Taming the tiger: On change of guard in Maharashtra

BJP deflected attention from the defection by allowing Shinde retain Sena identity

Updated - July 03, 2022 12:02 pm IST

Published - July 02, 2022 12:20 am IST

The formation of a new government in Maharashtra on Thursday, led by Eknath Shinde, followed a nail-biting and unique script. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) conceded the Chief Minister’s post to Mr. Shinde who led a revolt in the Shiv Sena to unseat Uddhav Thackeray. Former Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis has settled for the post of Deputy Chief Minister. The political churn in Maharashtra is unlikely to settle with this, however. When the Shiv Sena, the Congress and the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) formed an unlikely alliance, the Maha Vikas Aghadi (MVA), to form the government in 2019, it was seen as a new possibility of politics by some and crass opportunism by many. As it turned out, Mr. Thackeray, son of Sena founder Bal Thackeray, could not manage the turmoil that his daring to experiment triggered within the party. Initially, it had appeared that the provincialism represented by the Sena might act as a counter to the totalising politics of Hindutva. The MVA’s unravelling shows that the BJP’s ideology, backed with instruments of state power, and the capacity to mobilise resources, could railroad regional politics when the situation is favourable. This is one sabotage of a government that has a credible ideological defence — Mr. Shinde, and his BJP backers have argued that the Sena-BJP alliance had fought together in 2019, with Hindutva as their bonding ideology. That Mr. Shinde unseated Mr. Thackeray to uphold the people’s will and fidelity to the ideology is a strong argument. For all his mild demeanour and inclusive image, Mr. Thackeray could not command sufficient chutzpah to remake the Sena. The assumption that the Sena could be re-engineered into a benign political outfit seems to have been misplaced. And he failed to notice the resentment that was bubbling up right under his nose.

The Maharashtra episode proves yet again the BJP’s capacity to play the long game. Soon after the patriarch Thackeray’s passing in 2012, the BJP’s plans to gain an upper hand in its relations with the Sena began to roll out; by 2014 the party was ahead of the Sena. By winning a consecutive election in 2019, in alliance with the Sena, it reinforced its position. All this should have tempered the ambitions of the Thackerays — which by then included a third-generation scion, Aaditya. When they claimed power by forming the MVA, the BJP harnessed the resentment among Sena MLAs, finally toppling the Thackerays. But the BJP and the Shinde-led Sena faction have been careful not to bruise the sentiments of the Sena cadre that still holds the founder’s family in high esteem. Which faction will win the legal battle to own the party name and symbol and which one will win the hearts of the party workers are two different questions. It is not impossible that the Sena could dissipate and its cadres dissolve into the BJP. The concession of the CM’s post to Mr. Shinde is not an act of political altruism, but cold strategy. Having deflected the potential hurt and anger of the Sainiks for now, the BJP will now wait for the best time for its next move. The next episode of the Maharashtra saga will then play out.

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