As Maharashtra chief minister Devendra Fadnavis completes nine months in office next week, itfs not the main opposition Congress or part-time foe Nationalist Congress Party he is wary of. Itfs the friendly fire from the Shiv Sena, more specifically its chief Uddhav Thackeray,that is making Fadnavis and his party uneasy.
For the past few weeks, Thackeray and the party mouthpiece Saamana (of which he is the editor) have targeted the BJP governments at the Centre and in the state. Whether Prime Minister Narendra Modi's attempts to normalise India-Pakistan relations or the state governmentfs handling of the agrarian crisis, the harshest criticism of the BJP has been by its ally.
So is Thackeray doing a Sharad Pawar with an eye on the 2017 elections to Mumbaifs civic body, the country's richest, which the Sena now rules with help from the BJP? Pawar perfected the art of sniping at his ally, the Congress, while sharing power; his strategy to retain the NCPfs distinct identity and deflect anti-incumbency sentiment.
For Thackeray, retaining power in the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC), preferably on his own, is a matter of political
survival. And he will be wary of the BJP playing hardball as it did during the Assembly elections.
An irked BJP, whose chief Amit Shah has made no secret of his partyfs ambition to rule alone,has sought to ignore Thackerayfs
interview in Saamna, publicly saying it wonft react to something that has appeared in a newspaper.
However, in a tit-for-tat, Tarun Bharat, a Marathi newspaper that advocates RSS ideology, came down heavily on Thackeray and
slammed the Sena for criticising the government while enjoying the perks of power.
For his latest salvo, Thackeray has used a three-part interview he gave to Saamna ahead of his birthday on July 27. He questioned Modi’s promise of `acche din’, made it clear that he wants Sena to win power on its own, and said that his party supported the BJP government only to keep the Congress-NCP out.
There is nothing wrong in a party trying to win power on its own … If [BJP president] Amit Shah is dreaming about his party winning power single-handedly in Maharashtra then why shouldn’t we,” Thackeray asked in the concluding part of his interview on Saturday.
“If the Sena thinks we don’t know how to respond, they are wrong. We have been advised to exercise restraint as of now. If Saamna is criticising us, they will get a response from our publications,” said a senior BJP minister who asked not to be named.
Political circles see a clear message behind Thackeray’s friendly fire at the BJP: Don’t take us for granted, we can damage you.
Thackeray clearly wants to show that the Sena is not tamed though it lost the big brother status in the alliance to the BJP. He wants the Sena to retain a separate identity though it is in the government. After all, the Sena won 63 seats in the 2014 assembly elections in a four-cornered contest. By sending out a message that he won’t spare even his alliance partner to safeguard the interests of the people, Thackeray is playing to the sentiments of the voters who backed him even in the midst of the Modi wave of 2014. He wants to retain their support.
More importantly, Uddhav has not forgotten how the BJP treated his party after the assembly elections. The Sena was made to wait to join the government and that too on the BJP’s terms. The party did not get any significant portfolios either in the state or at the centre.
“It is basically an existential crisis for the Sena. He is not happy with the treatment being given to him by the BJP. The entire control of the government is with the BJP and the Sena is not consulted on major governance issues. Uddhav is making his unhappiness known,” said B Venkatesh Kumar, political analyst.
“He was looking forward to an NDA kind of structure, but under Modi the BJP wants to dominate. It doesn’t want its allies to make any noise. As a result, Uddhav is feeling the heat,” he added.
By taking a populist stand over various issues, the Sena leadership could also be seeking to distance itself from the failures of the government. The question is: Will this have the desired effect or will it backfire on the Sena?
If Saturday’s editorial in Tarun Bharat is any indication, the Saamna’s tirade will draw a tough response. “Who was getting restless to be part of the government in Maharashtra? Who gave up the opposition leader’s post to grab power, ” Tarun Bharat asked. “If you are so angry with the government, quit the ministries, shun the red beacon cars and chart your own course,” said the editorial.
Friendly fire is rapidly turning into a fiery exchange.