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Signs of fissures emerge in Maharashtra’s tripartite coalition

Maharashtra Chief Minister Uddhav Thackeray. File   | Photo Credit: Shiv Kumar Pushpakar

Less than 20 months after the Maha Vikas Aghadi coalition of the Shiv Sena, Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) and the Congress was stitched in November 2019, there are indications that Chief Minister Uddhav Thackeray, could be looking to re-ally his Sena with the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

Political observers and sources point out the recent sequence of events beginning with Chief Minister Uddhav Thackeray’s meeting with Prime Minister Narendra Modi in New Delhi on June 8, Shiv Sena MLA Pratap Sarnaik’s letter last week to the Chief Minister on restoring ties with the BJP, and Mr. Thackeray’s reversal (on Tuesday) of senior NCP leader and State Housing Minister Jitendra Awhad’s decision to hand over 100 flats in MHADA buildings to the Tata Memorial Hospital for kin of cancer-stricken patients.

Whether or not this affects the coalition, observers say the question of Sena’s survival in Mumbai in the crucial Brihanmumbai Corporation (BMC) civic poll in February 2022, and the BJP’s need of regional allies at a time when several NDA partners have deserted its fold, strongly point to a possible renewal of a “mutually dependent” partnership in the State.

“The tension between the three MVA partners is at its highest at present, lending an air of uncertainty in the State’s political equations in coming days. If one closely observes the sequence of events after June 7, when Mr. Thackeray had sought time with Mr. Modi and was immediately granted an audience on June 8, to Mr. Thackeray’s scrapping of Mr. Awhad’s ‘dream project’, then all signs point to changing equations. All parties are trying to out manoeuvre each other like never before,” says Vivek Bhavsar, a senior political analyst and Mumbai-based independent journalist.

“The fact that the Prime Minister acceded to meet Mr. Thackeray is proof that both Mr. Modi and the Sena chief still have good relations and more importantly, both parties still have need for each other. It is also indicative that the Chief Minister sought to bypass Amit Shah nd reach out to the PM directly,” he said.

A major factor that could influence a possible BJP-Sena re-alliance in Maharashtra is the latter’s hold over the BMC, where it once reigned supreme.

While the BMC is the nerve-centre of the Sena’s very existence in Maharashtra, the BJP’s remarkable performance in the 2017 municipal corporation elections – bagging 82 against Sena’s 97 – has made it ever-more dependent on the BJP for a majority.

“The BMC is the Shiv Sena’s biggest resource and life-force. If the Sena loses the cash-rich Mumbai civic body, its very existence in Maharashtra will be in question as it has not expanded well in Marathwada or western Maharashtra. Moreover, alliance with the NCP and the Congress has resulted in the Sena losing out heavily on both the core Marathi votes and the Hindutva issue,” said Mr. Bhavsar.

Political analyst Rajendra Pandharpure said that the BJP has been preparing diligently for the past one year to seize control of the BMC.

“The BJP has a strong vote-base among the Gujaratis and north Indians in Mumbai. A split of the Marathi-speaking votes between the BJP and Raj Thackeray’s MNS can only add to the Sena’s woes. Besides, the Congress has already hinted at contesting local bodies alone,” said Mr. Pandharpure.

Despite the intense animosity between Sena and BJP workers, the attitude of the former has considerably mellowed towards the latter in the past few weeks.

But nowhere was the Sena’s frustration with the NCP manifested as sharply as in Mr. Sarnaik’s ‘open letter’ to the Chief Minister, appealing him to break away from the NCP and the Congress as the latter were allegedly weakening the Sena.

“It is an unprecedented breach of party etiquette. The timing of this ‘viral letter’ is certainly strange. Whether Mr. Sarnaik has authored it or not, it is clear that the complaints of Sena ministers and party workers are genuine and the letter itself is meant as a pressure tactic on the NCP and the Congress,” said Mr. Bhavsar.

He said that immediate events in Maharashtra had to be viewed in light of the buzz surrounding an anticipated Union Cabinet expansion, as had Sharad Pawar’s frequent meetings with poll strategist Prashant Kishor (his third in a fortnight).

“In the event someone from our party got a post in the expanded cabinet, equations may change rapidly in the State,” said a Sena leader, on condition of anonymity.

The NCP’s rapid expansion in Maharashtra, and strengthening of its base in Pune, has certainly alarmed the Sena, said Mr. Pandharpure.

“Mr. Pawar’s meetings with Mr. Kishore could be a reaction to the Chief Minister’s meeting with the PM as well as a tacit signal to the Sena to fall in line. As for the Congress, Rahul Gandhi was never interested in his party allying with the Sena. So, MPCC chief Nana Patole’s claims of contesting alone are not particularly surprising,” he observed.

A senior Congress leader, on condition of anonymity, said that whatever the outcome of the MVA alliance in the coming days, his party would ensure that it emerged stronger.


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