Shiv Sena walks three steps, BJP one, to save alliance

By Shyam Pandharipande, IANS

Mumbai : The question at the end of the day was whether to swim together willy-nilly or sink separately. The leaders of the two saffron allies, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the Shiv Sena, seem to have realised that on their own they would only fare worse and thus pulled the two-decades-old alliance back from the brink of a split that appeared imminent a month ago.

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Of the many hiccups that the alliance suffered in the 22 years of its tenuous existence in Maharashtra, the latest that came in the wake of the July presidential election was the most serious. Relief at having survived the crisis was writ large on the faces of BJP leaders L.K. Advani and Rajnath Singh and Shiv Sena leaders Uddhav Thackeray and Manohar Joshi at the press meet at the latter’s residence in New Delhi Tuesday.

A patch-up was already on the cards when Advani invited Shiv Sena working president Uddhav Thackeray along with Joshi – a former Maharashtra chief minister – as also BJP state unit leaders Gopinath Munde and Nitin Gadkari besides, of course, party president Rajnath Singh for a luncheon.

While the BJP central leadership’s anxiety to continue the alliance was evident as much this time as on several earlier occasions, it was the Shiv Sena, generally seen as overbearing and arrogant, that walked more than half way for a rapprochement in the latest instance.

The Maharashtra big brother party’s first conciliatory move, after it raised the BJP’s hackles by supporting United Progressive Alliance candidate Pratibha Patil in the presidential election, came in the shape of its support to National Democratic Alliance’s Najma Heptulla for vice president.

Going against the grain, Shiv Sena leaders followed it up by calling on BJP leaders – whose calls they had refused to answer a month ago – to explain their reasons for supporting a Marathi, Pratibha Patil, and convince them that it didn’t mean either a vote against ‘Hindutva’ or a message that they couldn’t care less about the ‘time tested’ alliance.

The BJP rank and file in Maharashtra that has generally shown forbearance to the Shiv Sena, considering its greater clout in the state, was on the other hand hell bent on breaking the alliance this time around, sick as it was of the big brother’s bullying.

Strengthened by the party workers’ clamour for a long overdue snap-up, the state unit leaders even started exploring new allies for the next elections, particularly Raj Thackeray’s Nav Nirman Sena.

They were also eyeing some factions of the Republican Party of India, Shetkari Sanghatana’s Swatantra Bharat Paksha and of course Mayawati’s Bahujan Samaj Party as one of the leaders put it.

It was these moves by the BJP, coupled with the prospect of a midterm poll, which apparently made the Shiv Sena leaders swing into a damage control exercise. Equally concerned about their party’s poll prospects and unwilling to share the state unit functionaries’ optimism about new alliances, the BJP central leadership promptly responded to the Shiv Sena’s overtures.

There is some merit in the argument that the Shiv Sena might not have been so keen to mend fences with the BJP if it had not seen the clouds of a midterm poll on the horizon, but it is not entirely correct.

While the party that was born to protect the interests of ‘Marathi manoos’ in cosmopolitan Bombay (now Mumbai) has its vote bank intact enough to do well in the assembly elections on its own, it cannot come to power on that plank.

Of course, since the BJP would be much worse off going it alone, it would be either be compelled to latch on to the Shiv Sena post-poll or be condemned to sit in opposition with a severely dwindled strength.

Indeed, while Balasaheb Thackeray had his calculations right when he decided to support Patil, the BJP apparently pondered about its prospects without the ground reality of Shiv Sena’s support base in Maharashtra.

Thackeray knew well – while the BJP perhaps didn’t – that his party was not in the least running the risk of antagonising its voters by betraying the so-called ‘Hindutva’ cause.

The third thing the veteran politician knew was that if the Shiv Sena supported Bhaironsingh Shekhawat against Pratibha Patil, the Congress would have used the development to spoil some of the former’s Marathi votes.

Weakened over the years by three body blows that Chhagan Bhujbal, Narayan Rane and Raj Thackeray dealt at it and worried by the growing clout of the Congress and the Nationalist Congress Party, an ageing Bal Thackeray’s Shiv Sena too needed to be in alliance with the BJP.

In the 288-member Maharashtra assembly, the Shiv Sena has 56 members as against the BJP’s 53.

Parliamentary elections are a different ballgame. The Shiv Sena, which benefited by substantial vote chunks thanks to the BJP in the last general election, could still win only 12 Lok Sabha seats from Maharashtra and should not, reasonably, expect to fare better in the next elections whether mid-term or full-term.

These considerations have apparently weighed with the two saffron parties. But while saving the alliance, the Shiv Sena must have had to concede much space to the BJP.

“The Shiv Sena has promised to shed its overbearing attitude, stop talking of supporting Sharad Pawar for the prime minister’s post and not to go soft on Chief Minister Vilasrao Deshmukh to prevent its bete noire Narayan Rane from taking his throne,” a key BJP leader told IANS.