Maharashtra: A Sena CM? Posturing or threat by Uddhav Thackeray

Friday, February 24, 2017

Uddhav Thackeray roared “Not just Mumbai Mayor but the next chief minister of Maharashtra will also be from ShivSena....What is the hurry? Wait for some time. We have not yet decided if an alliance is to be made or not. We will do so soon...But I can assure that not only the Mayor, even the future Chief Minister will be from the Sena”.

So is it possible for a Shiv Sena Mayor and control over BMC? Technically possible if the ShivSena ties up with the Congress and possibly with the NCP as well together with a few independents to give them a fairly comfortable majority. Irrespective whether ShivSena sticks with the existing alliance with BJP or breaks it to clobber a new anti-BJP coalition, this demand of Mayorship and control over BMC is non-negotiable for ShivSena. The BJP to avoid mid-term elections should be amenable to concede to these demands provided the ShivSena doesn’t wreck their State & National alliances. That would be seen a too small prize to be paid.

But what if the ShivSena entertains a much larger objective than control over the BMC? A Marathi newspaper chain Pudhari reported last week with a cautious question mark in the headline, that the Sena may quit the government. A Shiv Sena spokesperson and MP Sanjay Raut hinted that his party would walk out of the State government after the BMC elections, saying the Devendra Fadnavis government was put on notice. According to Sena sources, the party ministers have been asked to resign before the municipal election campaign is over. “We have put the State government on notice and we will take an appropriate decision at an appropriate time,” Raut said. Read more HERE

The moot question is can the ShivSena bring down the BJP’s Fadnavis government by precipitating a mid-term poll? This too looks technically possible. A ShivSena-Congress-NCP coalition supported by smaller parties like SP and a couple of independents can stake a majority claim going by the numbers. 

So it is entirely possible that the ShivSena withdraw support to BJP and bring the government. But the question is just because they can would they do so? BJP puts on a brave face reiterating that Shiv Sena would not go to that extent and simply posturing. But the BJP is not apparently taking any chances. Through their MP Kirit Somaiya, they have been making public allegations for some months now that the Thackerays have been laundering black money through shell companies. The intent seems to be a warning to stay in line or else.... Read HERE

Though the media hyped the results of the recent civic polls, the fact is that both Congress and NCP had not taken these elections seriously - No hoardings, no print advertisements, no radio advertisements, sparse rallies, no visibility at all in a contest where BJP unleashed their full money power. They appeared prepared to let Shiv Sena occupy the opposition space, making themseloves redundant in the race. They literally gave BJP a virtual walkover. Though in the municipal corporation elections they did more or less badly, the Congress still got 32 seats in BMC and both Congress and NCP fared well for the Zilla Panchayat elections showing their core bases are still intact. And why did the Congress and NCP put in more effort? One theory is that anticipating a mid-term poll, they opted to preserve their funds. 

So mid-term poll appears to be treated by all players a distinct probability. But here is the thing. In the advent of a mid-term poll, the ShivSena does not have strength on its own to win the state. Across the 10 major municipal corporations that went to polls, the BJP won more than 500 seats, up from 205 in 2012. The Sena’s tally saw a smaller increase to 267 from 227. But Shiv Sena can take heart with their performance in the Zilla Panchayat, showing their enlarging footprint, though clearly trailing the BJP. Notwithstanding this, the reality is that ShivSena needs to form an alliance with the Congress and possibly with the NCP too to head a winning combination. The question is whether the latter would play ball? 

Officially, the Congress dubs the public Sena-BJP spat a drama. "On one hand, Sena ministers are saying that they carry their resignation letters in pockets while on the other hand, Uddhav has put the ball in the BJP's court saying Sena will pull out of the government only if the BJP stretches it to the point of breaking This means Sena has not taken any decision to withdraw from the government,". They further say that once the civic polls they believe the Sena and BJP will kiss and make up. Read HERE. But the fact is that it is also an open secret of a tacit Congress-Sena understanding during the civic polls with Congress transferring votes for municipal bodies to the Sena and the Sena reciprocating by transferring votes to the Congress for the Zilla Panchayat polls. 

The NCP similarly publicly ridiculed Thackeray’s threat. The NCP said that Thackeray makes it a habit of regularly making threats of withdrawal without carrying it out and dared Uddhav Thackeray publicly to carry out his threat. Sharad Pawar additionally publicly stated that he was prepared to give a guarantee in writing that his party would not support the BJP government in the event of the Shiv Sena deciding to withdraw its support. Thackeray on the other hand termed Pawar’s promises totally unreliable. Yet, some sort of tacit understanding apparently was evident between ShivSena and NCP during the recent civic polls. Read HERE

So a Mahagathbandhan Bihar style is also very much also within a realm of possibility in Maharashtra and if and when it materialises the BJP would get massacred like they did in Bihar. However one of the biggest challenges to forging a Mahagathbandhan would be for Congress and NCP is that aligning with the ShivSena could jar their perception as secular parties as ShivSena is popularly seen as the saffron counterpart of BJP. 

In post Bal Thackeray era, the Sena under Uddhav Thackeray has taken steps to be more inclusive party that appeal to non-Maharashtrians by diluting its core ideology and evolving a broader issues-based approach. Uddhav and son Aaditya now nurse pan-India dreams and quietly and steadily making over the party’s image from the one they inherited - with a chauvinist goonish agenda - working towards one of a party with a national footprint. This is of course very much a work-in-progress but people are already seeing the difference. Uddhav Thackeray took pride after BMC results to state that even Muslims voted for ShivSena. The party got its first Muslim corporator elected with Haji Mohammed Halim Khan, who defected to the Sena from the All India Majlis-eIttehadul Muslimeen (AIMIM), winning from Bandra’s Behrampada. BJP supporters particularly in social media took potshots on the secular brigade for rooting for Shiv Sena, a prospect unthinkable a couple of years ago. 

A Mahagathbandhan in the end is driven by political existential compulsions. For the Shiv Sena, the BJP growth needs to be nipped in the bud as if left unchecked, the BJP would run away with their saffron base. They need to wrest this base back from the BJP before it is too late. For the Congress and NCP additionally it is a different kind of existential problem. Consider this, half of BJP’s elected corporators are either from the NCP, Congress or Shiv Sena. Read HERE. This appear BJP’s Standard Operating Practice (SoP) not only in Maharashtra but all over the country. They simply poach the leaders from other parties along with their supporters generously opening their moneybags leaving these parties without leaders and weakening their organisational base. For the first time Sharad Pawar voted in his ward where his party NCP was unable to put up a candidate. So if the ShivSena, Congress or NCP do not come together and grab power, then they make themselves vulnerable for their elected representatives whether corporators, MLAs or MPs being poached by the BJP. 

Political commentators are however unable to decide whether Uddhav Thackeray’s threat of Sena Mayor and CM should be taken seriously. Kumar Ketkar, renowned journalists feel Sena will have to temper its belligerence. “After the results, I do not see the Sena pulling the plug on this government. Survival mode will kick in. The bitterness and criticism will be dropped.” On the other hand, IndiaToday hailed Uddav Thackeray the man to watch out for. Read HERE

We may not need to wait too long to know which view is right. Uddhav Thackeray will perhaps wait till March 11th for the 5 State Assembly results. If BJP comes out trumps, then perhaps he would take the Ketkar path. But if BJP is routed, then who knows, mid term awaits Maharashtra!

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