In the wake of the 2002 anti-Muslim pogroms in Gujarat, Narendra Modi, then chief minister of the state, was under attack from all sides. Several leaders, even within his own Bharatiya Janata Party, held him responsible for the violence and wanted him to step down. Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee advised Modi to perform raj dharma—the duty of a ruler—a remark many construed as a reprimand. The national executive meeting of the BJP, scheduled in April that year in Goa, was seen as a “make or break” affair for the controversial leader from Gujarat.
At this critical time, the Shiv Sena chief Bal Thackeray sent two of his senior members of parliament, Chandrakant Khaire and Mohan Rawale, to Gujarat to publicly back Modi. Known as the Hindu Hriday Samrat, or the King of Hindu Hearts, Thackeray himself made it clear that he approved of Modi. The moral support from the Sena, an important ally in Vajpayee’s government, was crucial in saving Modi.
By September 2014, the power dynamic between Modi and the Sena had been reversed. In May of that year, Modi became prime minister. Bal Thackeray had died in 2012, and his heir Uddhav was steadying the Sena ship. Modi, however, was not going to be as generous as the Sena had been.
The BJP had always played second fiddle to the Sena, which had always been the “elder brother” in Maharashtra. But riding on their success in the 2014 general election, Modi and the BJP’s new president Amit Shah decided to aim higher, with the October 2014 Maharashtra assembly polls approaching. It was time to expand the empire.
Though the Sena offered the BJP more seats than it had in the previous elections, the BJP kept up its demand for more seats, resulting in a deadlock. When Uddhav refused to cede ground, the BJP declared that it would go solo, snapping a 25-year alliance with the Sena that had lasted for most of the two parties’ electoral histories. The results came as a rude shock to the Sena—the BJP won 122 seats, while the Sena only won 63, in a house of 288 seats.
The relationship has never been the same again, despite the two parties sharing power both at the centre and in Maharashtra. The Sena realises that the BJP seeks complete control of the state, and is more an adversary than an ally. With both central and assembly elections due in 2019, Uddhav faces a difficult dilemma. Going with the BJP would mean participating in the marginalisation of his own party, which is clearly Modi and Shah’s agenda, and going alone would mean risking another defeat in the polls. Contesting solo would also split the Hindutva vote, which could hurt both parties.
With Modi’s popularity seemingly on the wane, the BJP clearly wants to repair relationships with its allies. Chandrababu Naidu’s Telugu Desam Party has already left the National Democratic Alliance, and Nitish Kumar of the Janata Dal (United) looks uncomfortable. The Sena is the biggest constituent of the NDA after the BJP, with 18 members in the Lok Sabha. That is why, in June, Amit Shah decided to visit Matoshree, the residence of the Thackerays in suburban Bandra, and had a closed-door meeting with the Sena chief for nearly two-and-a-half hours. Madhav Bhandari, the chief spokesperson of the Maharashtra BJP, said after the meeting that the party would make “earnest efforts” to have a tie-up with the Shiv Sena. How effective these efforts have been is questionable, as the Sena refused to support the government in the no-confidence motion brought against it in parliament in July.
Even after Shah’s outreach, there has been no clear indication that the two parties have buried the hatchet. A Sena leader, who did not wish to be named, told me that during the meeting Uddhav read out verbatim the scorn and ridicule heaped upon him over the last four years by the state’s BJP leaders. Modi continues to be the favourite punching bag of the Sena’s mouthpiece Samana. The Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh, it is said, is working behind the scenes to avoid a division of the Hindutva vote, but it is unclear how much it will be able to prevail.
The BJP does seem to be trying not to worsen the state of the relationship. Shah has put a gag order on party members speaking to the media about the Sena and its leadership. This could, however, just be a way of ensuring a post-poll alliance remains on the cards. A BJP leader, who declined to be identified, told me, “I don’t think that there will be an alliance with Sena. There will not even be a seat understanding.” The Sena is in no mood to relent on its current demand for the chief minister’s post and a majority of seats. It wants its “elder brother” status restored.
The saffron parties seem to be feverishly preparing to go it alone in the race for Maharashtra, which has the second highest number of Lok Sabha seats after Uttar Pradesh. The state’s 48 constituencies are spread across five main regions—Vidarbha, Western Maharashtra, Khandesh, Marathwada and Konkan.
Contesting separately seemed to help both parties in the 2016 municipal polls, where both the Shiv Sena and the BJP improved their previous tallies. Out of the 4,750 seats contested, the BJP won 1,147, the Congress 873, the Nationalist Congress Party 847 and the Shiv Sena 547. Comparing these results with those of the previous local body polls, most of the BJP’s growth seems to have come at the expense of the Congress and the NCP.
However, the results of the by-elections for the Lok Sabha seats of Palghar and Bhandara-Gondiya in May this year should be a cause for concern to both parties. The BJP had won both seats by a huge margin in 2014, when it managed to take all ten seats in Vidarbha, traditionally a Congress stronghold. The NCP and Congress tied up for the Bhandara-Gondiya seat in the region and wrested it from the BJP. The BJP only narrowly defeated the Sena in Palghar, a Konkan constituency. The Sena’s good show in Palghar has given hope to Uddhav, who now thinks his party might be able to challenge the BJP in seats it has not contested before. Since both parties share areas of strength—the more than a hundred urban constituencies in the state, including Mumbai—there is no telling who would prevail. The BJP clearly seems to have an upper hand right now.
Though the Sena has failed to ever come to power on its own in Maharashtra, a section of the party blames the alliance with the BJP for this. Many senior leaders, who have been with the Thackerays for the past thirty years, insist that Uddhav should take the gamble and go solo. The argument is that there are more than a hundred assembly constituencies across the state that the Sena has never contested due to the alliance. They feel the Sena has a big enough support base to call the BJP’s bluff. The fact that the Maharashtra Navnirman Sena, which hurt the alliance in some previous electoral contests, is now a spent force also gives the Sena confidence.
Meanwhile, a section of younger leaders, especially those holding elected office, are advising caution. This section wants the alliance to continue so that it is easier to win elections. It is also apprehensive of Modi and Shah’s Machiavellian tactics, backed by the massive resources at their command. Such manoeuvres might involve striking a deal with NCP chief Sharad Pawar, or even luring some Sena politicians into the BJP. In the 2014 assembly polls, 22 of the BJP’s 122 elected MLAs had been recently poached from other parties.
As things stand, the most likely scenario for the 2019 Lok Sabha elections seems to be that the BJP and Shiv Sena will go it alone, while the Congress and NCP will form a pre-poll alliance. Though Uddhav continues to sulk, and has declared that the Sena will fight future elections alone, he continues to be a partner in the BJP’s governments at the centre and state.
For the past four years, the Sena has tried to be both the government and the opposition. The party is clearly at the crossroads, and there are no easy answers. Recent political developments indicate that if the saffron parties go to war, neither will come out unscathed.