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Friday, Nov 22, 2019

Maharashtra assembly polls: Why Uddhav Thackeray’s stance on Sena-BJP poll alliance changed over 5 yrs

From not budging over seat demand in 2014 assembly elections to accepting secondary status in 2019, Shiv Sena chief Uddhav Thackeray has changed his strategy in five years.

assembly-elections Updated: Oct 07, 2019 10:00 IST
Swapnil Rawal
Swapnil Rawal
Hindustan Times, Mumbai
Shiv Sena chief Uddhav Thackarey,  his son Aditya Thackarey and Maharashtra CM Devendra Fadnavis at a press conference to announce Sena-BJP poll alliance for assembly polls,  Friday, October 4, 2019.
Shiv Sena chief Uddhav Thackarey, his son Aditya Thackarey and Maharashtra CM Devendra Fadnavis at a press conference to announce Sena-BJP poll alliance for assembly polls, Friday, October 4, 2019. (HT Photo )

In October 2014, Maharashtra saw a power tussle between the Shiv Sena and Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). The Sena, under the leadership of Uddhav Thackeray, refused to budge from its demand of 151 of the 288 seats in Maharashtra. Ultimately, the BJP snapped the alliance over a few seats and the parties that had been allies for more than two decades went solo.

Switch to five years later: Tamed by the BJP, the Sena on Friday meekly accepted 124 seats for the polls on October 21.

For the Shiv Sena chief, who spearheaded his first election in 2014 after Sena founder Bal Thackeray’s death, the poll was to retain the ‘big brother’ status of the alliance. This time, his focus has shifted to keeping his flock together, given the defections from various parties to the BJP, and also to retain power, according to political experts. Having joined hands with the BJP before the recent Lok Sabha elections, Sena leaders said going solo for the Assembly polls was out of question as constant U-turns by the leadership would not go down well with their supporters. Further, a triangular contest would affect the Sena the most, with the BJP on the one side and the Congress-NCP on the other.

With the ascent of the BJP, the Sena has been reduced to playing a secondary role in Maharashtra politics. The party mouthpiece last week said the BJP has become a big national party and that in the “give and take” in the alliance, it has given more than it got. “We are in an alliance based on a common agenda of Hindutva. It has several issues, including Ram Mandir, uniform civil code, etc. We hoped for equal seats and wanted a respectable number of seats to contest. But going alone in the election was never an option. No political party was going solo. It would have hampered the chances of the Shiv Sena, as the votes would have been divided,” said a senior party functionary.

So does that mean Thackeray has accepted a secondary position to the BJP?

Balancing Act

Political analysts feel Thackeray understood the prevailing political scenario in the wake of the rise of the BJP from 2014 till now and so did not rock the boat. Senior party leaders feel the call was taken after evaluating the current situation. His leadership, they say, is pragmatic and driven by a good sense of reality. An example is how Thackeray ensured Sena played the role of opposition while in power, without disturbing the functioning of the government – one of the reasons why he shares cordial personal relations with chief minister Devendra Fadnavis.

Senior Sena leader Subhash Desai, who guided Thackeray after he took over as the working president, said he has balanced the goals of the party and wishes of the cadre.

Desai said Thackeray took over the party at a time when there were not many mass leaders. “He had promised [Sena founder] Balasaheb that he would take the party to newer heights, which he did in two years of his death. In 2014, we increased our Lok Sabha tally to 18 MPs from 15. Then in the Assembly elections, we fought against all odds and increased our MLA count to 63 in 2014 from 42 in 2009, even amid the ‘Modi wave’,” said Desai, a key leader who is consulted by Thackeray on important issues.

Political analyst Surendra Jondhale said the Sena leadership intends to piggyback itself to power like it did in the past two Lok Sabha elections. According to Jondhale, not aligning with the BJP after it got a resounding majority in the recent general election would have been suicidal for the party.

“It is a practical approach… The party chief, its leaders, cadre intended to stick to power as contesting independently was not realistic,” said the Mumbai-based analyst.

The Rise of the BJP

When the two parties re-entered into an alliance in February 2019, the BJP leadership had promised equal seats to the Sena in the Assembly polls. However, emboldened by the thumping majority it secured in the parliamentary polls, the BJP did not keep its word and declared 150 candidates for the state elections. It may contest more seats meant for the smaller allies. (The formula announced by the two parties is BJP: 150, Sena: 124 and smaller parties 14).

Jondhale said, “The ascent of the BJP is a big factor in the Sena agreeing to play second fiddle. The BJP is asserting itself, while the Sena is merely toeing their line. The BJP has strengthened its position by getting leaders from the opposition, so they did not bother about the Sena. They wanted an alliance but on their conditions. Uddhav Thackeray was in no mood to assert or fight for an equal role in the alliance.”

Desai said at a time when everybody was against an alliance, Thackeray took the “difficult” decision to go for it.

Raw Deal vs Aaditya’s Rise

Another reason behind accepting a secondary role was that Thackeray’s son Aaditya is contesting his debut election from Worli. Party functionaries said it would not have made sense for the first Thackeray to contest the legislative election and sit in the opposition. “The future of Aaditya Thackeray is at stake. It is a historic thing for them that a Thackeray has taken the electoral plunge. So they may have decided to be in power with the BJP,” Jondhale said.

Desai, who was involved in the seat-sharing negations with the BJP, admitted the BJP did not keep its promise. He said that it could have been another “breaking point” in the alliance. “We are all witness to the pact between Uddhavji and Amit Shah and they had agreed to share equal seats, but they did not fulfil that. The Shiv Sena could not get more than 125-126 seats. This could have been a breaking point again, but Uddavji did not react in an emotional way,” Desai said.

The Way Forward

Thackeray has evolved as a mature, thinking and a pragmatic leader in a party that functioned largely on emotions. With Aaditya’s electoral plunge, he is hoping to give the Sena a new identity.

For the Sena, the Hindutva plank is shared with the BJP, which by virtue of being a national party is able to milk the agenda more than the Sena. With Aaditya’s all-inclusive, modern, youth-centric approach, Thackeray hopes to refuel the party in the state to take advantage of any anti-incumbency against the BJP by 2024.

In the next five years, if the saffron alliance returns to power, the Sena will continue to play the role of the opposition while being in power. Party insiders said by taking on the BJP from within the government, the Sena has etched a unique position and has kept itself relevant in the state politics. Desai added, “We will continue to stand by people even in power. Our allegiance is to the people first, and power later.”

Jondhale said, “Thackeray has sailed through turmoil. He did not have a cakewalk. Keeping power and yet opposing the government must have been tough. However, with Aaditya in the treasury benches, Thackeray and his party may not be able to keep the same aggressive tone against the BJP-led government.”

Personal Life

Before Thackeray was anointed as the successor, he rarely took interest in the party’s affairs. Thackeray, is married to Rashmi, and has two sons, Aaditya and Tejas.

While his elder son Aaditya took to politics, his younger son Tejas has interest in wildlife. Before taking over the party’s reins, Thackeray devoted time to photography. His aerial photographs of Maharashtra’s forts have been exhibited at the Jehangir Art Gallery. He has published two coffee-table books with photographs capturing the Varkari community during their annual Pandharpur yatra. Thackeray has a collection of cameras and lenses.

A photograph of the Haji Ali Dargah clicked by the Sena chief has been put up at the entrance of the dargah in south Mumbai. He also experimented with infrared photography.