The Palghar result was undoubtedly a face-saver for the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in the just concluded by-elections across the country. But it laid bare the fault-lines between the party and its ally in Maharashtra, the Shiv Sena, in a manner that could have implications in the 2019 general and state Assembly elections.
For now, the Shiv Sena is smarting under the defeat it faced going head-to-head with the BJP, threatening again to ditch the alliance, launching a no-holds barred attack on the BJP’s central leadership, calling out Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s antics in the name of governance, even praising Opposition unity in the post-Karnataka days. But will party chief Uddhav Thackeray break free of the alliance to join forces with the anti-BJP coalition-in-the-making? No one is betting on it – yet.
Add to this an unexpected development on Friday night. BJP leader and RSS points-person Nitin Gadkari met his personal friend and political adversary Sharad Pawar, president of the Nationalist Congress Party, at a ‘secret’ meeting in a five-star hotel in Pune ostensibly to discuss infra projects in the region.
Making Up Or Breaking Up?
Typically, Pawar who aligned with Congress in this by-election, following which the coalition candidate won the Bhandara-Gondiya Lok Sabha seat, loves to dabble across the political spectrum. Pawar and Thackeray too have had a dialogue in the last few months.
Immediately after the Palghar result was declared, Maharashtra Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis, who had gone out all guns blazing to retain the seat for his party, struck a conciliatory note. “For us, the bitterness has ended…(but) to ensure that this does not happen in the future, it’s necessary to introspect if elections should be fought in such a manner (among allies),” he told journalists. The pacifying tone was necessary given the open attack he had launched against Thackeray through the campaign. The BJP wants to avoid a split in the Hindutva vote.
Will Bitterness Lead To Betrayal?
The by-election was necessitated by MP Chinataman Wanga’s demise in January. A loyal BJP leader, Wanga had won the seat in the face of all odds in 1996 and 1999, and in 2014. In the BJP-SS alliance, the mixed urban-rural Palghar was always the former’s seat to contest, win or lose; the Sena did not bother. This is at the root of the mutual bitterness.
Wanga’s son, Shriniwas, was ignored by the BJP after his father’s demise. The Shiv Sena imported him and handed him the LS ticket. Stung and surprised, Fadnavis viciously attacked his alliance partner, campaigned hard, had Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath canvass for votes, and apparently declared that the party should/would use “saam, daam, dand, bhed” (loose meaning: any means, fair or foul) to retain the seat. He managed to get Rajendra Gavit, a popular Congressman and the late Wanga’s electoral adversary, as the BJP candidate.
Gavit won by a margin of 29,500 votes. Fadnavis had delivered to his bosses in Delhi.
But Thackeray was livid. He refused to accept the result, termed the poll process “corrupt”, blamed the Election Commission for “lacking integrity”, raised questions – legitimate ones – about how the polling percentage had increased overnight, and threatened to move the court. Independent journalists who covered the constituency including the day of the result pointed to several discrepancies in procedure and method.
But here’s the thing – Thackeray may not actually drag the EC and Fadnavis, whose remark of “saam, daam, dand, bhed” he claims to have recorded on tape, to the court. For that, he would have to call off the BJP-Sena alliance and bid goodbye to Modi’s and Fadnavis’s cabinets.
This has been his dilemma since October 2014: To remain in the alliance with reduced stature to retain power or to break away from BJP’s arrogance to seek place as an Opposition leader.
This Lion Only Growls, Won’t Bite
For nearly four years now, Thackeray has been unable or unwilling to disentangle this dilemma.
Compared to the national stature of regional leaders like Mamata Banerjee, Akhilesh Yadav, or even Nitish Kumar who was once opposed to the BJP, Thackeray is still seen as a provincial leader of a chauvinistic violence-inclined party.
Palghar could have been his moment of reckoning, say veteran political observers. That moment when he could have cut loose, latched on to the growing anti-BJP sentiment, and found his place on the national stage. But Thackeray did not grab this chance. It may have had something to do with his indecisiveness or the wait for a more opportune moment, or the blocs within the Sena – one advocates that the party continues as BJP’s ally because being in power helps while the other pushes for a clean break irrespective of the price it will have to pay.
Thackeray has lived with this dilemma and seems to prefer the in-between space: Partnering the BJP in governance but acting as its principal Opposition. Notwithstanding his scathing and frequent criticism of Modi and Fadnavis, he continues to share power at multiple levels.
This has made him a somewhat suspicious entity for the emerging anti-BJP coalition. His growls have excited leaders but no one is sure he will bite.
Ekla Chalo Re?
On a number of occasions, Thackeray has alluded to the famous Bengali song “Ekla chalo re” in the BJP-Sena relationship. But in the anti-BJP coalition chorus, it is his voice which is the lone non-merging one.
His indecisiveness and unwillingness to cut the cord with the BJP makes him an unsure partner of any anti-BJP coalition. If he heads into the 2019 elections independently, he takes on the BJP as well as the combined Opposition, and perhaps his estranged cousin Raj Thackeray too – a prospect he does not relish. He cannot be a part of the larger NCP-Congress-Others alliance in Maharashtra because the Congress won’t have any truck with the Shiv Sena – at least officially.
However, the contours of the anti-BJP alliance in Maharashtra would be determined not only by the Congress but also by Sharad Pawar.
Pawar is not averse to playing Thackeray any which way – get him into an anti-BJP coalition by becoming the buffer between him and the Congress, isolate him outside the emerging Opposition, push him into a corner to continue in the troubled alliance with the BJP. This is why his ‘secret’ meeting with Gadkari in Pune assumes significance.
Thackeray has tried hard to don the anti-Modi anti-BJP mantle but hasn’t gone far. On each occasion, he comes up against his own unresolved dilemma – to be or not to be with the BJP. Palghar has worsened the paralysis.
(Smruti Koppikar is a Mumbai-based senior journalist, columnist and commentator on politics, cities, and media. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)