Apart from the Congress, if there is one party that has actively and consistently played the part of an opposition party by fiercely attacking the prime minister and his government in the last couple of years, it is the Shiv Sena. The Congress played its part without any political or ideological contradiction in its position as the ruling party’s main adversary quite convincingly, but the Sena played a double game by frequently criticising Prime Minister Narendra Modi, his government and his party, while being part of the BJP-led governments at the Centre and in Maharashtra.
Whenever the Congress criticised the prime minister, his government or the BJP, Modi and his party, including its president Amit Shah, have reacted viciously against the grand old party and its president Rahul Gandhi. However, the Sena has got away without any consequences for its constant criticism of the Modi government’s policies, right from demonetisation, GST, rural distress, Rafale deal, terrorism, handling of Kashmir problem, construction of Ram temple to rising unemployment.
In fact, over the past four years, the Sena has been persistent in its criticism of the government’s functioning at the Centre and at the state. During its national executive in January 2018, it went to the extent of declaring that it would fight the 2019 general elections separately over disagreements with the BJP. On Monday, January 18, the Shiv Sena mouthpiece Saamana criticised the BJP saying the party is looking at ‘taking political mileage out of the death of our soldiers by appealing to people to vote for the BJP to seek revenge for the Pulwama attack’.
But a few hours later, the BJP and the Sena announced that they would be fighting the upcoming general election and the assembly poll as an alliance. Surprised? You shouldn’t be. After months of public bickering that created a sense of uncertainty over the alliance, the eventual coming together of the BJP and its cantankerous ally was not only fairly predictable, but not completely unexpected.
The Sena’s criticism and rhetoric against the BJP and its ways was only for public consumption aimed at creating a perception in the minds of local voters and party cadres that it continues to call the shots in Maharashtra and would not play a second fiddle to anyone. But the arithmetic of electoral politics has always been that the Sena can’t do without an alliance with the BJP; neither can the BJP do much without the support of its ally in Maharashtra.
The Sena’s public duel with the BJP was essentially a tactic to drive a hard bargain with the latter in both the Lok Sabha poll and assembly election, which is expected to follow six months after the general election. In 2014, the BJP contested 24 Lok Sabha seats and won 23; the Sena contested 20 and won 18. The Sena-BJP alliance had trumped the Congress-NCP combine quite convincingly: the Congress won just 2 seats out of the 26 it contested and the NCP won 4 out of 21.
But the alliance fell apart in the assembly election held in October 2014 over seat sharing tangle. Emboldened by its impressive performance in the Lok Sabha poll, the BJP refused to accept the Sena as a senior partner and fought the election separately. It won an impressive 122 seats out of the 260 it contested; the Sena contested all 282 seats and won only 63.
Going by the winning percentage in 2014, the BJP should be contesting more seats this time. But it has settled for 25 seats, while the Sena will contest in 23. This appears to be a pull back by the BJP, and after Bihar, this is the second instance of BJP mellowing to please its ally. This is because, if various opinion polls are to be believed, the BJP will need the support of its allies to form the government at the Centre.
After UP which has 80 parliamentary seats, Maharashtra, with 48 seats, sends the second highest number of MPs to the Lok Sabha. The BJP simply couldn’t afford to get its electoral arithmetic wrong. This is why the alliance with Sena gains importance as the vote banks of the two saffron parties overlaps significantly; not having an alliance would split the votes between the two Hindutva parties, which would benefit the Congress-NCP combine.
If the BJP and the Sena were to fight the upcoming general election separately it would have been an advantage for the UPA with 30 of the 48 seats going to the Congress-NCP alliance, leaving 16 for the NDA/BJP and 2 for Shiv Sena, according to one opinion survey. However, if the BJP stays with the Sena and the NCP with the Congress, then the NDA is expected to win about 36 sears and the UPA 12, the survey predicts.
The Shiv Sena is BJP’s oldest ally. For 25 years they have fought electoral battles in Maharashtra together, with BJP treating the Sena as senior partner. Cracks started appearing in the alliance after the BJP’s thumping triumph in 2014 Lok Sabha election. Having been denied its ministerial quota of two and half ministers in Modi’s cabinet, the Sena got a jolt when the BJP decided to go solo for the assembly election in Maharashtra in which it finished a distant second, while the BJP crossed the 100-mark for the first time.
Forced to join the state government by his senior leaders after remaining out of power for 15 years in Maharashtra, the Sena did not get plum ministerial posts it wanted, but remained part of the government to keep its senior leaders happy. It is one thing to criticise and grab headlines but quite another to fight election solo, a move which would have backfired on the Sena. Had it walked out of the state government last year when the Sena unanimously passed the resolution to not get into an alliance with anyone for elections in future, it would have sent a different message to the electorate.
Meanwhile, the BJP also realised that 2019 is too close to call, if the opposition parties unite to prevent the division of their votes. Thus, despite public bickering between the estranged allies, backroom channels were kept open to negotiate a deal. With Modi alone unlikely to bring them back to power, the BJP couldn’t ignore the cost of fighting the election without its old ally in Maharashtra.
A L I Chougule is an independent senior journalist.