By announcing support for Narendra Modi as Prime Minister, and at the same time releasing a list of candidates to contest against the Shiv Sena, Maharashtra Navnirman Sena leader Raj Thackeray achieved several things in one stroke. First, the MNS strongman sowed the seeds of discord in the alliance between the Bharatiya Janata Party and the Shiv Sena. Quite understandably, Raj’s cousin, Uddhav Thackeray, who heads the Sena, is fuming over the development. The Sena would have been prepared for the MNS contesting against it in all the constituencies, but the party was taken aback by the meeting between former BJP president Nitin Gadkari and Raj Thackeray, which set the stage for the MNS deciding to support Mr. Modi for the prime ministership and to not field candidates in many of the seats where the BJP is in the fray. For the Sena, the very fact that the BJP was interested in any sort of an electoral understanding with the MNS was a cause for concern. Both the Sena and the MNS are targeting the same political constituency, the Maratha-Hindu chauvinist sections of the vote base; and with this move, the MNS got closer to its eventual political aim of replacing the Sena as the BJP’s ally in Maharashtra. Secondly, the MNS managed to give itself some relevance in the parliamentary election by committing the support of its MPs for Mr. Modi. Now, even without a direct alliance with the BJP, the MNS can hope not to be disadvantaged by any polarisation between the United Progressive Alliance and the National Democratic Alliance in the Lok Sabha election.
But the pact with the MNS will come at some cost to the BJP. Mr. Gadkari’s attempt to win over both the Sena and the MNS might help in the seats where the BJP is contesting, but his party cadre and sympathisers are bound to be confused in seats where the Sena is pitted against the MNS. Hardcore Sena sympathisers are bound to see the BJP as an untrustworthy ally, and this cannot but have implications for the prospects of the alliance. As for the MNS, the party seems to have made the best of a bad situation. Ever since its formation, the party has been forced to project itself as an extremist form of the Sena: a party that sought to replicate the politics of Maratha-Hindu chauvinistic violence of the old Shiv Sena of Bal Thackeray. The unwritten pact with the BJP gives the party some respectability. As the Congress-Nationalist Congress Party alliance takes on the BJP-Sena alliance in Maharashtra, the battle within the battle between the Sena and the MNS will be of keen interest. All that the MNS needs to do is one better than the Sena, and it could present itself as the “real” Sena and, in the long run, win over a huge section of its committed cadre.