The public bonhomie between the saffron allies in Maharashtra hides a dilemma for the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP): Should it ditch its alliance with partner Shiv Sena and gun for total dominance of the state, or should it keep it in the interests of alliance dharma and Parliament numbers?
As the assembly election draws closer, sections in the BJP are beginning to feel that perhaps it’s time to go solo and win Maharashtra on its own.
On 24 June, Maharashtra chief minister Devendra Fadnavis and Sena president Uddhav Thackeray jointly addressed legislators of BJP and Sena on the assembly premises. A few days before that, Fadnavis had addressed Sena cadres at the regional party’s foundation day event.
Taking a cue from Prime Minister Narendra Modi who since the joint election campaign of the saffron allies in 2019 started addressing Thackeray as his younger brother, Fadnavis addresses the Shiv Sena president as his elder brother. At the Shiv Sena’s foundation day event and joint gathering of legislators, both Fadnavis and Thackeray asserted the need to stay united and not worry about which of the two parties gets the post of the chief minister after assembly elections. A BJP legislator, who requested anonymity, said both leaders also cautioned their cadres against making “controversial statements" in the media about the chief minister’s post.
However, there are deeper undercurrents to the saga.
Winning Maharashtra on its own will help the BJP achieve manifesto promises like construction of Ram mandir, abolition of Article 370 in Jammu and Kashmir, and the passage of the triple talaq bill. However, a large section in the BJP that comprises senior leaders, ministers, legislators, and cadres, is in favour of snapping the alliance. The Lok Sabha mandate which gave 303 seats to the BJP alone, 23 in Maharashtra, has emboldened this section and raised aspirations of those who are looking at the assembly polls, likely in October, as a ticket to upward mobility.
A state BJP functionary, who is hopeful of a ticket in the assembly polls, said the BJP leadership had a “golden opportunity" to capture Maharashtra on its own. “We have momentum, we have performance, we have a star campaigner and chief ministerial face in the form of Fadnavis. Fighting alone, we got 122 seats in 2014, 23 short of majority. We have grown even more since 2014 and can easily win 150-155 seats on our own," he said, requesting anonymity. A senior BJP minister, who requested anonymity, agreed with this thinking and admitted that “some party cadres" are ruing the decision to ally with the Shiv Sena.
“They say that in alliance, we will get to contest a maximum 144 seats by the 50:50 formula. We obviously cannot accommodate all our ticket aspirants who till five months back were looking at the assembly elections as their chance to become legislators. It is important to note that this failure to accommodate the aspirations of some of our cadres was one of the primary reasons for our loss in Madhya Pradesh elections last year," this minister said.
Prakash Pawar, professor of political science at Kolhapur’s Shivaji University, said it is natural for the BJP cadres and sitting legislators to dream of a “total hegemony" in Maharashtra. “They have got a mandate that inspires the aspirations of a hegemony. They don’t want partners in power or limited control of the state. They think a total hegemony is possible now and I don’t think the alliance will hold," Pawar said.
But the other section wants the alliance to stay for two reasons—one, the BJP has made this commitment to the Shiv Sena along with a promise of a 50:50 division of the assembly seats and two, the Sena’s exit would numerically weaken the NDA and raise legitimate questions over the BJP’s ability to treat its allies on an equal footing.