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Shiv Sena-BJP bitterness is on the rise as Maharashtra municipal polls are nearing

Uddhav-Thackeray‘To provide some stability to the lives of Shiv Sainiks, we have decided to join the government in the state,’ said the Sena chief.

At a function to observe the 89th birth anniversary of Shiv Sena founder Bal Thackeray on 23 December, his son and present party president Uddhav Thackeray added, “Life of Shiv Sainiks (party workers) has been one of constant struggle for the last few years and in order to provide some stability to their lives, we decided to join the government in the state.” It couldn’t get more frank than that. But in the same breath, present Sena president went on to say, “But one should not be under the impression that our decision to join the government shows our weakness and if this government deviates from the agenda of good governance, then we will be the first to take on this government.”

Perhaps the second part of Thackeray’s statement explained the dilemma in the Sena leadership on joining the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led government in the state. Just two days before the last day of filing nomination papers for the 15 October assembly elections, the 25-year-old BJP-Sena alliance broke down and both parties contested separately. During the campaign, the Sena launched a bitter attack on the BJP leadership, equating BJP president Amit Shah with Afzal Khan, a general from the court of Sultan of Bijapur who came to Maharashtra to capture warrior king Shivaji.

However, the BJP chose not to retaliate and focused its attack on the previous Congress-Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) government. BJP emerged as the single-largest party in the election, but fell short of majority by 23 seats. Sena was a distant No.2, winning 63 seats against BJP’s 122. The people’s mandate was clear: Join forces and rule Maharashtra for the next five years. Instead, the BJP chose to go with the NCP, whose leaders were reportedly involved in many scams, while maintaining that it wants Sena on board. Sena continued to make impossible demands, such as the post of deputy chief minister and an equal number of cabinet berths, without realising that the ground had shifted and that it no longer had the big brother status it enjoyed when both parties were in alliance for 25 years. However, this could not go on. Core supporters of the BJP assailed the party leadership for its dalliance with the NCP, while the Sena leadership realised that it will be difficult for the party to keep its flock together for five more years when the rank and file senses power is within reach.

So, a compromise formula was worked out and the Sena joined the government in the first week of December, after siting in opposition for over a month. With the history of acrimonious divorce and unhappy reunion, perhaps it was just a matter of time before animosity resurfaced. The difference this time was that the BJP, emboldened by its performance in Lok Sabha and several assembly elections, was ready to retaliate. BJP’s state unit chief spokesman Madhav Bhandari was brusque in his response to Thackeray’s statement, “It is up to Sena to decide whether they want to sit in opposition or be part of government.” In the good old days, whenever Bal Thackeray threw a tantrum, senior BJP leaders such as general secretary Pramod Mahajan and former deputy Prime Minister L.K. Advani would land up Matoshree, the Sena supremo’s suburban residence in Bandra, to mollify him.

The latest spat seems to be linked to upcoming elections of two important municipal corporations in the state. Elections for Navi Mumbai and Aurangabad municipal corporations are expected in March. Both parties will be engaged in a bitter battle for controlling the corporations, as Congress and NCP seem to be nowhere in the picture and victory in the corporations has its own symbolic importance. The Navi Mumbai municipal corporation is part of Thane district, which was considered to be Sena’s backyard till BJP made significant gains during last assembly elections in Thane district. After the Sena decided to become a pan-Maharashtra party and spread its wings beyond the Mumbai-Thane belt, it tasted its first electoral success in the city of Aurangabad, which is the largest city in Marathwada.

Sena now controls the municipal corporation of this city, which has had a substantial Muslim population since the mid-1980s. The Navi Mumbai municipal corporation is controlled by NCP. As the election to Municipal Corp. of Greater Mumbai (MCGM), likely in early 2017 draws closer, acrimony is expected to grow. Only time can tell whether the Sena-BJP alliance will split once again, or choose to be like Congress and NCP which contested every local body election separately, criticized each other routinely, but stayed together for power in the state for 15 years.

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