In Maharashtra, the BJP is learning the dangers of riding a ‘tiger’

Followers of Indian politics must have noticed that the BJP has not exhibited its characteristic brag-and-bully brand of politics in Maharashtra since the results threw up a mixed mandate. So far, the top leaders have not dashed to Mumbai for declarations of victory, the legislators have not been herded into a resort in Goa and the Governor has acted with restraint. In Delhi, a kind of hush has fallen upon it’s headquarter where spokespersons are used to display smirks of disdain for both rivals and allies.

This taming of the shrewd men in the BJP is not without a reason. It is dealing with a frenemy that’s almost its doppelganger—a virulent Hindutva party that can silence its rivals not just in TV debates but also on the streets of Maharashtra. And, unlike the Congress and other regional parties, its leaders can’t be co-opted through the Indian ‘deep state’—the political agents in various agencies. So, as the Shiv Sena tiger roars, its mouthpiece Saamna taunts and ridicules the BJP, Amit Shah and his team are just watching the drama unfold like an inevitability.

In any other state, the BJP would have acted out a familiar script. First, it would have gone marching to the Governor with claims to form the government. Then, with a liberal deadline in its hand, it would have started arranging the required numbers — it needs at least 40 more MLAs to form a government on its own—through the Chanakyan credo of saam (diplomacy), daam (inducements), danda (fear of punishment) and bhed (spying and use of secrets). In Maharashtra, unlike in Haryana where all these strategies brought Dushyant Chautala running to the BJP fold, the BJP has been stood frozen in its feet.

So, why is the BJP quiet?

One, it fears the Sena and its leaders. Any attempt by the BJP to break the Sena, in fact even a hint of any hanky-panky, would lead to mayhem on the streets of Mumbai and other strongholds of the Thackerays. The Sena works through a system of patronage and micro units that guarantees loyal foot soldiers who could be easily mobilised with devastating effect. In contrast, the BJP is primarily a party of drawing room warriors and twitter trolls. On the streets of Mumbai, unlike in Ahmedabad or Surat, it would be easily outnumbered, silenced and subjugated.

Two, the BJP needs the Shiv Sena. The Sena and BJP are iterations of the same ideology and philosophy—a sort of Axis powers—of Hindutva, nationalism and anti-Pakistan rhetoric. In the days leading up to the Ayodhya verdict, the BJP just can’t afford a schism in India’s Hindutva United Family. The BJP feels the political milieu is evolving and is now favourable to majoritarianism and the grand Hindutva project of India becoming the land of the Hindus, for the Hindus and by the Hindus. A divorce with Sena—the Hindu-er than thou party—would be a huge setback.

Three, the Sena can’t be bullied. When it comes to taming the rivals, the BJP has a simple template—hit the head, the trunk will fall immediately. So, it has consistently attacked the Gandhis, the Chidambarams, the DK Shiva Kumaras, the Mayawatis, and the Pawars in the rival camp. But, in Maharashtra, the problem is, how do you attack the Thackerays who have never held any public post?

Four, and this is the most important reason, the BJP knows there are no permanent foes in politics. After the 2014 elections, when every party fought independently, the BJP was able to form the government with the support of Sharad Pawar’s NCP, in the process making its old allies seethe in anger, frustration and humiliation. With the benefit of hindsight it can be said that it was a moment of political awakening within the Sena.

Stung by the NCP-BJP bon homie of opportunism, the Sena started extricating itself from a dark corner of politics where it was seen as an untouchable by almost everyone except the BJP. Over the next few years, it mocked and pilloried the BJP on various issues — demonetisation, for instance, praised Rahul Gandhi intermittently, embraced Mamata Banerjee publicly and gradually crept closer to many other political formations.

It is an ode to its political foresight that today Pawar is willing to tie-up with the Sena and even discuss a loose alliance with the Congress. Just a few years ago, the mere thought of the Sena and the Congress being on talking terms would have been an outlandish fantasy, but the exigencies of politics have made them inch closer. (This is, ironically, an encore of the kiss-and-makeup-with-an-enemy style that Nitish Kumar and BJP exhibited in Bihar).

It takes two to play and the Sena is proving that it is getting good at the BJP’s brand of brinkmanship, bluster and opportunism. In 2014, the BJP had ditched the Sena because it had the option of typing up with the NCP. Today, the Sena has the luxury of a choosing an ally.

The tiger that BJP tamed five years ago, it is evident, didn’t forget its humiliation. Now, it is ready to devour the BJP.