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BMC Elections 2017: Why BJP, not Shiv Sena, may want a divorce

Sorab Ghaswalla

For the Shiv Sena, the 2017 civic polls clearly represent a pivot. Contesting the polls including the one to the India’s richest civic body, the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC), without its traditional ally, the Bharatiya Janata Party, was a gambit that now appears to be reaping rich dividends for Sena chief Uddhav Thackeray.

For Uddhav, it’s been such a long journey. Not long ago, the man was being written off as a “political softie” (read novice) by almost everyone in Maharashtra politics except the hard-core Shiv Sainik. Many were seen gravitating to the cousin Raj Thackeray and his new party, the Maharashtra Navnirman Sena (MNS). Undeterred, Uddhav kept his head down and plodded on, unmindful of jibes, weathering storms like the desertions of some of his workers. Despite not being decisive, the election results can be seen Uddhav and the Sena’s day in the sun.

After a quarter of a century, the Sena, by fighting the elections alone, has finally managed to break off the shackles of the BJP alliance, an association that had never really sat well with it. Call it a “friendly fight”, contesting alone was a political risk on Uddhav’s part. After all, if the Sena had lost the numbers in the BMC (and in other civic bodies), it would have been reduced to playing second fiddle to the BJP for the longest time, leaving it ailing, and on the way to its demise, ultimately.

With great risks come great rewards. It was a “calculated” move. Uddhav may have realised it was a “now or never” moment for him and the party. If the Sena was ever to be recognised as a party of any significance under the new leadership, it had to emerge from the shadow of the BJP. Local body polls proved to be a good opportunity to test the waters. A win would confirm its supremacy and relevance, a loss would mean it continuing to remain a country cousin of the BJP.

What Uddhav also sensed was the overwhelming support at the ground level from traditional Sainiks and voters. They were now ready for Uddhav and his Sena, fed up with having to make a choice between the stuttering MNS and the “elder bully” BJP (in that order). Like the Marathas under Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj (their idol), they were clamouring for a one-on-one fight with the “Dilliwallahs” (invaders from Delhi). Uddhav decided to give them that. The Sainik Shakhas (units) did not let him down.

So, what is that one reason for another good show for the Sena in the BMC? Not corruption, not development, certainly not the after-effects of demonetisation. It was insularity, plain and simple. Mumbai for Maharashtrians (by birth or domicile) seems to be the underlying thought that drove the majority votes to the Sena. The party had to be preserved if the voice of Maharashtrians was at all to matter, and where else but that birthplace and hunting ground of the Shiv Sena – Mumbai?

But enough said about the Sena. The BJP, too, fared well in these elections. From a party that once played second fiddle to the Sena at all levels, and was last in Maharashtra politics’ rank and file, it has today risen to be numero uno in some areas, winning even in those civic bodies which were Congress or Nationalist Congress Party strongholds.

Together, the BJP and the Sena have ensured a complete saffron sweep across the state. Almost all the credit will go to Maharashtra Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis, who, like Uddhav, also took a calculated risk in portraying himself as the face of the BJP campaign. A loss could have led to him being shown the door by his party. Again, with major risks come great rewards.

From here, where? Will the Sena-BJP remain a couple? The media continues to speculate that the Sena, buoyed by this victory, will break off the alliance at the state level.

It’s not that simple. The victory now brings a new political challenge for Uddhav. After all, much in politics is about timing. So, is this the time he should break it off with the BJP permanently and go in for a mid-term poll?

Uddhav is an astute politician. He may not be in the mould of his father, the fire-brand Bal Thackeray, but has clearly demonstrated he can hold his own. His transformation of the Sena from a volatile, right-of-centre party to a more sober version has just started. Long-term prudence dictates that he needs time and “friends” to complete the party’s transformation. That ally is the BJP.

A divorce now would mean the Sena having to fight elections alone in the entire state and winning at least a simple majority to form the government. That’s something that the party cannot deliver as of today. Even at its peak, it was unable to do so. Even “help” from the MNS and the NCP may not be of much use.

Plus, political logic dictates that a win in civic elections is not good enough a reason to divorce the BJP. This was a mere separation; partners do reconcile after a break-up. There are about two years left before Maharashtra faces state elections again. Already, the Sena, even though a partner in the government, has shown that it’s more effective as an opposition than the opposition itself. It’s been making the right noises in public, drumming up more and more support.

In the meanwhile, the BJP runs the government at the Centre. It controls the purse strings and the policy making machine. Once again, Uddhav may have to play the waiting game, lingering for an opportune moment to bid his final adieu to the BJP. That could be at the end of two years or may be even beyond that.

But for the BJP, now might be the right time to say goodbye to the Sena. Clearly, the party is today a major force to reckon with in Maharashtra. It’s peaked politically in Maharashtra. For long-term durability and for it to continue to be a major force, it needs to operate on its own. Compared to the Shiv Sena, it now does not stand to gain much from this alliance, having milked it for 25 years. The buffet is laid out, so why invite others to the party?

Sorab Ghaswalla is a former political journalist.