The Shiv Sena’s posturing, intended to get it plum portfolios and the deputy chief minister’s chair in Maharashtra, continued a week after Assembly election results were announced. Ostensibly, the allies, Shiv Sena and Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), continued to be at loggerheads, with the latter demanding a greater share of the power pie, but party insiders said it was all part of a political script.
As a result, there were many mixed signals. The party even took a delegation of its leaders, including Uddhav Thackeray’s son and Sena heir Aaditya Thackeray, to meet the state Governor BS Koshyari on Thursday evening. Officially, this was about relief for farmers affected by excessive rainfall, but the media spotlight on Aditya post the meeting told a different story. A few hours later, senior Sena leader Sanjay Raut met Nationalist Congress Party chief Sharad Pawar, days after issuing a threat to the BJP saying it had "other options" if the BJP didn't agree to its demands.
Yet, beyond immediate gains, Sena’s bid to adopt an aggressive stance is also intended to send a message to the BJP – the Sena of the next five years will be far removed from the Sena of the last five years. Having lost political space to the BJP steadily in a state where it once called the shots, the Sena wants some of the old respect back.
Sena and symbolism
In the run-up to the state elections in Maharashtra five years ago, while the Shiv Sena and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) were trying to stitch together an alliance, two instances, loaded with political symbolism, occurred and went on to change the relationship forever.
In early September, coming off on a high after its resounding win in the Lok Sabha elections just months before, BJP leaders set two conditions that rattled the Sena chief, Uddhav Thackeray: One was that the negotiations would not be held at Matoshree, the residence of the Thackerays and the nerve centre of all political activity in Maharashtra for decades. The second, Sena insiders said, cut even closer: The BJP expressed its unhappiness that Uddhav’s son, Aaditya, then 24, was being deputed to be part of the seat-sharing negotiations, calling him ‘immature,’ and his participation an insult to the seniority of its leaders.
Symbolism has always mattered immensely for the Sena. By making these demands, the BJP had attacked that heavy sense of symbolism associated with the Sena and sought to re-establish new political symbolism—that Matoshree and the Thackerays will no longer call the shots.
For decades, while Sena founder Bal Thackeray was alive, the Sena remained the Big Brother in the Sena-BJP relationship, an arrangement that had, privately, met with much resentment in the BJP. The Sena, the party insiders would snigger, was a family-run enterprise which would only promote the family while the BJP was bursting with young leaders like Pramod Mahajan, Gopinath Munde, Nitin Gadkari, Vinod Tawde among others. In 1995, when the alliance finally came to power, the difference between the two parties was marginal—the Sena was at 73 seats while the BJP stood at 65. Yet, the CM’s post remained firmly with the Sena while the BJP got the Deputy Chief Minister’s post and lucrative ministries like the Home department. The arrangement started fraying soon, thereafter, with the Sena’s strength waning. In 2009 state polls, the BJP’s bagged 46 seats to Sena’s 45.
When a resurgent BJP won a full majority by itself in the Lok Sabha polls of 2014, the BJP decided that it was not going to treat the Sena as a friendly competitor. From breaking off the alliance to giving the Sena what the latter perceives as a raw deal in power, the BJP has, in the last five years, done everything it could to decimate the Sena – it challenged the Sena’s citadel of the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) and mounted an aggressive campaign against the Sena’s “misrule” and “corruption” and won 82 seats, 2 short of the Sena’s 84 seat tally.
It also publicly snubbed Uddhav a number of times – by not inviting him to State functions, especially when Prime Minister Narendra Modi was the chief guest, or by ensuring that he doesn’t get a place on the dais. The BJP is even said to have deputed its senior leader and MP Kirit Somaiya to go public with allegations of corruption and impropriety against the Thackeray family, in the run-up to Mumbai’s civic polls, a line that Sena insiders say even opponents had never crossed.
Beneath the public show of bonhomie between senior leaders in both parties, the hostility continued even during the recent election campaign. BJP leaders, confident of the party bagging a majority on its own, would hint, in hushed whispers, that the Sena would not be needed after the results. Across the state, both parties worked against its ally’s candidate in a number of places.
“Uddhavji remembers all this very well, even if he has done a good job of not showing that he does. That’s why, he will not let go of this opportunity to bargain hard,” says a Sena organisational leader from Mumbai.
Insiders in the Sena said that this current standoff is not going to break the alliance. Uddhav, they say, is pragmatic enough to know this.
But the Sena’s high-pitched campaign to push Aaditya as a young face has meant that the BJP has been forced to concede that the Thackeray heir will play a lead role in the next Sena-BJP government.
This, in essence, is what is driving Uddhav and the Shiv Sena to its aggressive stance – an urgent desire, with an heir waiting in the wings, to re-assert itself as an aggressive party that commands respect.
(Kunal Purohit is a Mumbai-based independent journalist and an alumnus of the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), University of London. He writes on development, gender, politics and the intersections between them)
The views expressed above are the author’s own. They do not necessarily reflect the views of DH.