While the Modi factor played a role in changing equations— and the BJP’s fortunes— in Maharashtra, the process wasn’t sudden or dependent only on the PM
When Maharashtra Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis, Shiv Sena chief Uddhav Thackeray and Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) president Amit Shah shared the stage in February for the announcement of an alliance for the national elections, many ticked it off as a victory for the Sena. More so when Fadnavis announced that a 50-50 arrangement has been finalised for the Assembly polls— then more than half-a-year away, now barely days in.
Within those seven-odd months, a lot has changed— for the nation, its politics and the state of play in Maharashtra.
Lok Sabha victory + Article 370
For one thing, the BJP secured a thumping victory during the Lok Sabha polls, bettering its 2014 tally.
Two months into its second term, the Narendra Modi government decided to revoke provisions of Article 370 of the Indian Constitution, granting special status to Jammu and Kashmir (J&K). The historic move came ahead of the Assembly polls in Maharashtra and Haryana, and, according to leaders from both Sena and the BJP, changed things a lot.
"The Article 370 move wasn’t aimed at elections or anything. But it let us gain an upper hand, particularly after the Lok Sabha victory," a BJP functionary in Mumbai told Moneycontrol.
This upper hand, say BJP functionaries, let the party give Sena back its blow-hot blow-cold attitude towards the yuti, as the saffron alliance is called in Maharashtra.
Sena leaders admit that the election victory, coupled with the J&K move, put them on a back-foot at a time when they thought Sena was inching back to its earlier position.
"If not the 'big brother' status, we were at least on par. With the developments after the general elections, we knew we will be pushed against the wall," a Sena functionary in Mumbai said.
While the Modi factor played a role in changing equations— and the BJP’s fortunes— in Maharashtra, the process wasn’t sudden or dependent only on Modi. BJP leaders in Maharashtra say both the Sena and BJP’s growth was gradual and equal.
A case of equal growth?
While BJP leaders in Maharashtra say the Sena grew in regions like Marathwada and Western Maharashtra because of the BJP, functionaries from the Uddhav Thackeray-led party believe that it was because Sena supremo Bal Thackeray nurtured mass leaders like Chhagan Bhujbal and Narayan Rane that they were able to make inroads into the rural segments.
"Eventually both Bhujbal and Rane moved on, but they helped us gain foothold into rural segments," a Sena leader said.
BJP, however, disagrees. "It was decided that the Sena would take care of the state while the BJP would take care of national politics. Both the parties grew equally with that set-up. So if Sena thinks that only BJP grew within this period, they are wrong," another BJP functionary said.
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"As far as leadership is concerned, one should understand that BJP is a cadre-based party while the Sena has always been a one-man show," the BJP functionary from Mumbai said.
"And the fact of the matter is that during the early 2000s, because leaders like Nitin Gadkari and Gopinath Munde had done good infrastructural work, they could showcase it. And that created an image of a developmental BJP as opposed to the Sena, whose leaders had nothing to show," he added.
BJP's grassroots reach
BJP leaders in Maharashtra say while people tend to think that the party's national president, Amit Shah, is solely responsible for the party’s rise in Maharashtra, that is hardly the case.
"We cultivated leaders over the years, and we lost them too," the functionary said, citing examples like Pramod Mahajan— who was shot dead by his brother in 2006— and Munde, who died in a car crash in 2014.
"But our grassroots network was very strong. That helped us sustain, and now it is helping us expand," the functionary said.
On the ground, the expansion can be gauged by BJP’s rise in the civic bodies of regions like Sangli-Miraj-Kupwad and Latur, once dominated by NCP-Congress. The party is also gaining foothold in regions where it was not very strong by inducting local leaders, even if they are from the Opposition.
Rapid expansion at minimal cost to the party’s existing base, BJP leaders say, is the mantra.
How Sena conceded its status and its space
Sena leaders also state that the shift was not sudden, and certainly not because of one or two people at the Centre.
A number of factors contributed.
"We have leaders but these are leaders who prowl in the shadows," a Sena functionary admitted. The functionary was referring to the Sena’s topmost leadership. "That is why prominent leaders who could leave, left the party. Even a Thackeray wasn’t spared," the functionary said, referring to Raj Thackeray.
Not everyone, however, agrees with the stagnant leadership theory. It was also Sena’s experiments with going solo that cut the party some of its influence.
During the 2014 Assembly polls, for instance, when Sena contested without an alliance for the first time in 25 years, it won 63 seats to BJP’s 122. None of the parties could form the government, and the two came together in a post-poll pact. It was an uncomfortable alliance, and it showed when Sena decided to contest the 2017 BMC elections alone.
"Mumbai's status as Sena's 'balekilla' (fortress) changed in 2017," the third Sena functionary said. From 31 seats in the 2012 BMC elections, BJP increased its tally to 82, just two less than Sena, which, in 2012, had 75 corporators. Even as Sena retained control of the civic body, the party knew that the fortress had begun to crumble.
Alarm bells and acceptance
The BMC elections set alarm bells ringing for the Sena. The party started adopting different tactics to counter the BJP from within the government. This included opposing the developmental projects important to and floated by the BJP.
Sena's opposition to Aarey, experts state, stems from the same strategy.
While the opposition within the government strategy worked for some time, both BJP and Sena leaders agree that it wasn't going to bring any dividends post Lok Sabha poll results.
Sena leaders say the party decided to be pragmatic and bide its time while accepting the 'junior partner' status in the alliance."In any case, BJP wouldn't have won the elections by themselves. Plus, I feel that an alliance allows both the parties to work according to their strengths. BJP is a national party, Sena is a regional party. Some things they cannot understand about Maharashtra, and that is where we step in," Dilip Bartakke, a Sena corporator from Thane, had told Moneycontrol.The Great Diwali Discount!
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