Uddhav Thackeray plots Shiv Sena’s solo march to throne in 2019
As the political atmosphere in the state heats up in the run-up to the elections, various political equations have started to form, and leaders are weighing the pros and cons of each move made by opponents and allies. For Shiv Sena chief Uddhav Thackeray, who has taken an aggressive stance against his ally, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), the road ahead is expected to be a tightrope walk – balancing between the need for power and maintaining an aggressive posture.
The ties between the Sena and BJP — the saffron parties that came together on the agenda of Hindutva more than 25 years ago — have been bitter since 2014, when the latter rode to power at the Centre with a massive mandate. Earlier this year, the Sena snubbed BJP and declared that it will not enter into an alliance, and contest all elections on its own. The Sena, which was the senior partner when the alliance was forged, is now playing the second fiddle to BJP since 2014.
The ‘Modi wave’ in 2014 catapulted the BJP to a position of the senior partner, with 120-plus seats in the state Assembly, while the Sena managed to win 63 seats. Since then the two parties have been in an uneasy alliance — cursing each other, but forced to stay together.
The unfolding scenarios at the state- and national-level – the political realignment of the Congress and Nationalist Congress Party (NCP); the bonhomie between NCP chief Sharad Pawar and Maharashtra Navnirman Sena (MNS) chief and Thackeray’s estranged cousin Raj Thackeray – has limited the Sena chief’s options. Political observers said Thackeray will have to decide his strategy based on the strength of the party.
Thackeray’s waiting game
A senior Sena leader said there are two factions within the party that are divided over the alliance with the BJP. The leader said Thackeray is playing a “waiting game”.
“A lot will depend on the results of the Karnataka [Assembly] elections. Besides, the timing of Lok Sabha and Maharashtra elections will also decide the strategy for the party,” the senior leader said, on condition of anonymity, adding that till then the Sena will continue to play the role of an opposition in the government. “It is likely that we could pull out of the government with the polls just six to eight months away.”
The Sena has threatened to quit the BJP-led government multiple times, attacked the governments in the state and at the Centre, criticised Prime Minister Narendra Modi in the past three years, but still, it has continued to be in power in Maharashtra and at the Centre. The Sena has contributed to the discourse of parliamentary democracy by being an opposition in the government and has successfully managed to stretch it for three-and-a-half years in the government.
Political analyst Deepak Pawar said that for the Sena, being in power appears to be stronger than pulling out of it. “It is power that is working as glue for the party; and it is power that will work for them for the remaining year-and-a-half in the government. The only possibility I see is that they will pull out six months before the elections,” Pawar said.
Following its poor performance in the by-elections in states like Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh, the BJP is making overtures to the Sena. Senior BJP leader and state finance minister Sudhir Mungantiwar is likely to meet Thackeray mid-April. Sources within the Sena said the BJP is open to offering 140-odd seats (out of 288) in the Assembly election; however, no formal discussion has taken place yet.
Challenges for Sena
The Sena has a sizable influence in Mumbai, Thane, Konkan and parts of Marathwada. However, its base is weak in regions such as western Maharashtra and Vidarbha. “There is a school of thought that we should play to our strengths and not be overzealous to go all out against the BJP and the two other parties,” another senior Sena leader said.
According to Pawar, the chances of Sena coming to power on its own are bleak, especially in the event of a three-corner contest, with Congress and NCP entering into an alliance. “Even with the Modi-wave, the BJP could not wrest power in the state on its own in 2014. There is hardly any possibility of the Sena coming to power on its own,” Pawar said.
Over the past few months, the Congress and NCP have taken on BJP and the Sena. Pawar said the Sena has to carve out its own space if they have to deal with the re-emergence of NCP in western Maharashtra. “NCP and the Congress have realised that they do not stand a chance unless they enter into an alliance with each other,” he said.
Political analyst Prakash Bal said in case of a three-corner contest, it will be Sena that will be at a loss.
Firm on going solo?
Senior Sena leader Anil Desai, however, dismissed the claims that there are factions within the party and said the leadership is strong. According to Desai, Thackeray is firm on the decision to contest solo for the upcoming elections. “There are no factions within the party. We go by whatever the directive comes from Uddhavji,” he said, adding that the Sena has a strong base across the state for it to be confident about going solo.
Desai defended the party and said that its strength is its cadres are spread across the state. “Sena has a strong following at the grass-root and a large network across the state. If you analyse the recent performances of every election from the lowest level, Sena has been gaining ground; the graph of the party is only going up. Besides Sena has delivered on whatever issues it has picked up. We took up the farmer’s loan waiver issue; we were on the streets protesting against inflation. Currently, the mood of the people is against the BJP,” Desai said.