Elated over its performance in the recent Lok Sabha elections, the NDA, shepherded by the BJP, is flush with optimism as it approaches elections to the Maharashtra assembly. By contrast, the Congress is in disarray and is yet to come out of its inertia and bewilderment atbeing mauled. The sense of drift in the Congress is sharply in evidence in Maharashtra, one of its bastion states in the past, while the BJP rules the roost with Chief Minister Fadnavis riding high horses and hogging the limelight.
It is hardly surprising that the BJP is oozing confidence and expecting a better bargain than what it struck with Uddhav Thackeray’s Shiv Sena last time around in 2014 when the two parties fought the polls separately and only later came together. This time around too Shiv Sena is seeking a good deal with BJP in the number of seats to be contested in the Assembly polls but that is patently unrealistic of it. If there is no alliance the Shiv Sena would predictably be a bigger loser while the BJP could romp home with a clear majority which had eluded it in 2014 when it had to fall back upon back upon Sena crutches in the Assembly.
Uddhav is evidently calculating that without the Shiv Sena’s MPs in the Lok Sabha, the Modi government at the Centre would have only a relatively slender majority and that the BJP would come clamouring for peace. It would then be amenable to giving Shiv Sena a good deal under virtual blackmail. But the BJP reckons that the Narendra Modi-Amit Shah partnership, supported in this case by a strong Devendra Fadnavis would succeed in virtually decimating the Shiv Sena if the two parties were to drift apart.
Uddhav Thackeray is not new to risk-taking and he had amply demonstrated this when the BJP and Shiv Sena had snapped the alliance and gone their separate ways in 2014 only to re-forge it when it came to ministry-making and the BJP fell short of numbers. But while the BJP-Shiv Sena alliance seems in good shape but for the irritant on sharing of seats, today the Congress is in a worse condition that it was five years ago and Sharad Pawar’s NCP is in doldrums. In typical Uddhav Thackeray fashion, he is wary of the BJP’s propensity to pull the rug from under the Sena’s feet at the last minute and his apprehension is growing.
The Congress and the NCP have formalised a deal for sharing Assembly seats to contest and it would be virtually impossible for Shiv Sena to manage to get an acceptable number of seats from that alliance if the Shiv Sena links with the BJP are snapped. Uddhav knows this only too well and unlike 2014 when he was flexing his muscles, he is now in a more conciliatory mood and much less combative, having seen the Lok Sabha results as a trailer.
The BJP has apparently made it clear to Uddhav that after taking out the seats that the two parties won in 2014, the remaining seats will be distributed equally. This will leave Shiv Sena with around 115 seats in the alliance's seat distribution plan. The hard bargainer that Uddhav is, he has raised an objection to this and pointed to the fact that Fadnavis had promised before the Lok Sabha elections that seat distribution for assembly polls will be equal for both the partners.
It is unlikely that Uddhav would stick his neck out further knowing how strong the BJP is this time around so there is a fair chance that the Shiv Sena would settle for a compromise. By continuing to align with the BJP, the Shiv Sena has a fair amount to gain as against the uncertainty that would dog it if it ties up with Congress and NCP. Clearly, the BJP is on a stronger wicket in terms of bargaining.
The BJP is, however, not without its own fears. If talks with the Shiv Sena fail finally and the latter pulls out of the arrangement and severs link with the NDA, it would pose a psychological setback to the BJP. Besides, its comfortable majority in the Lok Sabha and thenarrowing gap in the Rajya Sabha would be deterrents for the BJP in snapping links with the Sena. It is indeed not as though the BJP would not suffer a setback if Shiv Sena withdraws support to the NDA government. Perhaps, the damage to the Sena would be greater but that should be little consolation to the BJP, looking at the larger picture.
In the mind games that the BJP and the Shiv Sena are playing, while Uddhav has warned his partymen that they should not shy away from snapping links with the BJP if they are offered a raw deal, the BJP is being egged on by some leaders to improve its Assembly tally by going on its own. All in all, there are interesting possibilities ahead of the Assembly elections in Maharashtra expected in October. Though the odds are in favour of the BJP-Shiv Sena alliance continuing despite the hiccups, last-minute surprises can hardly be ruled out. In the interim, the BJP is sitting pretty with Fadnavis sure that he is poised for victory, taking advantage of the sad plight of the Congress and the NCP.
The writer is a political commentator and columnist.
He has authored four books.