-destruction.
The acrimonious divorce between two Hindutva parties, the Shiv Sena and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), should not have surprised anyone. The problem with two parties having the same ideology is that you never know who is redundant to the partnership. Sooner or later they would want to find out. Now they can.
In 2014, they found that the BJP had more purchase with the voter than the Sena, but the latter had not yet become redundant. The Sena’s recent intransigence is the result of a realisation that if it does not strike out on its own, it will permanently lose relevance.
In theory, the relationship broke down over the Sena’s adamant stand over the chief ministership. That a party with 56 seats should be demanding the top job when its partner got 105 should have been a matter for mirth, not serious acrimony. But that is what happened.
The real issues driving the partners apart are many.
One, ego. The Sena has been unable to face the reality that its former junior partner is now the senior — and with the potential to take over its constituency completely. When Bal Thackeray was around, the BJP deferred to his idiosyncrasies and played second fiddle. But once the founder of the Sena departed, it saw no reason to remain in the shadows. Also, with the arrival of Narendra Modi as a pan-India popular leader, the BJP grew stronger and stronger. And in Devendra Fadnavis they found just the right regional leader with the wisdom and sagacity to pull off a five-year term without succumbing to the pressures brought on by various caste agitations, and the Sena’s repeated efforts to play the role of opposition while staying in the coalition. Fadnavis’s success, and the BJP’s thumping victory in the Lok Sabha elections, ensured that the Sena had no leverage whatsoever. Hence the need to break free while it still held some cards to play.
Two, cannibalisation of vote banks. The Sena started out as a party supported by Mumbai’s millowners, who wanted to break the stranglehold of the Left-wing unions. The Sena did that by playing its Marathi manoos card and by developing street-fighting abilities. It aggressively campaigned against south Indians first, and then targeted some Gujarati businessmen. But that card had only a limited validity, and Thackeray thought that adopting aggressive Hindutva as his call sign would help him grow his base.
That’s where the founder of the Sena made a huge mistake. When it came to Hindutva, the BJP was already there, touting the same ideology. When you have a larger party carrying the same flag, why would you vote for a smaller party with a smaller footprint if Hindutva was what you wanted as a voter? By adopting Hindutva as its main slogan, the Sena effectively prepared the ground for the BJP to claim its rightful space in Maharashtra politics. All the BJP had to do was adopt Shivaji as its mascot, and it moved to the centre-stage of Maharashtra politics.
In the meanwhile, Uddhav’s cousin Raj Thackeray took over the job of being the new scourge of non-Marathi-speaking people, and the Sena found itself being edged out of the Marathi manoos platform. Though Raj Thackeray did not find much traction, if Marathi manoos does indeed become a vote-winner in pockets, his tactics may well work better than Uddhav’s Hindutva.
Three, for the BJP, the real challenge was to find regional space within the context of being a national, Hindutva party. Under Gopinath Munde it found a good potential leader, but Munde died early in the Modi regime, and his place was taken by the untested Devendra Fadnavis. As a Brahmin, few political pundits were willing to give him much chance of survival in a Maratha-dominated political environment. But Fadnavis proved cleverer than them all, and negotiated all his challenges – a Maratha agitation, a Dalit one and another by farmers – by keeping his cool and mollifying all the agitators.
The Sena saw that Fadnavis had now grown wings, and moved quickly to cut them down as soon as it got an opportunity last month. The BJP-Sena coalition got a comfortable majority in the assembly, but the BJP was far short of a majority to run a government without the Sena. Clearly, the Sena outmanoeuvred the BJP, both by extracting a good deal in terms of Lok Sabha seats, and then denying the BJP the chance of getting a large number of seats on its own in the assembly elections. It has chosen to take the relationship to breaking point precisely because it knew that Fadnavis was now a leader on his own.
The BJP’s challenge now is to occupy the entire opposition space and move in for the kill whenever the opportunity arises – as it surely will in a coalition led by the Sena, and backed by two of its former enemies, the Nationalist Congress Party and the Congress.
The problem for the Sena is that it has no ideology left to pursue. It can still become a regional party based on language and regional pride (as we see in other states), but it is difficult to see the NCP allowing it to do so. The Congress, for its part, will – as it has always done in the past – pull the plug on the Sena-NCP coalition whenever it finds the right opportunity. It is difficult to see how it can back a Hindutva party locally, especially when it has not given up its national pretensions.
The BJP has better options. It can, first, let the Sena-NCP-Congress trio try and work out their contradictions and gain from the discomfitures of any or all of them. It can occupy the entire opposition space. When the coalition crumbles, as it surely will given its internal contradictions, it can move in for the kill. All it needs to do is check any over-eagerness to bring down the government before its contradictions are apparent to the public. This means sitting it out for at least a year or two.
The Sena clearly needs to rethink its overall ideology, but on current form, where it seems nothing more than a party eager to grab power and pelf, it is on the way to self-destruction. If that happens, the BJP will feast on its ruins.
The Sena would have been better off playing opposition and building its base with a new ideology, given its interests in urban Maharashtra, mainly Mumbai and Thane. Now it risks losing both to the BJP. Neither the NCP nor Congress will allow the Sena to retain its supremacy in these two urban centres. They have their own bases to nurture.