In 5 Charts: Why Sena is Desperate to Come Out of BJP’s Shadow

Under Vajpayee & Bal Thackeray, BJP was moderate Hindutva, Sena was hardline. This changed under Modi

5 min read
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The tussle over government formation continues in Maharashtra with the BJP and Shiv Sena both refusing to blink. Irrespective of whether the two allies manage to form a government or not, one thing is clear – the Shiv Sena desperately wants to come out of the BJP’s shadow.

This is understandable as the party has traditionally been the big brother in the alliance, until 2014, when the BJP’s sudden rise under Narendra Modi helped it overtake the Sena.

BJP’s Rise Under Modi

Take a look at the BJP and Sena’s vote share in every Maharashtra Assembly election since 1990. The Sena’s vote share has consistently been in the range of around 16-20 percent in the state.

On the other hand, the BJP was at 10.7 percent, that is five percentage points below the Sena in 1990 – mainly because it contested lesser seats – but suddenly rose to 27.8 percent in 2014, when the two parties contested separately.

This enabled BJP to have its first ever chief minister in the state in Devendra Fadnavis – relegating Sena to the ‘number two’ status.

As a result, in the recent Assembly polls, the Sena had to swallow its pride and contest just 124 seats, 40 less than the BJP. The BJP ended up with a vote share of 25.8 percent, over 9 percentage points more than that of the Sena.

The BJP’s strike rate – percentage of seats won out of seats contested – has also consistently been better than that of the Sena.

Partly because Sena ended up contesting a larger chunk of seats in western Maharashtra – where NCP and Congress are both strong – while the BJP got more seats in Vidarbha, where the Congress has gradually been weakening.

In 1999, the Sena and BJP’s strike rate was almost evenly matched at 42.9 percent and 47.9 percent respectively – a gap of 5 percentage points. But the gap has been steadily increasing since then. When the two parties contested separately in 2014, the BJP won nearly half of the seats it contested but the Sena could win less than one fourth.

Even in the recent Assembly polls, the gap between the strike rates of the two parties is close to 19 percentage points.

There are three major turning points that have changed the nature of party competition in Maharashtra since the 1990s:

  1. The emergence of BJP-Sena as an alternative to the Congress, that dominated the state since Independence
  2. The formation of the NCP in 1999. The NCP’s formation as the main Maratha party restricted the rise of the Sena, which could have expanded even more among this influential section.
  3. The BJP’s emergence as the dominant player 2014 onwards.

There are many reasons why the third development took place.

One reason is that unlike the Sena and NCP, the BJP and Congress’ influence is evenly spread across Maharashtra. So, as the Congress began to weaken 2012 onwards, the BJP was the natural beneficiary.

What added to the party’s success is its complete dominance of urban areas under Modi’s leadership 2014 onwards.

Another reason is the caste factor. The BJP is less dependent on Maratha-Kunbi votes than the Sena and therefore it is relatively immune to the competition from the main Maratha party, the NCP.

Since the 1990s, the BJP has steadily consolidated its hold over Maharashtra’s OBCs, besides its traditional strength among Upper Castes and urban Gujarati and Marwari voters.

This is reflected in the party’s promotion of OBC leaders like Gopinath Munde, Vinod Tawde, Eknath Khadse, Pankaja Munde etc.

Of late it has been making inroads among Adivasis and Dalits as well.

Therefore, a broader regional and caste base and the weakening of the other pan-state, pan-caste competitor – the Congress – are two of the major reasons behind the BJP’s rise in Maharashtra 2014 onwards.

The Sena ideally wanted to occupy this space, but failed due to its own structural weaknesses.

Ideological Crisis

There is an ideological aspect to this as well. Throughout the 1990s and 2000s, the BJP under Atal Bihari Vajpayee was considered the moderate Hindutva party while the Sena under Bal Thackeray was considered the hardline Hindutva party.

This image helped the Sena maintain its dominance over the BJP in the state.

This changed after the demise of Thackeray in 2012 and the emergence of Modi on the national political scene. For many core Hindutva supporters, Modi was the new ‘Hindu Hriday Samrat’ – a title earlier attributed to Bal Thackeray.

The soft-spoken Uddhav Thackeray couldn’t quite fit that role. His more charismatic cousin, Raj Thackeray, left the Sena to form the MNS in 2006.

In the last five years, Uddhav did try to reclaim the Hindutva space from Modi but couldn’t succeed.

The Sena now appears to have realised that beyond a point, it can’t beat the BJP in the Hindutva game. Therefore, it is trying to project a more “inclusive” leadership under Aaditya Thackeray.

Price of Alliance

For the Sena, playing second fiddle to the BJP is seen as a humiliation. There is a perception in the party that the BJP gained a foothold in Maharashtra with the Sena’s help but later ended up expanding at the ally’s expense. There could be some truth to this perception.

According to the Lokniti-CSDS survey in 2004, when people were asked whom they would vote for if Sena and BJP weren’t allies, 17.9 percent picked Sena while 14.4 percent picked BJP. This indicated that Sena had a greater approval rating than the BJP.

By 2009, when voters were asked the same question, almost an equal number answered in favour of the BJP and Sena.

But when the two contested separately in 2014, BJP had a 9.3 percentage point lead among respondents.

Leadership Crisis

The vacuum left by Bal Thackeray’s death and the exit of leaders like Raj and Narayan Rane has been a difficult one for the Sena to fill.

According to the CSDS post-poll survey in 2004, 16.9 percent votes picked a Sena leader like Bal Thackeray, Uddhav, Raj, Rane or Manohar Joshi as their CM choice while only 6.1 percent picked a BJP leader like Munde or Pramod Mahajan.

But by 2009, Raj and Rane had left the party, and only 8.4 percent picked a Sena leader – mostly Uddhav and Manohar Joshi – as their CM choice. But Sena leaders were still ahead of BJP leaders.

By 2014, the Congress had weakened considerably and it was the BJP and not the Sena that managed to capture this vacuum. As many as 19.3 percent respondents picked BJP leaders like Devendra Fadnavis, Pankaja Munde, Eknath Khadse, Vinod Tawde or Nitin Gadkari as their CM pick while only 12.3 percent picked Uddhav or any other Sena leader.

The silver lining for the Sena in 2014 was that Uddhav was still ahead of Fadnavis as the CM choice according to this poll.

However, this completely changed in the next five years as BJP’s Fadnavis succeeded in cutting the Sena – particularly Uddhav – to size.

CSDS didn’t conduct a survey for the recent Assembly polls so we can use data from CVoter, which shows that Fadnavis was by far the most preferred CM choice at 34.7 percent.

Uddhav lagged behind not just Fadnavis, but also NCP leaders Ajit Pawar and Sharad Pawar as well as the MNS chief Raj.

This crisis in leadership has compelled the Sena to actively promote Uddhav’s son Aaditya Thackeray as the solution.

There is a perception in the Sena that Aaditya becoming Fadnavis’ deputy CM might end up harming his popularity in the long run. Rather than an agent of change, the young leader would, with time, have to pay the price for the anti-incumbency against Fadnavis.

It is pragmatic for the Sena to at least appear to be opposing the BJP, as playing second fiddle to the party won’t allow it to grow in the future, even under Aaditya’s leadership.

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