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Different feathers but a political flocking together

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An anti-BJP stance may explain Maharashtra’s coalition experiment — of the Shiv Sena, Congress and NCP

In Maharashtra, the three-party coalition government, of the Shiv Sena, the Congress and the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP), under the leadership of Sena leader Uddhav Thackeray, seems to have stabilised after a bumpy start. Though negotiations over Ministry composition and portfolio allocations were long-drawn, the issue has settled. All this has led to talk of an ideological realignment in Maharashtra politics. More significantly, commentators have spoken of a tempering of the Sena’s long-standing Hindutva positions. So has the tiger really changed its stripes?

To answer this, one needs answers to one other question. Why did the Sena on one hand and the Congress-NCP on the other come together in the first place? The answer lies in how the BJP treated its allies and political opponents, at the Central level and in the State. The opponents were treated harshly; inquiries were ordered with investigations by central agencies. A number of heavyweights from the Congress and the NCP joined the BJP. It would be foolish to say that this exodus was sparked by ideological considerations. If some realised that they had no future in their local political sphere because of the Congress-NCP alliance, many were more concerned about the maintenance of support networks that they had carefully nurtured over decades. The BJP too wooed those it thought would strengthen the party in areas where it was weak.

The binding factor

The case with the Sena is similar yet distinct. The BJP appears tired of its allies and, ideally, would like a state of affairs where it could win elections without them. It tried doing so in the 2017 municipal elections in Mumbai. The stresses and strains in the BJP-Sena alliance during the tenure of the last government emerged primarily because of these efforts of the BJP. The Sena started to believe that the BJP was out to render it politically nugatory, prompting it to adopt a tough negotiating stance during seat-sharing talks and then later when efforts were being made to form a government. Thus, the three-party coalition has come about because all concerned were worried about their sheer political existence. An anti-BJP stance is the only common factor here.

The Congress’s central leadership had misgivings about an alliance with the Sena given its stand on Hindutva. But the Sena played down these very positions. The party’s opposition to the Citizenship (Amendment) Act, 2019-National Register of Citizens (NRC), alongwith with the statement of the Chief Minister and Sena head, Uddhav Thackeray, that he would not allow students to be assaulted in the State and the relatively mild handling of the anti-CAA-NRC protests is cited as evidence of this de-emphasising. Moreover, such positions are being taken to mean that the ideological transformation of the Shiv Sena is on the anvil, or indeed has taken place. This naturally leads to the proposition that the coalition would last long since there are no ideological contradictions among them. This is indeed wishful thinking.

On ideology

The hollowness of such analyses necessitates a look at the Sena’s ideological positions which till date would demonstrate what it stands for. Though it began its journey as a party primarily asserting a regional identity, and that too in the Mumbai-Thane belt, its positions always had strong elements of Hindutva in them. The party’s spread in the Marathwada region of Maharashtra in the late 1980s occurred primarily because of this positioning. Content analysis of the speeches of the Sena founder, Bal Thackeray from that period and even later would make this clear. It was this ideological complementarity that led the BJP to strike an alliance with it in the late 1980s and early 1990s which benefited both the parties. Thus the Sena till recently was not only the BJP’s oldest ally but also its closest one ideologically. The party’s stand during the Ram Janmabhoomi agitations and the subsequent communal riots is well-known — and which it has not retracted. Thus, one can reasonably conclude the sum and substance of its positions.

One could argue that all this was in the past and much has changed. But there are many who would remember that the previous Congress-NCP government had provided for reservations for Muslims — and stridently opposed by the BJP and the Sena. The demand to rename the city of Aurangabad to ‘Sambhajinagar’ has been a long-standing Sena demand. These two issues may now have been forgotten for the time being.

Civic poll test

But what if there is communal conflict somewhere in Maharashtra? Or what if the Congress and the NCP raise a demand for minority reservations? Or what if the BJP launches a campaign on an issue where the Sena would find itself at odds with its coalition partners? The seeming stability of the coalition is not a consequence of the Sena’s ideological transformation; rather it is more about the partners having chosen to ignore contradictions by pretending they did not exist in the first place. But events could simply blow the coalition off course. The first such event where stability would be tested would be the next major round of civic body elections, in 2022. Elections to urban bodies (Mumbai and Pune) would certainly strain the coalition, whether or not the three arrive at a seat-sharing formula. This would more be so because in many places the partners would be fighting each other and not the BJP.

Besides, the BJP, now in search of an ally, has been making overtures to the Maharashtra Navnirman Sena (MNS), headed by Raj Thackeray, the Chief Minister’s cousin. There are enough indications that the alliance might be based on a common ideological positioning, namely Hindutva, with the MNS combining it with its regionalist politics. So the Sena would find itself competing for the same ideological constituency. It might then realise that the BJP, similar to what Sir Robert Peel did more than a century ago to the Whigs, has stolen its ideological clothes.

Dr. Abhay Datar teaches Political Science at People’s College, Nanded, Maharashtra

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Printable version | Jan 21, 2020 6:32:57 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/op-ed/different-feathers-but-a-political-flocking-together/article30561165.ece

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