The ongoing political crisis in Maharashtra involving a rebellion by a big section of Shiv Sena MLAs is a logical culmination of the relentless efforts by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) to destabilise the Maharashtra Vikas Aghadi (MVA) government in the state. Whether the current crisis turns out to be the culmination of those efforts, or just another episode, will depend on how it pans out.
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The imprint of the BJP is all too evident in the entire operation. After all, the choice of the locations where the defectors have stayed put is neither arbitrary nor innocent. Rebel leader Eknath Shinde almost spilled the beans on the ‘mastermind’ in a video where he claimed the support of a national party — a mahashakti (superpower). Probably this ‘superpower’ prevailed on him as he issued a clarification saying he was referring to an inspiration of Balasaheb Thackeray and Anand Dighe.
It may seem apparently unfair that the BJP is blamed for the crisis when it is in fact the rebels who have chosen to part ways with the MVA. Furthermore, at the surface level, the BJP in general and Leader of Opposition Devendra Fadnavis in particular have maintained a stoic silence over the imbroglio. Yet, the fact that the BJP has been indulging in such manoeuvers ever since the formation of the MVA government, or, in fact, even while it was in the making, cannot be denied.
Maharashtra is among a long list of states where the BJP has sought to trample upon the regional party to seize power. Over the past eight years, such manoeuvres by the BJP have been par for course as it has brazenly engineered defections from Arunachal to Uttarakhand to Karnataka to Madhya Pradesh to overturn the electoral mandate and grab power. What stands out here is how the Shiv Sena has fought back.
Shiv Sena, the street fighters
In all the other states, the BJP did not meet considerable resistance, primarily because the party at the receiving end was the Congress, which has shown no stomach for a fight.
However, the Shiv Sena with its street fighting character — that too faced with an existential threat — will not be giving in and appears to be ready for a long drawn out battle. Uddhav Thackeray’s move to shift base from the CM’s official residence to his personal residence has signalled to the Shiv Sainiks that the trappings of power are inconsequential to him before the integrity of the organisation.
This act has enthused the common Shiv Sainiks and galvanised them against the defectors. Aggressive street actions against defectors by the Shiv Sainiks are not only a sign of consolidation of organisational power under the current leadership but also pose difficult choices before defectors with regards to their political future.
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This organisational strength and street fighting character of the Sena seems to have worked as a deterrent for the BJP from making open overtures as it is circumspect of facing their wrath for breaking the Shiv Sena — the organisation with which the Sainiks have an intense connect that is not driven by material interests but cultural-emotional factors.
In fact, much like the other mainstream ruling class parties, the Shiv Sena has also contributed to compromising or thwarting the material interests of common Marathi working people. Despite that, a huge section of the Marathi working class/lower-middle class-intermediate and lower caste population not only follows but feels a sense of ownership over it.
This is particularly true for the Konkan region and Konkani population residing in the Mumbai Metropolitan Region (MMR). Shiv Sainiks from this region have been steadfastly with the party from its inception as they, rightly or wrongly, see the Sena as a vehicle for upholding their dignity in the face of subordination and contempt from the elite — business elite, Anglophone elite as well as Marathi upper caste elite.
Till the mid-1960s, this section stood with the Communist parties and particularly their textile millworker union but, for a mix of factors, shifted allegiance to the Sena subsequently.
An analysis of these political-economic and cultural factors and the overall background conditions to this situation in the Samyukta Maharashtra movement and, even before, in the migration patterns from rural Maharashtra to Mumbai, are beyond the scope of this article. Suffice it to say that shaped by this context, this section has been, and is, willing to fight fervently to protect the Shiv Sena. The existence of the party on the streets is privileged by them over and above the state power.
In its all-conquering ambition for power, the BJP seems to have underestimated this factor. Therefore, irrespective of the outcome of this crisis, the decisive support base of the Sena has become bitterly anti-BJP and its present leadership.
Also read: Once-bitten BJP keeping its cards close to its chest in Maharashtra
There is also a subtle thread of the BJP’s continued identification with Shetji-Bhatji (business communities and priestly communities) that always generated scepticism among the Sena core support base for the aforementioned historical reasons. The current crisis will only solidify their opposition to the BJP and have a long-term impact on Maharashtra politics.
BJP and Sena, 2014 onwards
The signs of culpability of the BJP in fomenting the current crisis is not confined to the circumstantial factors mentioned earlier. It can be spotted from even earlier, from its approach towards the Shiv Sena over the past few years and its conduct as an opposition to the MVA government.
The MVA government, involving a tripartite alliance between the Shiv Sena, the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) and the Congress, is a product of the specific conjuncture shaped by the growing authoritarianism of the BJP-led Union government and its centralising thrust. As an intermediate measure to stave off these forces, a broadest possible unity was forged, despite the fundamental ideological and political differences.
While the NCP and Congress have been allies for more than two decades and share a political-ideological lineage, what makes the MVA experiment unprecedented is the participation of the Shiv Sena — a party that openly espouses Hindutva, is one of the oldest allies of the BJP and a bitter political adversary to both the Congress and the NCP in Maharashtra.
Also read: Shiv Sena and BJP: How love turned to hatred in a saffron haze
The authoritarian and centralising tendencies of the BJP posed an almost existential threat before a regional force like the Shiv Sena, which forced its leadership’s hands to take the unprecedented step. From the 2014 general elections onwards, the Sena was relegated to being a junior partner in its alliance with the BJP and in fact the latter broke the alliance for the 2014 Assembly elections.
Even though the two got together and ran the government for a full term till 2019, the BJP’s approach to the Sena remained adversarial. The thrust of the BJP’s efforts in the state was to elbow out the Shiv Sena and capture the ceded space to expand its footprint.
This was evident in the bitterly fought elections for the Brihan Mumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) in 2017. Control over the BMC and the MMR across four districts has been the bedrock of the Sena’s political strength and the BJP’s all-out efforts to wrest it away was indeed an attempt to enfeeble if not obliterate the Sena from Maharashtra politics.
Larger national pattern
One may note that such efforts by the BJP fit in the larger pattern of its treatment of the regional allies off whom it has fed over the years and whom it now appears to be hell bent on marginalising.
Even as the BJP and Sena fought the 2019 Assembly elections together, the former’s effort to acquire a majority of its own led to undercutting its partner from seat sharing terms to covertly sponsoring independent candidates against it. Therein lay the roots of the Sena’s growing disaffection and subsequent recognition of the BJP as the principal adversary and threat.
In return, the BJP in Opposition, armed with the central agencies, continued to encircle and pressurise the Sena and the MVA with selective targeting of their leaders and ministers. Such pressures and other attractions have undoubtedly been a driving force behind the so-called rebellion by Shiv Sena MLAs.
(The writer is a political science researcher based in Mumbai.)