If Modi is weak, the Sena can bargain for more seats. If the Sena is on the defensive, the BJP will force it to accept an offer it cannot refuse.
Will they, won’t they? Intense speculation surrounds the question of whether the Shiv Sena will continue its alliance with the BJP in the 2019 Lok Sabha and Maharashtra assembly polls.
However, despite the Shiv Sena’s announcement that it will go solo, the question would not have attracted the countrywide interest it has were it not for the fury in the editorials of its mouthpiece, Saamana.
The sustained and fierce attack on Narendra Modi and Amit Shah, as well as Maharashtra chief minister Devendra Fadanvis, defines the politics of the Shiv Sena, or so people believe.
Whether Saamana reflects the genuine sentiments of the average Shiv Sainik or the editorials are mere rhetoric aimed at securing a bargain with the BJP will be clear when the seat allotment talks begin. But that day is still a few months away.
If one were to judge the situation only on the basis of the Sena’s strident attacks on the BJP, it would be easy to conclude that the saffron alliance is just not possible. It’s certainly something the Congress is hoping for, and maybe the NCP, whose chief, Maharashtra’s self-styled Machiavelli Sharad Pawar, often blows hot and cold on the issue.
A few days ago, Pawar made an appeal to Sena chief Uddhav Thackeray to join the proposed opposition front to oust the Modi-led BJP from power. But everybody knows that it was the NCP that facilitated a BJP-led government in Maharashtra.
Praful Patel, the alter ego of Pawar, had offered unconditional support to the Fadanvis government when the Modi-Shah duo failed to secure a majority in the state in November 2014. The ostensible reason given was to have a stable government in the state. But, in effect, the NCP liberated the BJP from the clutches of the Sena.
Though the two saffron parties had fought the Lok Sabha election in alliance, the “yuti” had fallen apart on the eve of the assembly election five months later.
The BJP had secured its own majority in the Lok Sabha with 282 seats, and Amit Shah had publicly boasted that the party would repeat the performance in Maharashtra. The Shiv Sena must accept the role of a junior partner or the BJP would go on its own, he said.
The Sena cited election data to argue that the only reason the BJP won 23 of the state’s 48 Lok Sabha seats was because of the alliance with them, saying the national party would not have got even 12 otherwise.
But the Sena could not clinch the argument. Amit Shah told his party’s state leadership to break the alliance.
It is now known that, before the BJP’s split from the Sena, a backroom deal with the NCP was in place. The condition for the MoU was that the Pawar-Patel duo must divorce the Congress, which they did.
So it turned out to be a four-cornered contest for the assembly: BJP vs Sena vs NCP vs Congress.
Amit Shah had vowed a “shat-pratishat”, that is cent per cent, result. But the party ended up with 122 of 288 assembly seats, that is, 23 short of a majority. The Shiv Sena won 63. The ensuing alliance between the parties was one born of necessity. It was blatantly a marriage of convenience.
The NCP, with its 41 MLAs, had forced a catch-22 situation on the Shiv Sena. If the NCP had not offered its unconditional support to the BJP, the Sena could have, at least theoretically, withdrawn support and toppled the government.
But this is realpolitik, and the Sena had a union Cabinet berth and some ministerial posts at the Centre. They could not have sacrificed that privilege. The BJP did not need them in New Delhi, but the Sena needed a power base in the capital. Over the last four years, the Sena lived and suffered in that catch-22 predicament, being in power, but confronting the BJP and getting humiliated frequently.
In this light, the Saamana rhetoric is essentially aimed at Sena workers, to give them hope and confidence that their Marathi pride will not bend before Gujarati arrogance. But in the final analysis, notwithstanding the militant language used by Thackeray, the two parties will work out a seat adjustment. Both are looking forward to a better bargain.
If Modi is personally and politically weak, the Sena can bargain for more seats. If the Sena is on the defensive, the BJP will force it to accept an offer it cannot refuse. That is why the Sena mouthpiece is far more critical of the Modi government than even the Congress or the Left. It openly supports Mamata Banerjee and Chandrababu Naidu, and advocates rebellion in the NDA ranks. The weaker the NDA, the stronger is the Sena’s position.
Saamana editor Sanjay Raut has openly and repeatedly said that the Modi-led BJP will lose as many as 110 seats, bringing their tally below 200 in the Lok Sabha. He has publicly said that Rahul is emerging as a grand leader with merit. The Sena had made fun of Sonia and Rahul in the past, but not anymore. There is also backroom hobnobbing with former Congress chief minister Ashok Chavan.
There was, at one point, some “track two” conversation to topple the Fadanvis government and create a new alliance between the Sena, the NCP and the Congress, with Uddhav as chief minister.
But that was an impossible chemistry with a flawed formula.
The NCP was ready, it was said, but the Congress refused to join the game. There was also some fear in the Sena ranks that the NCP had often worked in cahoots with Narendra Modi and could not be trusted. (Modi’s first visit outside the capital after becoming Prime Minister was to Baramati, where he described Pawar as his guru).
Over the past few weeks, Pawar has gone out of his way to erase that impression of bonhomie with Modi. In Parliament, his daughter Supriya Sule is believed to be in perfect tandem with Rahul Gandhi. Pawar, too, is cosying up to Sonia Gandhi. He is participating in opposition conclaves, and there is serious talk of him throwing his hat in the ring for the post of prime minister if no party gets majority.
In that situation he can evoke Marathi pride and seek support from the Shiv Sena to give the country its first Prime Minister from Maharashtra!
On a serious note, the Shiv Sena-BJP alliance rests on so much conjecture, even rhetoric has the potential of impacting the situation. At least, Saamana seems to believe it.
And so the Sena will keep the fires burning, and provide news leads to the national English and Hindi media, which seem to follow Saamana more than even the Marathis!
Kumar Ketkar is a former editor and Congress member of Rajya Sabha.
… unlike Chandrababu Naidu, …
The SS has no option but to ally with the BJP, especially for the assembly elections. Even if they fight jointly, there is no guarantee of a second term; fighting separately would be a journey on the Titanic. The national outlook for 2019 is cloudy. The SS could damage the BJP in a dozen seats, but that will not be decisive to the overall result. Given how few options the SS has, it is unseemly, a violation of coalition dharma, for it to use Saama to attack the governments at the centre and in the state. Its staying on, like Chandrababu Naidu, make the tiger’s roar sound like a pussy’s mew.
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