The weekend saw the ruling allies in the state, the Bharatiya Janata Party and the Shiv Sena flexing their muscles, giving an indication of what is likely to happen in the next few months. Both parties announced they would not hesitate to go solo if their interests were affected because of their ally.
Normally, such strong noises would give an impression that the alliance was on the verge of a split, but after watching what the two parties have been doing since 2014 and what the Congress-NCP did while they shared power for 15 years, one would prefer to wait and see if they actually mean it. Notwithstanding the noise they make, both allies would like to use each other whenever it suits them politically because their voter base is similar.
According to BJP insiders, the party’s strategy is to win power on its own where it did well in the last assembly elections and consolidate its position there. It will take the help of the Sena, where the two parties fighting separately would benefit the Congress and the NCP, who are desperate to make a comeback. The state BJP top brass thinks it is their chance to win as much as they can: No party remains popular for a long time, so make the most of the current situation when you are still not carrying the baggage of anti-incumbency.
The Sena’s stand, however, arises out of bitterness over playing second fiddle to the BJP.
It began with the Sena getting a raw deal when the BJP formed a government at the Centre after winning the Lok Sabha polls. The party was given only one ministerial berth with a relatively insignificant portfolio such as heavy industries. The treatment was similar at the state level.
Riding high on the Modi wave, the BJP took its chance and contested solo. It won 122 seats, but fell short of the majority by 23 seats. It preferred to take the Sena along instead of the NCP whom it had targeted over corruption charges. However, the arithmetic was such that it could dictate the terms to the Sena while making them a partner. The Sena joined the government by accepting limited berths and without getting a single strategically important portfolio such as home, finance or urban development. The bitterness remained and an unhappy Sena started attacking its ally whenever it got a chance. In the past few months, it has sharpened the attack.
So, is there going to be an all-out war between the allies soon?
Both parties are aware that their honeymoon phase with voters is over. The mini-assembly polls (for local government bodies in nine cities and 26 districts) will give an idea of what the voters think of the BJP-led government’s performance. The results will be treated as a referendum on the Fadnavis government’s performance by either the ruling parties or the opposition — depending on the outcome. This is why the BJP would prefer an alliance with the Sena, where it needs a partner. At places such as Mumbai where opposition parties are not strong, it would prefer to contest solo and see how far it can go. They can even come together after the polls as they did in Kalyan. In fact, in the post-poll alliance, the BJP can bargain for a larger share of power even if it doesn’t emerge as the largest party.
Uddhav Thackeray has read the BJP’s moves and wants an upper hand in cities like Mumbai. The power in the Mumbai civic body is Sena’s biggest source of strength. This is why he asked his Sena cadre this week to be prepared to fight alone.
Ahead of the mini-assembly polls that will be held between this October and March 2017, the two partners will try to outsmart each other and check each other’s growth. While doing so, they won’t hesitate to take each other’s help where it benefits them. At the same time, they won’t prefer the Opposition becoming too strong in the run-up to the 2019 assembly polls. It’s clearly a cat-and-mouse game. One hopes they don’t forget why people elected them. We had seen a similar game between the Congress and the NCP and how the two parties were seen fighting each other even at the cost of the citizens’ interest.