End of a Bad Marriage

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The uneasy alliance of BJP and Shiv Sena comes to an inglorious finale. There is nothing much to cheer about in the Congress-NCP camp either
It seemed scripted like a Bollywood story, except the end. After all the emotion and drama of the tiff, there was no making up. Instead, India watched what is perhaps the biggest break-up of the coalition era. The Shiv Sena and BJP, a 25-year-old partnership, parted ways on 25 September, less than a month before Maharashtra goes to the polls. The first hint of it came in the morning when BJP President Amit Shah cancelled his Mumbai trip for the day. Negotiators of the two parties were unable to reach a compromise even after several rounds of talks. As Plan B, both had already drawn up full lists of candidates for all 288 Assembly seats in the state. Meanwhile, in the opposing camp, the Congress alliance with the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) also looks shaky after 15 years of togetherness. The collapse of the saffron alliance and a possible Congress- NCP break-up could set the stage for a four-cornered election in the state.

The BJP’s decision appears to be prompted by its assessment that the post Bal Thackeray Shiv Sena does not have the requisite political appeal to consolidate and draw Hindu votes. Also, the ‘Modi factor’ that played a critical role in the combine’s Lok Sabha landslide in the state, according to the party, will keep the party in good stead this October. With Modi going strong with a majority government at the Centre, the party believes it is time to go solo in the states as well.

The only trouble for the BJP at the Centre could be in the Rajya Sabha, where the NDA Government is too weak to push key pieces of legislation. The NDA has only 59 MPs in the 245-seat Upper House, and without the Sena, which has three seats, it will be left with only 56. However, given its right-wing orientation, the Sena could find it hard to side with the UPA.

For the Sena, it is a big gamble. After the party’s founder Bal Thackeray passed away in November 2012, his successor and son Uddhav Thackeray’s political acumen and charisma has been questioned by many—and his cousin Raj Thackeray even broke away with a party faction to set up the Maharashtra Navnirman Sena, splitting the Sena’s ‘Marathi manoos’ (sons of the soil) constituency. The breakup of the alliance could hurt the Sena far more than the BJP, which has Modi’s appeal to bank on.

There was always a basic difference between the BJP’s alliance with the Sena and the Congress’ with the NCP. The BJP believed that if it won the Assembly polls due in October with its partner, it would have been on account of its own—and mainly Modi’s—popularity. In contrast, the Congress fears that if it loses alongwith the NCP, it would be the fault of its partner’s unpopularity.

The BJP-Sena split, according to some observers of Maharashtra politics, has the markings of a clash of sub-cultural identities as well. It is no secret that the Uddhav Thackeray-led Sena, which banks on Marathi sentiment, has been wary of a Gujarati dominated BJP, with Modi and Shah now at the helm of party affairs. It was the emphatic win in the General Election this summer that gave the BJP the confidence to insist that old equations needed revision. Accordingly, it had been flexing its muscle all through the seat-sharing talks, dropping broad hints that it now saw itself as the senior party in the alliance, and thus a claimant to chief ministership.

While Bal Thackeray was alive, the Sena had always played the lead role in Maharashtra; in fact, some in the BJP even saw his Hindutva rhetoric, which he blended with Marathi identity politics, as an inspiration. In the mid-1990s, the Sena-BJP won the state Assembly. But the alliance lost in the state polls of 1999. The Sena’s tally fell from 150 to 60 seats, while the BJP lost only nine of its previous 65 seats. Since then, the alliance had been unable to regain power in the state. And now that the BJP was on a high, it saw no reason to let the Sena lead the effort.

In the two Assembly elections held after 1999, the Sena had shown little ability to enhance its performance. In 2004, for example, the Sena was reduced to 62 from 69 seats, while the BJP fell from 56 to 54. In 2009, the BJP clearly outperformed the Sena. This, despite contesting fewer seats as part of the pact. The national saffron party won 46 seats of the 119 seats it contested, while the Sena won only 44 seats of 169. Effectively, the BJP has had a stronger voice in the Assembly for the past five years. “The Maharashtra BJP’s strike rate was 60 per cent in 2009 while the Sena’s strike rate was 40 per cent,” says senior BJP state leader Eknath Khadse.

The recent Lok Sabha election also underlined the BJP’s rising clout in the state. Of the 24 seats it contested as part of the alliance, it won 23, losing only one. The Sena won 18 seats, but some of its MPs admit off the record that it was more on account of Modi’s charisma than their own party chief’s.

It had been clear for many months that the BJP was keen on playing the Big Brother role that it did at the Centre. Several state leaders had been telling party president Amit Shah that the BJP would do well going it alone. “[It] is no secret that we were ready with our list of candidates,” says Devendra Fadnavis, state BJP president. That’s why when Thackeray first made an offer of 119 seats to the BJP, it was rejected outright by party leaders. This happened despite a meeting between Shah and Thackeray on 4 September in Mumbai. The BJP president was in Mumbai for party work and the Sena chief invited him over for dinner. Both the leaders later said that their differences would be sorted out.

But on 16 September, after the bypoll results of 33 Assembly constituencies in various states across India saw the BJP suffer some reverses, Sena leaders began to question the ‘Modi magic’. The BJP and its allies won only 13 of those seats. On 19 September, the leaders of both parties met again, but the deadlock continued. BJP General Secretary Om Mathur, Rajiv Pratap Rudy and senior state leader Khadse met Sena leaders Anil Desai, Subhash Desai and Aditya Thackeray.

The Sena’s claim to a major share of seats was that 18 of them from its quota would be earmarked for other alliance members such as the Shetkari Sanghatana, Rashtriya Samaj Paksha and Republican Party of India. But the BJP was adamant on contesting at least 130 seats, which in any case was 20 seats less than the figure first put out. If the Sena declined the offer, the BJP made it clear, it was ready to quit the alliance.

In the meantime, the BJP also opened channels of communication with other party leaders such as Raju Shetti of the Shetkari Sanghatana and Ramdas Athawale of the RPI. Rudy was trying to bring these leaders on board in case ties snapped with the Sena. The party also got messages from some Sena leaders looking to switch over in the event of a break up. Overall, it spelt confidence for the BJP.

And once the Sena upped the ante in an attempt to woo the same parties, the BJP decided to call the alliance off.

Across in the other camp, a spat over the number of seats to be contested remains unresolved at this juncture between the Congress and NCP. The formula was the same. In the current Lok Sabha, there are four NCP MPs as against only two of the Congress from Maharashtra. Just after the Lok Sabha results, Congress President Sonia Gandhi had met Sharad Pawar and requested him to take charge of the state. Sources confirm that the offer was declined by Pawar, pleading poor health. But that incident gave NCP leaders something to talk about. They argued that despite having a higher number of seats in the Assembly in 2004, they let the CM’s post be taken by the Congress. The NCP had 71 MLAs while the Congress had 69. The gap not only widened, but the equation between the two flipped in the 2009 polls. The Congress won 82 seats while NCP got 62.

The prospects of re-election, both have realised, are rather poor this year. The last five years of Congress-NCP rule in the state has seen such a multitude of controversies and scams that even some senior leaders have little hope of a comeback. “If we lose the elections, we will be paying the price for all the misdeeds of NCP ministers and leaders,” says a former Congress MP from the state. “They have completely ruined our chances.”

The Congress and NCP have found it difficult to defend their coalition government in a state which seems to stay in the news for all the wrong reasons. The relationship between Sharad Pawar and the Congress leadership has always been fraught with tension. After Sonia Gandhi returned from her annual check-up in the US, there was speculation that Pawar would be called upon for a meeting. They were supposed to meet on 20 September, but the meeting didn’t take place. Pawar was in Nagpur on that day.

The seat-sharing talks between the two parties have been a headache for both sides, given the poor state of relations. The NCP’s demand of 144 seats and chief ministership for half the term is something the Congress has found difficult to accept. As a result, even though discussions are still underway, on 24 September the Congress released a list of 118 candidates— a move that has put the NCP off. Apart from that, internally, the Central Election Committee of the Congress had already finalised candidates for all 288 Assembly seats in Maharashtra. “With just one day left for filing nominations, there is no time left to make an alliance with NCP,” says Congress state president Manikrao Thakre. “It is for them to decide.” Another leader confirms to Open that there is little left for the alliance to work. With the saffron alliance over, the fear of fighting a joint opposition force is that much less as well.

With a state as politically significant as Maharashtra, perhaps such pre-poll drama was inevitable. For the BJP, power in Mumbai looks eminently achievable. For the Congress, it is mostly about salvaging what it can of its political stature after its Lok Sabha battering. For Uddhav Thackeray and Sharad Pawar, it may be back to the Marathi manoos.