It is wrong to brand Kanhaiya as anti-national and slap a sedition case against him. He is not anti-national.” These are not the words of some leftist or a Congressman. They were spoken by Uddhav Thackeray, chief of the Shiv Sena. He didn’t stop there: “When Hardik Patel, the Patel quota stir spearhead, became popular, he was charged with sedition, and now Kumar is fighting against the government,” he said at a public meeting, claiming that the Narendra Modi government, instead of guiding the youth of the country, was misleading them.
Has the Sena, which never loses an opportunity to wave the flag of nationalism, developed a sudden sympathy for leftist causes? Hardly. This is Thackeray taking one more swipe at the BJP, in the ongoing war between his party and its long term ally. Both the parties have been together for over 25 years and are now allies in a coalition government in Maharashtra, but barely a day passes by without some sniping from either side. The Sena does it more often and far more directly, but the BJP is no slouch either. Last October, when both parties were fighting the municipal elections in Kalyan, outside Mumbai, chief minister Devendra Fadnavis pointedly told the Sena: “You are teaching loyalty. There is no need to give us lessons of nationalism. Our birth itself is from nationalism. By disrupting a couple of meetings one does not become nationalist,” which was a clear reference to the Sena’s habit of indulging in violent tactics.
In recent weeks, the pitch has become louder, the tone stronger. For Thackeray to almost sound sympathetic towards Kanhaiya is a major step, even if tactical, towards poking at the BJP. Fully aware that it is a sore point with the BJP and conscious that it is a direct criticism of the Modi government, Thackeray chose to bring up the centre’s mishandling of affairs not just in JNU but also in Gujarat. In the past too — such as after the Bihar electoral debacle — Thackeray, through his party’s newspaper Saamna, has mocked Modi, which has angered the BJP no end.
Both parties are readying themselves for battle for Mumbai’s cash rich Municipal Corporation elections. With an annual budget of `34,000 crore and power over the country’s commercial capital, the Corporation is as important as any state legislative assembly. The Sena has ruled over it for decades; the BJP is a relatively minor player. Political circles speculate that both parties will go it alone in the elections, which should give some sleepless nights to the Sena; losing the civic body would mean it would be out of power on its own almost everywhere.
For the BJP, control of the state and the Corporation would give it unparalleled power to push through its development agenda, which includes some big ticket projects for the city. Indeed, the Sena fears that if the BJP wins a majority, it may even spin off Mumbai into a separate administrative unit; all this talk of Smart Cities and turning Mumbai into a global financial centre is making the Sena very nervous, since it could prove dangerous to what is essentially a local, nativist party.
The schism between the two began in the aftermath of the general elections in May 2014, when a triumphant BJP decided to go it alone in the elections in Maharashtra after seat negotiations failed. It was clear that the BJP no longer wanted to stick to the old formula, which gave the Sena many more seats than its partner. The plan almost succeeded, but in the end, the BJP failed to get a majority and had to ally with the Sena; the latter too was keen to get into government. But the Sena’s grouse is that it was not given any important portfolio and its ministers are kept in the dark about decision making. Now it is the BJP which is the big brother.
Underlying all this tension is the fundamental cultural difference between the two parties. While they both flaunt their Hindutva and nationalist credentials, the BJP in the state has always been perceived as a party of “bhatts and shetiyas” (Brahmins and traders). In Mumbai, this also translates as Gujaratis and Marwaris, who control finance and trade. The Sena appeals to the Marathi manoos, which is composed of the working class and the rising middle-classes. The BJP is making a serious bid to encroach on that territory, promising economic growth and jobs; this could entice the Marathi youth.
The Sena is now making a strenuous bid to woo the youth vote — the Thackeray scion Aditya Thackeray is leading that effort. It may not agree with Kanhaiya, but it does not want to be seen as attacking youngsters and college students.
In the coming months, this animosity will only grow. The Sena will want to retain its own identity and ensure that its core constituency does not get confused or shows any inclination towards the BJP. It feels that the Narendra Modi magic has worn off and that the BJP has limited reach in the city in the tenements and the slums. The BJP on the other hand is upping its game and is trying to strengthen its grassroots network. If the two of them don’t contest the elections jointly — most observers are convinced they won’t — it is going to be a no-holds barred run up to January 2017.
Sidharth Bhatia is a senior journalist and a founder editor of Thewire.in
The views expressed are personal