With eye on 2024, BJP strives to oust Shiv Sena from Hindutva space

The Sena applecart, supported by NCP and Congress in Maharashtra, had the potential of upsetting the electoral calculations of the BJP right from the state to the Centre

Shiv Sena poll symbol
There are as many as 25 Lok Sabha seats in Maharashtra that could have well caused a swing against the NDA in case the Shiv Sena was left untouched to confront the BJP in a direct contest.

The current political battle in Maharashtra is clearly a bid by the BJP to completely occupy the Hindutva space without leaving any claimant like the Shiv Sena, though the latter too has a claim over today’s highly popular and effective Hindutva brand of politics.

Yet, the task of upstaging and outsmarting the Sena in Maharashtra would have not been undertaken with so much urgency if the political formation sustaining an otherwise highly localised outfit like the Sena in power in the politically and financially crucial state had not been working so solidly for the last two-and-half years.

Also read | Shiv Sena and BJP: How love turned to hatred in a saffron haze

It is more so since the model that was being thus shaped had the possibility of being taken beyond the confines of Maharashtra by the time the country goes for the next Parliamentary polls, in 2024. The Assembly elections in Maharashtra are slated to be held a few months after the general elections, in October 2024 to be more exact.


Rebellion with an eye on 2024

Poll tacticians point out that there are as many as 25 Lok Sabha seats in the state that could have well caused a swing against the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) in case the Sena was left untouched to confront the BJP in a direct contest. This is so since in the 2019 Lok Sabha polls the Sena was part of the NDA. These seats make more than half of the total 48 Parliamentary constituencies in Maharashtra.

Also read | Shiv Sena at crossroads; tough road ahead post-rebellion

The Sena applecart, supported by the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) and the Congress in Maharashtra, had the potential of upsetting electoral calculations of the BJP right from the state to the Centre.

Delhi’s stakes in Maharashtra thus were so huge as to set off a gamble of sorts. It took out former Chief Minister Uddhav Thackeray from his official residence, as per the advice of his family members and close friends. He moved to his ancestral Matoshree house in Mumbai while he was still in office though he could well have continued in the CM’s residence for a few more days as his party’s rebel MLAs were flying from Surat to Guwahati and then from there to Goa to regroup and swell their ranks.

A fair degree of desperation on the part of the two warring Sena factions marked these moves. Yet, it is not certain as to how this is going to shape the public perception regarding the two factions of the embattled Sena. Some clarity about this can be expected to come during the municipal polls which are to be held in Mumbai around September.

It is with an eye on these polls that the BJP handlers of the current Maharashtra crisis have decided to enthrone Sena’s rebel group’s leader Eknath Shinde as Chief Minister, relegating the former BJP CM Devendra Fadnavis to the post of Deputy Chief Minister.

Also read | Time for Congress to show courage and vision like the first PM

Significantly, none of the Sena corporators in Mumbai have so far taken part in the current rebellion and Uddhav appears to be still in control of them. Since the term of the municipal corporation is about to run out, the chances of a showdown between Uddhav and Shinde at the level of corporation are not so pronounced yet, even though this cannot be ruled out completely.

Uddhav retains cadre

Not only the corporators, but the Sena cadres too so far have been largely behind Uddhav. This is like most other cadre-based parties where the main leader is able to retain the support of the cadre even in the wake of top-level changes. In the case of the Sena, only leaders have thus far been crossing over to the BJP, unlike the cadre.

Narayan Rane, Suresh Prabhu and more switched sides but the cadre never followed them. Uddhav’s first cousin, Raj Thackeray, formed his own party but could not make a dent in the Sena’s cadre base. This trend still appears to be holding and may well go in Uddhav’s favour though it’s a bit early to be definitive about it.

Obviously, Shinde will try to woo as many Sainiks to his side as possible. But the Thackerays have been known for their nativism since the days of the Sena founder and Uddhav’s father Balasaheb Thackeray. This has not only been helping Uddhav to keep his flock of cadres with him so far, but the old Sena’s love for the sons of the soil has also been reignited vis-à-vis Gujaratis. The neighbouring state’s higher-ups are now being blamed for changing the contours of Maharashtra’s politics. Shinde and his group of MLAs flight first to Surat and later outside Gujarat has been one of the reasons for most Sainiks to keep a distance from him.

Moreover, Shinde is from Thane, which stands between Mumbai and Gujarat, and his taking support from Gujarat has been played up by the Sainiks during his recent absence because of the curious mission that catapulted him to the top post of the state. The Shiv Sena has also been blaming the BJP for giving primacy to Gujarat rather than Maharashtra with regard to some important projects during the tenure of Fadnavis as chief minister. This may again be tried with Shinde as Chief Minister, say Uddhav loyalists in the Sena.

Fadnavis, a reluctant player?

Contradictions created with recent changes in Maharashtra may well take some more time to unfold. But initial signs are that Fadnavis has not been able to reconcile to his junior position vis-à-vis Shinde; and, thus, he may well turn out to be a reluctant player for sometime at least. The only binding factor among the two new incumbents of Maharashtra is the Hindutva thrust that the central BJP leadership is trying to give to the new alliance in the state.

Also read: After Maharashtra, will it be Soren’s Jharkhand next?

Yet, Uddhav has not only been able to sense this but also renewed his claim to it before quitting the CM office by rechristening two important towns of the state after two iconic figures of Maharashtra’s history. To the charge of his earlier dilution of Hindutva, unlike his father Bal Thackeray who staunchly stood for the saffron cause, Uddhav supporters not only refute it but also cite the senior Thackeray’s support to the late Indira Gandhi in the past rather than the RSS.

Whichever way Maharashtra may go from the current flux before it gets fixed, the fact is that the latest political crisis in the state broke out amid the countdown to presidential polls. The BJP has improved the number of votes for its candidate with Shinde’s rebellion. Now it looks prudent on the part of NCP leader Sharad Pawar to have declined the offer of his Opposition peers to fight polls for the post of the next President of the country. Indeed, he stopped in his tracks well in time before the government supported by his party came crashing down.

(The writer is an independent journalist based in Delhi-NCR. He tweets at  @abidshahjourno.)

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