Mumbai: Ahead of the 2019 Maharashtra assembly election results, some ambitious Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leaders were almost confident of their party securing 135-140 seats in the 288-member House and then incumbent Devendra Fadnavis returning as chief minister.
The results stumped these leaders — the BJP ended up with 105 MLAs, way short of the halfway mark of 144, widening the chinks with then ally Shiv Sena and leading to the creation of a Sena-Nationalist Congress Party (NCP)-Congress alliance.
BJP leaders were then confident the coalition wouldn’t last. The party, however, now finds itself having spent a year in opposition — its image, of an unbeatable force with a ‘development first’ agenda powered by a young leader, having taken a beating.
The BJP is now hoping to regroup by looking to monopolise Maharashtra’s Hindutva vote-bank through discrediting the Shiv Sena as a secular party.
“The political arithmetic is such that BJP can’t break any party and form the government. It will have to actually take one whole party with it,” political commentator Prakash Bal said.
In the MVA, the Shiv Sena has 56 seats, the NCP has 53 (one MLA died last month, reducing its tally from 54) and the Congress has 44.
Referring to the failed 80-hour government that Fadnavis formed with rebel Ajit Pawar, Bal added, “The NCP won’t go with the BJP after what happened, the Congress won’t go and neither will the Shiv Sena. BJP is in a very tricky situation because of this arrangement and that’s why it is trying to use the Governor’s office and targeting the Shiv Sena as ‘secular’ for its political agenda.”
Conflict with Raj Bhavan
Since the early months of the MVA government, its equation with Maharashtra Governor B.S. Koshyari has been far from cordial. Koshyari is a former BJP functionary and a staunch Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) supporter.
Shiv Sena leaders have often alleged that the BJP is using the governor’s office for its politics.
For instance, the governor had kept the MVA government in suspense by sitting on the cabinet’s recommendation to appoint CM Thackeray to the state legislative council. According to norms, Thackeray, who did not contest the 2019 polls, had to become a member of either of the two Houses within six months of his swearing in as CM.
“Who is stopping him (Koshyari) from approving the recommendation?… There is nothing to hide about Koshyaris BJP affiliation,” Shiv Sena Rajya Sabha MP Sanjay Raut had said then while speaking to a Marathi news channel.
The state cabinet recommended Thackeray’s name to the legislative council on two occasions — 9 April and 27 April. When Koshyari still did not react, Thackeray asked Prime Minister Narendra Modi to intervene, following which the governor asked the Election Commission to hold elections to nine vacant council seats at the earliest. Thackeray was then elected unopposed.
The governor also locked horns with the CM when the BJP was protesting against the state government, asking it to reopen Maharashtra’s temples, which had been shut since the lockdown began in March. Eventually, the state government decided to open places of worship last month.
Koshyari and Thackeray had an acerbic correspondence over the issue in October with the former questioning if Thackeray, a proponent of Hindutva, has suddenly turned “secular,” and the latter hitting back by saying his Hindutva doesn’t need the Governor’s certificate.
The governor had also been critical of the MVA government’s handling of the Covid crisis, actively calling review meetings at Raj Bhavan, and has also met the Shiv Sena’s detractors such as actor Kangana Ranaut and Maharashtra Navnirman Sena Chief Raj Thackeray.
The BJP, however, insists the Governor is only doing his job.
“We have the highest regard for the Thackeray family, its legacy, but have the most number of complaints with CM Thackeray,” former BJP Minister Ashish Shelar told ThePrint.
“The problem is, when we ask the CM questions that he doesn’t want to answer, he makes it look like an attack on the Thackeray family and hides behind the Thackeray legacy.
“One should compare the number of times the governor has stepped out, attended programmes, met delegations, held meetings as compared with the number of times the CM has done all of this,” he added.
“The CM is inaccessible to even his own ministers. When the CM’s office is not accessible or effective, the governor automatically becomes the point of contact for people. All these are academic issues, not political ones.”
‘More Hindu than Shiv Sena’
Targeting CM Thackeray for keeping temples shut through the pandemic was just one of the many issues that the BJP took up in the past one year to allege that the Shiv Sena has forgotten Hindutva.
In the past few months, the BJP has aggressively pursued a Hindutva agenda with a dual objective. One, it wants to prod the Shiv Sena to react, hoping that this will make the Congress and NCP uncomfortable and widen the ideological chasms between the alliance.
But, more importantly, it has its eye on 2022 when 10 civic bodies, including the Shiv Sena bastions of Mumbai and Thane, as well as zilla parishads in 27 districts will go to polls in what is being dubbed as a ‘mini assembly election’.
With the Shiv Sena having now allied with its former ideological rivals Congress and NCP, the BJP hopes to dislodge the Shiv Sena as a pro-Hindutva party and capture its saffron vote-bank in the state in the 2022 elections.
A BJP MLA who did not wish to be named said, “Since the last several years, the Shiv Sena has been steadily losing its saffron vote-bank, losing its vote share in Mumbai bit by bit. Plus, the party has been heading the Mumbai civic body for over two decades and there are a lot of issues where we can point out their non-performance.
“Now at such a time, the party chooses to tie up with ideological rivals such as Congress and NCP. Also, we can hear statements from them such as the party respects all religions and even Balasaheb used to allow namaaz inside Matoshree,” the MLA added.
“Their Hindutva vote-bank is obviously going to be even more disillusioned. That has nothing to do with the BJP. It has everything to do with the current Shiv Sena leadership.”
The BJP has taunted the Shiv Sena on issues such as lynching of two sadhus in Maharashtra’s Palghar district, the government’s denial for holding chhat puja at beaches due to the pandemic, and more recently an azaan competition that the Shiv Sena had allegedly organised.
Sena functionary Pandurang Sakpal in a statement clarified that the party has not organised any such competition, and it was another organisation that planned to hold the azaan contest, for which Sakpal extended his support.
Pravin Darekar, BJP’s opposition leader in the upper house, however, criticised the Shiv Sena for forgetting party founder Bal Thackeray’s Hindutva ideology. “The whole country remembers how Balasaheb had bitterly criticised the loudspeakers in mosques for namaaz,” Darekar said in a statement. “One can see how the Shiv Sena is constantly forgetting Balasaheb’s Hindutva ideology and nationalism after being a part of the MVA.”
With each BJP attack, however, the Shiv Sena, which has evidently moved to a more centrist face under Chief Minister Uddhav Thackeray as compared to its belligerent, baleful self under Bal Thackeray, has retorted strongly, wanting to safeguard its saffron vote-bank.
For instance, after the azaan contest controversy, Shiv Sena leaders publicised old photos of senior BJP leaders at Eid celebrations and a Saamana editorial said, “You should remember when you point a finger at Shiv Sena’s Hindutva, four fingers are pointed at you.”
In his annual Dussehra speech this year, CM Thackeray had scoffed at the BJP, saying there was a huge difference between its Hindutva and that of Sena founder Bal Thackeray.
“I don’t want the Hindutva of ringing bells,” Thackeray said, sneering at the BJP for its ‘ghanta naad andolan,’ where party leaders clanged bells while protesting for temples to be reopened when the MVA government had kept them shut fearing a spike in Covid-19 cases.
Fadnavis as opposition leader
Political watchers say the happenings of the past year have somewhat dented Devendra Fadnavis’ image and suggest that he may not be as in control of the party as opposition leader as he was as chief minister.
“The fact that Uddhav Thackeray had to indirectly tell PM Modi to rein in BJP leaders for irresponsible crowding during its agitations amid the pandemic says a lot,” political analyst Hemant Desai said.
“Fadnavis isn’t behaving irresponsibly, but there are others who are. Then there are leaders who keep making statements about how the MVA government will fall in three months, six months, after Diwali and so on. Meanwhile, Fadnavis says the opposition is doing nothing to destabilise the government, which will self-destruct,” Desaid added.
“Earlier, when he was the CM, there weren’t any major conflicting statements, but now that he is the opposition leader that’s not the case.”
Resignations of senior leaders such as Eknath Khadse and Jaisingrao Gaikwad Patil has also dealt Fadnavis’ leadership a blow. Khadse unequivocally blamed his exit on Fadnavis, while Patil said he was willing to work for the party, but the party wasn’t giving him a chance.
“After a year in opposition, we can’t yet say that the BJP has lost ground. The party has shown it is still powerful with various street agitations, and the opposition leader’s extensive tours,” Desai said.
“But, it’s image as a cohesive, responsible opposition party has taken a beating.”