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Fear of Split, Message to BJP: Why Uddhav's Sena Is Supporting Droupadi Murmu

After a meeting with party MPs, Uddhav Thackeray announced that the Sena would support Murmu for president.

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Days after facing a rebellion from its MLAs, which led to the toppling of the Maha Vikas Aghadi (MVA) government in Maharashtra, the Uddhav Thackeray-led Shiv Sena gave in to popular demand within the party and announced that it would support the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) nominee Draupadi Murmu for the post of President of India.

This is despite the fact that its alliance partners, the Congress and the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP), have put their weight behind Yashwant Sinha for the post.

On Monday, 13 of the party's 18 MPs attended a meeting called by Thackeray, in which they urged him to extend support to Murmu, thus opening the door to reconciling with its former ally, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

Addressing the media, Thackeray had said, "I want to clarify that in the meeting of the MPs that was conducted yesterday, nobody pressurised me in any manner. The MPs told me that backing either of the presidential candidates will be my decision."

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Since his leadership in the party was challenged by the rebellion led by now Maharashtra Chief Minister Eknath Shinde, Thackeray appears to have become mindful of the sensitivity with which he must take the party forward, as the Sena's political fortunes are hanging by a thread.

We decode what led Thackeray to make this decision, and thereby oppose his alliance partners in the MVA.

Reason 1: In No Position To Bypass the Opinion of Party MPs

After losing his post as CM, Thackeray is facing an uphill task to maintain control of his party, or rather, whatever is left of it.

In the meeting Thackeray called on Monday, party MPs had overwhelmingly urged him to support Murmu for president, which he had to agree to despite Sena leader Sanjay Raut reportedly asking him to support Sinha.

Thackeray's decision indicates clearly that he found it increasingly difficult to go against the popular opinion within the Sena, even if it might have been opposed to his own.
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The Sena chief is not willing to take any step that might loosen his grip over the party further, even if it means not appeasing its alliance partners in the MVA.

Several MPs had already informed him that they were not given much importance when the MVA alliance was in power. Some of the Sena's MPs are also of the opinion that if Thackeray reconciles with Shinde, the party will be saved from being permanently broken.

CM Shinde has, meanwhile, claimed that his faction represents the "real" Shiv Sena as he enjoys the support of two-thirds of the party's MLAs.

There have also been reports of divisions within the Thackeray camp, with some MPs contemplating whether they should jump ship and join hands with Shinde.

The chief minister has also been trying to take control of municipal bodies which are run by the Sena. At such a critical juncture, Thackeray is not left with a lot of options.

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Reason 2: Fear of Yet Another Rebellion

While Thackeray is still recuperating from the rebellion that rocked his party last month, he is mindful of the fact that yet another rebellion may occur if he takes a decision that upsets the remaining members of his camp.

It has become difficult, now more than ever, to ignore the views of Sena's MPs.

While Thackeray said while announcing his support for Murmu that no MP had pressured him in this regard, it is quite obvious that he took the decision due to fear of losing out on further support.

Reason 3: Gesture for 'Natural Alliance'

Another reason that led the Shiv Sena chief to take this decision is that the former CM may be hinting at the possibility of an alliance between the ideologically like-minded Sena and the BJP.

Before he quit as CM, Thackeray renamed Aurangabad to Shambhaji Nagar and Usmanabad to Dharashiv, thus stating indirectly that he still holds Hindutva close to his heart.

Raut also reasoned that the party's support to Murmu did not imply support for the BJP. Arguing in the party's favour, Raut said that the Shiv Sena had, in the past, supported candidates of parties that it was opposed to at the time. For instance, it had extended support to Pratibha Patil and Pranab Mukerjee, who were both presidential nominees of the United Progressive Alliance (UPA).
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"When a tribal woman candidate is projected for the first time (for the post of President), why would anybody object? Any attempt to oppose the decision will not go well amongst the tribals of Maharashtra," a senior Sena leader was quoted as saying by The Indian Express.

He further said that there was no consensus within the Opposition with regard to backing Sinha.

"On the one hand we have an educated and experienced tribal leader in Murmu. On the other hand, we have Yashwant Sinha as the Opposition candidate. Even within the Opposition there is no consensus on Sinha. Why should the Sena support him then?" the leader added.

Pressure from MPs, however, is not reason enough to influence Thackeray's decision. The Shiv Sena chief knows that he is politically going through a rough phase, but is also aware that it is not impossible for fortunes to change.

No one could have imagined that the Sena would break ties with the BJP after the 2019 Assembly election and form a government with its traditional rivals, the Congress and the NCP.

Reports suggest that some MPs might have hinted to Thackeray that publicly announcing support for Murmu might open doors to improving ties with the BJP.

Any decision that the former CM takes to revive his party will have to be influenced by this prospect.

In a show of goodwill, the BJP also welcomed Thackeray's decision to back Murmu. "In politics, there are no permanent friends or enemies. Even the BJP central leadership would not want to end relations with the Thackerays," a state BJP functionary said.

(With inputs from The Indian Express.)

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