Mumbai: A day after the Shiv Sena announced it would contest the next round of general and assembly elections alone, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in Maharashtra put up a brave front on Wednesday, saying it had seen the split coming.
Senior BJP leaders and ministers said there was nothing new in Shiv Sena chief Uddhav Thackeray’s address to the Sena’s national executive on Tuesday and that BJP was always ready for elections on its own. The two parties are part of the ruling alliance in the state and at the centre.
“Uddhav saheb has said the same thing at least thrice in the last one year. There is nothing new in his criticism of the BJP government and Modiji. We are not surprised by his announcement," said senior BJP leader and spokesperson Madhav Bhandari. Soon after Thackeray’s announcement, chief minister Devendra Fadnavis on Tuesday said his government would continue its full term till October 2019 and would even win a second term.
“The split would damage the Sena only," said the BJP’s Mumbai unit chief Ashish Shelar. A senior BJP minister in Maharashtra, who did not want to be named, said Thackeray may have had two reasons for saying what he did.
“One, he perhaps wanted to send out a signal to a section of Shiv Sena legislators which wants to break away from the party. Two, he wanted to make Shiv Sena officially available for negotiations with the Congress and Nationalist Congress Party (NCP). There have been back-channel talks between Shiv Sena and Congress-NCP for the last few months over toppling this government and cobbling up an alliance. Now those talks may resume in a more formal manner," said this minister.
He said Uddhav Thackeray was worried not only about Sena legislators breaking away but also the cadres at the grassroots. “There has been a shift of grassroots from Congress, NCP, and Shiv Sena towards the BJP in the last three-four years. That is why he has tried to give his cadres a programme for the next couple of years," said the BJP leader.
In the 288-member Maharashtra assembly, the BJP has 122 members followed by Shiv Sena (63), Congress (42), and NCP (41). A Shiv Sena functionary, who requested anonymity, dismissed the claim about talks with Congress-NCP, saying it was a BJP ploy to malign Shiv Sena. “It is the BJP which has been giving open and veiled threats about some NCP and Congress legislators breaking away from their parties to support the BJP in case we withdraw support. How would the BJP be so confident of this if it was not talking informally to these NCP and Congress legislators? We can withdraw support any moment but we are free to decide who we go with and the BJP cannot determine that," said the Sena leader.
The BJP in Maharashtra says it has the backing of its central leadership to take on the Sena. “Uddhav has made it easier for us by giving our cadres and ticket aspirants enough time to prepare for elections. Even if elections take place in late 2018 as he says, we still have around 10-11 months to prepare," said a Mumbai BJP leader and legislator requesting anonymity. He said though it was the BJP in October 2014 which had announced the decision to fight the assembly elections alone, the party did not really have suitable candidates for all 288 constituencies.
“Now, we have time to field candidates with winning merit. We have identified at least 150 constituencies where we can win in a quadrangular fight (BJP, Shiv Sena, Congress and NCP)," he said, reacting to the Sena’s plan to win 150 seats.
Madhav Bhandari said even when the two parties fought the assembly elections together, the BJP had demonstrated a much better strike rate. “Before 2014 assembly polls, the Sena contested more seats under our seat-sharing but won fewer while we contested less number of seats but won more. In 2014 when we fought alone, we contested 260 seats and won 122 but the Sena contested 287 and won only 63," Bhandari said.
The BJP also points at the steady increase in its vote share since 1990 assembly elections when it won 10.71% of the total votes till 2014 when the share went up to 27.81%. During the same period, the Sena share went up from 15.94% in 1990 to 19.35 in 2014 in assembly elections. In 1995, when a Sena-BJP alliance came to power for the first time in Maharashtra, the Sena contested 183 seats and won 73 while the BJP fought 105 and won 65.