There are no permanent friends or foes in politics. Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Shiv Sena party chief Uddhav Thackeray have proved this time-tested theory again, by sharing the dais in Marathwada’s Latur constituency on Tuesday. The reunion, after nearly five years of bickering, has given the saffron alliance hopes of winning most of the 48 Lok Sabha (LS) seats in Maharashtra, the second largest state in India in terms of LS seats.
In 2014, the alliance had won 42 seats, leaving just two for the Congress and four for the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP), led by the unpredictable Sharad Pawar. Having covered general elections in Maharashtra since 1977, I had never doubted the future of the saffron alliance in 2019, though there was no shortage of political pundits predicting a doomed future for the duo remaining together. But the leaders of both parties have shown political maturity at a crucial moment and sealed their partnership.
The only difference this time is that the BJP has yielded to the Sena, by giving it a larger role in the LS battle. The seat-sharing formula used to be: 26 parliamentary seats for the BJP and the Sena, 22. For the assembly, the standard formula was 171 seats for the Sena and 117 for the BJP. Such was the arrangement, with the endorsement of Sena chief Bal Thackeray and BJP leader Pramod Mahajan.
The arrangement suffered a setback in the 2014 state elections when the two parties decided to go against each other. The outcome was surprising, with Devendra Fadnavis becoming the chief minister. This happened due to the division of the saffron vote bank. Realizing this, Modi and Uddhav arrived on the dais in Ausa in Latur district on Tuesday holding each other’s hands, to convey the strong message that the alliance was intact. This has boosted the morale of the rank and file of both parties.
As mentioned last week in this column, the opposition is still to forge a united front. More vulnerable is the Congress party under Ashok Chavan, who is almost isolated by other heavyweights. In fact, Chavan will have to wage a grim fight to keep his Nanded seat. In most constituencies, infighting within the Congress is at the fore. The unseemly delay in choosing a candidate for Pune has already exposed the chinks in the Congress armour.
For the NCP, Sharad Pawar is the only leader who has a statewide appeal. Maharashtra NCP chief Jayant Patil is buffeted by the developments in his Sangli district. This confusion has rekindled the hopes of the BJP-Sena alliance. As the nationwide battle is between the twin theme of patriotism and Hinduvta on one hand and the economic package announced by the Congress on the other, Uddhav finds it easy to justify his resolve to go with the BJP.
The appeal for direct benefit transfer schemes appears doubtful. Nonetheless, its main planks have remained Hindutva and the criticism of Pakistan. Uddhav finds it easy to ride the bandwagon, inspiring the cadre and voters by attacking the perceived enemies of the two planks.
In this scenario, the Sena’s stand that the decision to join hands with the BJP was the only practical alternative appears convincing. Moreover, no political party is going solo this time. Hence, any criticism of one party by another sounds hollow. The BJP-Sena alliance’s situation is slightly better since it has been in place for 30 years.
The Sena leadership is gleeful as the BJP has accepted a smaller role in Maharashtra for the election. The Fadnavis government’s proposed scrapping of the huge oil refinery in Nanar in Ratnagiri district is a shot in the arm. Either way, the Sena is campaigning in the Konkan region with a new vigour.
In return, it expects the BJP to back forcefully its candidates in regions like North Maharashtra, Vidarbha and Marathwada, the areas in which the BJP has a strong presence. The Sena’s traditional critics hoped that party cadres would revolt against Uddhav’s decision, since they had made up its mind to take on the BJP.
There was a reason to nurture this hope since several constituencies had witnessed bitter animosity between them But the decision by the top leaders has brought out a distinct change in their attitude. How much of this will translate to votes will soon be seen. The two leaders realised this quite early and are holding joint rallies in some major constituencies, to present a united face.
The Sena has only one leader and the picture in the BJP is likewise. Therefore, whatever Uddhav Thackeray decides is followed by the force without question. Those unhappy simply walk out but this does not dent the Sena’s clout. This has been seen time and again, since the maiden revolt by Chhagan Bhubal in 1991.
He lost the 1995 assembly election against a grassroots worker, Bala Nandgaonkar. The other MLAs who walked out with Bhujbal are now totally forgotten. On the other hand, Uddhav has consolidated his position. Those who understand the Sena are not surprised by this development. But those hoping that the Sena is decimated present various theories to downplay its role.
Uddhav Thackeray is unlike his charismatic father in many ways. He rarely uses strong language but invariably makes his point in urban and rural areas. His composure and quick wit is the Sena’s biggest asset. Silently, he has catapulted the Sena to its present position of strength.
The Sena has repeated most of its sitting MPs this time. A few changes have taken place but the party’s calculation is that it will prove beneficial. Given the impending assembly election for October 2019, Sena MLAs and other workers are anxious to repeat or even better the 2014 performance because that is going to impact their own prospects in the state.
(The writer is a former senior journalist, The Times Of India)