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The new tenor in Maharashtra’s politics

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The Shiv Sena’s brinkmanship is the outcome of its struggle for survival in a BJP-dominated polity

In his book, Indian Society and the Making of the British Empire, the historian Christopher Bayly writes about the continued invocation of the suzerainty of the Mughal empire by Maratha power even after its conquest of Delhi. While political leaders in Maharashtra have always enjoyed a share of the power pie in Delhi —some of them (Yashwantrao Balwantrao Chavan and Sharad Pawar) are known for their political prowess and administrative acumen — none has made a serious bid for the throne itself. Instead, they have been steadfast in guarding their own home turf, which sometimes involved getting on to the bandwagon of even their adversaries. This template of political power, which the Congress’s Indira Gandhi tried to tweak by turning age-old loyalties into personal diktat for a while, is undergoing a shift in the last few years. A significant section of the ruling classes in Maharashtra today have come to believe that the current dispensation in Delhi is out to undercut them. Even the Shiv Sena, a long-standing ally of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in the State and also its closest ideological kin, is not an exception to such a perception.

An affront to electoral trust

In the 2019 election to the Maharashtra Assembly, the BJP-Sena alliance had agreed on the division of seats and had sought a joint electoral mandate. Their ideological bonding covers Hindutva as the ideal of Indian nationalism, dilution of Article 370 of the Constitution, a uniform civil code, abolition of triple talaq, building a Ram temple at Ayodhya, an aversion to Pakistan, and in economic policy, having a corporatist approach to industrial relations. Thus voters comfortable with such an alliance could expect it to endure at least in the immediate future. Many, therefore, felt betrayed when the Shiv Sena, with its 56 seats against the BJP’s 105 in a House of 288, claimed an equal share in government and rotation of chief ministership, and walked out of the alliance when its demand was refused. Clearly, the Shiv Sena was on slippery ground as far as public opinion was concerned, with its actions smacking of opportunism of the worst kind. So why did a large party, astute in political bargaining and adept in public posturing, resort to such a brinkmanship and condemn itself to a trust-deficit?

Sena’s political journey

The Shiv Sena has been a Brihat-Mumbai-centred political outfit which made the slogan, ‘sons of the soil’, its ideological plank. Using Marathi Manoos as its rallying cry, it pitted itself against the rights-based demands of the city’s working class. It built itself as a commandist organisation that was absolutely loyal to its leader, Bal Thackeray. It was much sought after by those who wanted to rein in the trade-union movement of the city. The Sena supported neighbourhood and community associations of its social clientele, tended to dispense its version of justice on the spot, and strove to make Mumbai a Marathi-speaking city, pitting itself against the ‘lungi-clad’ South Indian, initially, and later the North Indian, especially Muslim migrants. In the later part of the 1980s when Bal Thackeray was projecting himself as the Hindu Hriday Samrat (sovereign of Hindu hearts), the ‘Hindu’ in this invocation was clearly overladen with a distinct Marathi veneer. However, in the 1980s, during the years of Hindutva consolidation, it moved swiftly beyond its traditional strongholds and built a social base for itself in the State’s burgeoning urban and peri-urban areas, particularly among the non-Brahmin, non-Maratha lower middle classes. It also forged a political alliance between itself and the BJP in 1989; till the death of Bal Thackeray, in 2012, it considered itself the leading partner of the alliance, demanding more seats to contest in the State Assembly elections, while conceding more space to the latter in the Lok Sabha elections. BJP leaders such as the late Pramod Mahajan and Gopinath Munde, and even Atal Bihari Vajpayee and Lal Krishna Advani, showed much deference to Bal Thackeray, often visiting him at his official residence. The Sena’s mouthpiece, Saamana, invariably highlighted these visits and began projecting Bal Thackeray as the nation’s icon. After 2014, all this bonhomie underwent a sea change. It was the year the BJP decided to go on its own in the Assembly elections and secured 122 seats against the Sena’s 63. After some wrangling, the Sena decided to join the government. Though the alliance lasted for a full five years, the Sena’s attack on the BJP leadership was strident and harsh at times.

While the relationship between Shiv Sena chief Uddhav Thackeray and (now former) Maharashtra Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis was supposedly friendly during 2014-2019, the BJP central leadership did not show much deference to the Sena chief. But the BJP party president Amit Shah stitched up an amicable agreement between the two parties for the Lok Sabha election of April-May 2019 as well as the recent Assembly elections. When the Sena secured 18 seats and the BJP 23 out of the 48 Lok Sabha seats in Maharashtra in the general election, there were high expectations from the alliance, and particularly the BJP in the Assembly elections. Despite a good showing, the alliance’s performance was nowhere close to expectations. In the Vidarbha region from where Mr. Fadnavis and Union Minister Nitin Gadkari are from, and which has received huge infrastructural investment in the past five years, and in south-western Maharashtra, both parties fared badly. The unexpected and better performance of the Opposition alliance of the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) and the Indian National Congress (INC) also brought home the fact that the Maharashtra polity and its governance have thrown up new issues and concerns that have not been addressed by the Sena-BJP alliance.

Survival and a redefinition

From 2014, under the new BJP dispensation, the Sena was a junior partner of the BJP, raising questions about its distinct rationale as well as its pride — this in spite of the calculations that went into the alliance of 2019. The Sena has always prided itself over its control over greater Mumbai. In the 2017 elections to the Municipal Corporation, the BJP was almost on a par with the Sena. Further, in the style of the Prime Minister’s Office, Mr. Fadnavis had concentrated powers in the Chief Minister’s Office and Sena Ministers constantly complained about being under surveillance. Sainiks often associated the Prime Minister and Amit Shah with Gujarat. Under the BJP’s dominance, new cracks began emerging in Maharashtra society: the cooperatives, which were the social base of power of the NCP and INC, were brought under bureaucratic control; the prolonged agitation by Marathas — even though it had led to conceding a significant share of public employment and higher education to the community — had left behind a trail of bitterness and unease. The response of the State to floods and drought was perceived to be tardy. Overall, the BJP in the State came to be perceived as the agent of the Central government. The BJP had also rolled out the red carpet to the top rung leadership of other parties. It was obvious that the NCP had cashed in on the fall-out of these developments. The predominantly urban, non-Maratha social base of the Shiv Sena had much less problems with the NCP and the INC. Above all, there was Marathi pride which had taken a beating. It is not surprising that the Shiv Sena felt that it was the hour to strike and let the tiger prowl around again.

The Sena seems to be suggesting that the demand of electoral trust cannot be at the cost of dignity and survival rooted in a context, although it might have employed the language of betrayal of reciprocal commitments between alliance partners. Sharad Pawar’s NCP and, to an extent the INC seem to foot the bill of a complimentary social base to pursue a much more rooted political future than to be beholden to a centralising agency that the BJP has turned out to be.

Valerian Rodrigues taught Political Science at Mangalore University and Jawaharlal Nehru University

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Printable version | Dec 14, 2019 9:49:48 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/lead/the-new-tenor-in-maharashtras-politics/article30030643.ece

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