The race to capture power in Maharashtra has strained relations between partners in one of the oldest political alliances in India.
After the BJP’s national president Amit Shah publicly asked the Shiv Sena on Thursday to be mindful of his party’s self-respect in sharing seats for the October 15 Assembly polls, his party colleagues told the Sena to take a decision immediately. In a late night move, the Sena once again offered the BJP 119 seats, the same as in 2009, out of which it would have to allot 8 seats to smaller allies. The BJP core committee in the state is meeting on Friday morning to decide on its response.
Earlier in the day, Sena leaders had said they did not acknowledge any such ‘ultimatum’ and that things would happen only according to the wishes of their party chief Uddhav Thackeray. At a meeting Thackeray called at his residence in the evening, the party top brass authorized him to decide the fate of the alliance.
On Wednesday, Shah had told state BJP leaders to demand more seats from the Sena. In political circles, his message is seen as an ultimatum to the Sena. His statements at a public rally in Kolhapur on Thursday morning were a reiteration of the BJP’s stand that it does not consider the Sena the big brother in the saffron alliance in Maharashtra.
Unfazed, the Sena is playing hardball. Thackeray, who was reportedly called up by the BJP poll in-charge Om Mathur – the day and time could not be confirmed independently -- went into a huddle with his party’s senior leaders on Thursday evening.
“The tension in the saffron alliance was visible though leaders from both sides were admitting in private that they would have to stick together to win the assembly polls.
“No one can issue us any ultimatum. We want the alliance to continue but sentiments of Maharashtra should be respected while sharing seats. The agreement should be done according to the wishes of (the late) Balasaheb (Thackeray),” Sena MP Sanjay Raut said after the leaders’ meeting with Thackeray. He said the final decision would be taken by Thackeray.
The BJP — demanding an equal share of the state’s 288 assembly seats citing the Lok Sabha polls where it won 23 seats to the Sena’s 18 — suspended talks with its ally last weekend after Thackeray questioned the impact of the Modi wave in the election. In 2009, the Sena had contested 169 seats and the BJP 119, winning 44 and 46, respectively.
BJP insiders said they were prepared to snap ties if the Sena remained adamant. Their confidence stems from the fact that despite contesting fewer seats, their strike rate — percentage of seats won among those contested—in the Assembly polls has been better than the Sena’s since 1995, the year the two came to power for the first time. Earlier this year, the BJP lead in 133 Assembly segments of the 24 Lok Sabha seats it contested in the state. “Going by this data, we may win more than what we won in the past 25 years. We won 65 out of 115 contested in 1995, our highest so far, and the Sena won 73 out of 169 it contested,” said a senior BJP leader requesting anonymity.
Earlier in the day, Shah indicated that the BJP was willing to stay with the Sena. “We [the BJP] have taken two steps forward, the other people [the Sena] should also move a step forward and resolve the issue quickly to begin the movement for transformation of Maharashtra,” he said at his Kolhapur rally.
However, Shah loaded his statement with a warning to the Sena. He said there would be no compromise at the cost of self-respect. “The [BJP state] leaders told me that they were making sincere efforts but there was no response [from the Sena],” he said, adding that the BJP was going to rule the state this time. As the day progressed, Shah hardened his stance. He did not mention the Sena in the two speeches he made later in Chondhi (Ahmednagar) and Pune. He appealed to the people to vote for the BJP.
BJP’s general secretary in-charge Rajiv Pratap Rudy expected the Sena to respond soon. “We hope things will come through properly,” he told media persons at the party’s Nariman Point office. Sources said the BJP was still willing to save the alliance by stepping down from its demand for equal share in the 288 seats on a condition that the Sena concedes maximum seats for smaller allies from its own quota. The BJP is seen as on a shaky ground in view of a poor show in the Assembly bypolls in other states.