Shiv Sena breaks off in high-stakes gamble

The Shiv Sena has decided to contest the 2019 Lok Sabha and Maharashtra Assembly polls on its own strength, breaking away from long-time ally BJP.

It is a big move for the Shiv Sena, and a political gamble, too. What's more, the party has even decided to contest polls in other states, spreading its wings beyond Maharashtra.  

The Shiv Sena-BJP relations have been strained and the political marriage has been on the rocks since 2013, but now things are clear – it's a split. And it has been announced by none other than Shiv Sena president Uddhav Thackeray. However, he has not said anything about what would happen after the polls.  

In the last three years, since the time it joined the BJP-led government in the state as the junior partner -- with just one ministry in hand -- the Shiv Sena has not spared a single chance to attack Prime Minister Narendra Modi, BJP president Amit Shah and Maharashtra Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis.  

A parallel development has taken place involving the two opposition alliance partners - Congress and Sharad Pawar's Nationalist Congress Party (NCP).  

The Congress and NCP, whose combine ruled Maharashtra for three terms from 1999 to 2014, have decided to come together again, although the final deal is yet to be sealed by Pawar and Congress president Rahul Gandhi.  

The Shiv Sena and BJP on the one hand and the Congress and NCP on the other fought as two opposing formations in the 2014 Lok Sabha polls, but both alliances split ahead of the Assembly polls a few months later. In fact, this allowed all the four parties to chart electoral waters on their own strengths after several years.  

The Raj Thackeray-led Maharashtra Navnirman Sena faced a series of electoral reverses, but still the chances of it joining hands with Shiv Sena appear bleak. In the past, Uddhav has rejected the idea of joining hands with his estranged cousin, but a section of leaders on both sides feel that they must come together to consolidate the Marathi manoos vote.

When Uddhav ended ties with the BJP, it had several messages.  

First, it was a sort of a challenge, and it came just after the Gujarat polls.  Second, it was clearly intended to be a morale booster to the party cadre and asking them to gird their loins and go out all aggressive, Shiv Sena-style. Third, the party will continue to mount attacks on Modi, Shah and Fadnavis while being part of the BJP-led NDA at the Centre and also a partner in Maharashtra. Fourth, it would not have any pre-poll alliance with any other party either – so, no feelers from potential suitors, please.

"In the Gujarat polls, Congress gained, the BJP lost its position…neither we are happy about Congress nor sad about BJP. Had there been a regional party, it would have won the election," Thackeray said, making it clear that regional parties still hold importance in India despite the BJP's dominance of the political scene.

The Shiv Sena was also specific: it has set a target of winning 25 (out of  48) Lok Sabha seats in Maharashtra and 150 (out of 288) Maharashtra Assembly seats.

In fact, that the Shiv Sena would go it alone was something that was coming. There were enough indications from the public rallies of Uddhav and editorials in Saamna, the Sena mouthpiece.  

Though Uddhav shares a good personal equation with Fadnavis, he has left no stone unturned to target him. Fadnavis, too, has taken digs at the Sena and the Thackerays.

Despite being in alliance, the Shiv Sena has never left a chance to break ranks – in 2007 and 2012, respectively, it had supported Congress-UPA candidates, Pratibha Patil and Pranab Mukherjee for the presidential polls. However, in 2017, it reluctantly supported Ram Nath Kovind, the BJP-NDA candidate.

One thing is clear: the absence of trouble-shooters like the BJP's late Pramod Mahajan and late Gopinath Munde, BJP-Sena relations have touched nadir. The current BJP
leadership is quite different from the likes of former PM AB Vajpayee and his deputy LK Advani, who enjoyed close relations with Shiv Sena founder Bal Thackeray.  

Another major issue that compounded the problem was the BJP's decision to take Narayan Rane, Uddhav's bête noire, into the NDA fold. Rane was with Shiv Sena, having served as chief minister, but was expelled by Thackeray Sr in 2005 for raising a banner of revolt against Uddhav. He subsequently joined the Congress and was part of the Congress-NCP government. The Congress did not even make him state party chief. Last year, he quit the party and formed his own Maharashtra Swabhiman Sena.

Fadnavis ensured that Rane joined hands with the BJP and the latter was seen defending Modi on the issue of the Ahmedabad-Mumbai bullet train – which Uddhav and Raj Thackeray opposed.

The roadmap for the Sena is clear now: to increase its presence in the rural hinterland, it has to speak to people on issues of "Marathi-manoos" and "real Hindutva" – and cash in on the severe discontent among farmers and the working class.

The biggest challenge to Sena comes from BJP. Besides, if the Congress and NCP join hands for the polls, the trouble for Uddhav and his backroom boys will mount.

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