If a party is known by the company it keeps, the BJP has quite a bit to worry about. While the national attention is on the elections in Bihar, with PM Narendra Modi delivering inspired speeches to enthralled crowds, fresh trouble is brewing for his government in faraway Maharashtra. Or, to be precise, in the financial centre of Mumbai.
The BJP, leading the NDA in an ambitious plan to reform governance and revive a sagging economy, does owe a lot to its allied ‘Senas’ of various hues of saffron in its march to unprecedented power in New Delhi, but none perhaps more than the Shiv Sena.
The Sena has been much in the news in recent days, the most prominent being the ink attack on former BJP ideologue Sudheendra Kulkarni’s face at the release of a book authored by former Pakistan foreign minister Khurshid Mahmud Kasuri.
I think some of that ink no doubt left a stain or two on the visage that the central government has been sporting as it woos investors and foreign dignitaries alike.
To rub the BJP’s face in it further, the Sena leader Uddhav Thackeray refused to back down on the issue. Against such a backdrop, Maharashtra chief minister Devendra Fadnavis must be a very brave man indeed to have declared that the BJP’s partnership with the Shiv Sena will last its full five-year term.
Is this a case of committed loyalty to a time-tested partner? Or is it simple realpolitik at work? Whatever the inner reason, the BJP has landed itself in a quandary that can prove costly if it does not wake up soon. The Sena is determined to do exactly what it wants and the devil take the hindmost.
Apart from unambiguous statements that seek an end to cultural relations with Pakistan, Uddhav takes direct potshots at the Prime Minister, unmindful of what this might do to the image of the party in power at the Centre.
Taking a dig at Modi’s annual radio address, ‘Mann Ki Baat’, Thackeray said: “Instead of telling your Mann Ki Baat to people, the party (BJP) needs to understand what is in the minds of the public.” He even questioned Modi’s ‘smart cities’ projects. Clearly, the courtesy due to a senior alliance partner is not being extended.
Uddhav is working extra hard with a purpose in mind. If cousin Raj Thackeray’s Maharashtra Navnirman Sena raises its influence, his old base will be eroded.
At the same time, it cannot see itself as a No 2 player in Mumbai, its stronghold. For the BJP, however, the stakes are higher as it tries to consolidate power at the national level. But here it finds the Sena cocking a snook at it despite its very small base.
Politics may well be the art of the possible, but surely it cannot be the be-all and end-all for a party that prides itself as a model of good governance? If the BJP’s pet schemes are attacked, and if the unruly image of an ally rubs off on its coalition leadership, does that bode well for the future?
True, path-breaking reform legislation requires all sorts of support, but in the age of globalisation in which foreign direct investment plays a key role in boosting the economy, a measure of consensus is needed to bring investors to the door.
The Sena pre-emptively disrupted a planned concert in Mumbai by Pakistani ghazal singer Ghulam Ali, who has been a symbol of peace and friendship amid tumultuous years of India-Pakistan relations. It also stormtrooped Pakistani actors at a play in Gurgaon. Cricket and showbiz have kept a semblance of normalcy amid bilateral tensions — and have been south Asia’s holy cows.
But the Sena is not alone in tripping up the NDA. Others within its fold also are not doing too bad a job of embarrassing it with frightening regularity. At this juncture, that tired cliché ‘Coalition Dharma’ may be invoked to allow this Sena or that ally some extra indulgence. But good dharma cannot be allowed to create bad karma.
One has only to look back at the UPA experience to learn a lesson or two. Memories of the 2G spectrum scam, which helped the NDA ride to power, should be fresh in the mind of the BJP. The then prime minister, Manmohan Singh, maintained a reticence towards the DMK, a coalition partner, and its telecom minister A Raja, but the embarrassment that he and his party suffered as a result of the dubious coalition dharma amid a corruption scandal is now a matter for historians to chew over.
In the same interview where Maharashtra’s chief minister affirmed the Sena partnership, he said Maharashtra would see many big-ticket investments in the next four years besides the ones committed by Foxconn, General Motors and South Korea’s Posco.
Surely that cannot happen while his coalition partner merrily paints the state’s capital in shades of unbecoming black? (Remember, it was supposed to be India’s Shanghai.)
The saffron senas may have been the BJP’s allies during the days when the party practised a harder form of Hindutva politics — as it did during the rath yatra led by LK Advani in 1990. But, if the promise of the NDA’s development plank is any indication, they are no longer birds of the same feather. Old loyalties cannot be wished away or suddenly abandoned, but wise men, I think, know where to draw the line.
The Sena considers Mumbai its stomping ground. Being the very much smaller partner, it has nothing to lose. It will continue its shenanigans. But at the same time, it also quite enjoys the power it gets from the coalition. So, if I were a BJP strategist, I would also tell the Sena where to get off once in a while. I would not stand by and look so helpless and try to cover up by insisting all is well as the Sena chips away at the edifice.
Maybe the Bihar elections, which are engaging all its attention now, could be the turning point for the BJP. Irrespective of whether it wins or loses in that state, Modi’s government has to step on the accelerator of economic reforms and a sort of administrative pursuit that will please investors and silence critics.
Now, this is where estranged allies cannot be the friends in need. Being in an abusive relationship invariably results in an ugly Stockholm syndrome. Unless the abused partner says enough is enough or walks right out. I think the NDA can fine-tune its strategy as any democratic coalition can. But the key issue is to see the bigger picture. India is bigger than Maharashtra, and the long-term is more important than the short-term. Balancing the two is where the real art of politics lies. The right steps at the right time can save the BJP some long-term embarrassment.
The views expressed by the author are personal.