By Murtuza Merchant Feb. 07, 2019
Is there trouble in paradise for the Shiv Sena-BJP alliance? Uddhav Thackeray has made vociferous demands to set a date for the construction of Ram Temple. Meanwhile, Devendra Fadnavis has ordered reviews of each Lok Sabha constituency, because BJP insiders feel the Sena is poorly prepared for the upcoming polls.
e have been hearing the slogan, ‘Mandir wahin banayenge, par tareekh nahin batayenge.’ Today we want a date for the Ram Temple construction,” boomed Shiv Sena chief Uddhav Thackeray from the Laxman Qila in Ayodhya last November. This was a challenge the BJP could well have done without.
Even as the BJP struggles to formulate a strategy to counter the Sangh Parivar’s increasingly vociferous demands for a deadline to start temple construction without angering the RSS or other Hindu outfits, the party was probably taken by surprise with its Maharashtra ally jumping into the Ram Temple melee in Ayodhya. Uddhav Thackeray, always the poet, said, “I have come here to wake up this Kumbhakaran, who has been sleeping for the past four years.”
At that time, there was some talk of whether Uddhav would end up being the Vibhishana of the NDA-BJP. But apparently not. The Sena’s support for the Ram Temple construction was in itself no surprise, given that it has supported Hindutva causes in the past. Nor was its threat to go it alone in the Lok Sabha polls taken seriously by most.
Few observers doubt that a Sena-BJP alliance will emerge comfortable winners – it is the contours of that alliance that are uncertain. Earlier, this week election strategist and JDU leader Prashant Kishor had a lunch date with Thackeray and his son Aaditya, setting rumour mills abuzz. The BJP is hopeful that Kishor’s JDU, an ally of the NDA, will play cupid and mend its fractured relationship with the Sena.
The Sena’s support for the Ram Temple construction was in itself no surprise, given that it has supported Hindutva causes in the past.
BJP president Amit Shah has reportedly asked Maharashtra chief minister Devendra Fadnavis to ensure there is no public spat with the Sena, which never misses an opportunity to pick holes in the BJP’s development agenda. And the December defeat in the Hindi belt, it fears, will only embolden Uddhav & Co.
A recent internal survey conducted by the BJP has said that an alliance would win 42 of the state’s 48 Lok Sabha seats. The survey also apparently finds that without an alliance, the BJP will win around 18-20 seats, with the Sena’s tally coming down to four-to-five seats. (In 2014, the combine had won 41 seats, with BJP 23 and Sena 18. Congress had been reduced to two seats, the NCP four.)
The Sena too is aware of the pitfalls of ditching the BJP. But it finds itself in an awkward position after repeatedly finding fault with the ruling party. It has railed against demonetisation, implementation of the GST, the Uniform Civil Code, the killings of soldiers on the borders, and the state government’s farm-loan waiver. One argument is that staying with the BJP would signal a lack of leadership skills from Uddhav Thackeray, besides being an admission that the party is incapable of winning elections on its own.
“While we are aware that an alliance with the BJP is the only way of ensuring our win in 2019, doing so will be demoralising for party workers, especially after Uddhav ji’s firm stand of fighting elections solo and then his visit to Ayodhya to project himself as the new Hindutva mascot,” said a senior Sena leader requesting anonymity.
A BJP-Sena combine cannot ignore the potential electoral impact of a rejuvenated and already sealed Congress-NCP alliance.
A BJP-Sena combine cannot ignore the potential electoral impact of a rejuvenated and already sealed Congress-NCP alliance. And the probable further splintering of Dalit and Muslim votes by fringe parties like All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen (AIMIM) and Dalit leader Prakash Ambedkar’s Bharip Bahujan Mahasangh (BBM), who, though not part of the Congress-led opposition, have reached an alliance of their own. The only consolation for the saffron allies, for now, is that Congress-NCP are not ready to welcome the BBM into the “Mahagathbandhan” until it breaks apart from the AIMIM.
Uddhav reportedly told a party meeting that following the “personal intervention of Chief Minister Fadnavis,” an alliance with the BJP will happen “If there is a respectable proposal. But how do I convince Shiv Sainiks? They will be convinced only if we are given a better deal than offered last time,” Thackeray was quoted as saying by a senior Shiv Sena leader.
There are also murmurs within the Sena that Thackeray is hurt by the BJP’s high-handedness – and that Modi doesn’t behave the way he did before the BJP came to power in 2014.
Meanwhile, Fadnavis, without waiting for the Sena’s decision on an alliance, has started holding reviews of each Lok Sabha constituency, because BJP insiders feel the Sena is poorly prepared for the upcoming polls – having lost over a month in organising rallies in Varanasi and Pandharpur for the party chief and later in celebrating the success of these rallies.
The sands on which the Sena-BJP alliance had pitched their tents are shifting, and the power dynamic, for so long tilted in the BJP’s favour after their thumping 2014 victory, is in flux. The next few months will see how the next chapter in one of the most volatile alliances in Indian politics unfolds.
Murtuza Merchant is a Mumbai-based journalist and a member of 101Reporters.com. He writes on state politics, government policies, health, and environment.