In July 2014, the Bharatiya Janata Party's (BJP) state-level convention in Mumbai saw senior leader and former legislator Madhu Chavan demand that the party snap its alliance with the Shiv Sena and go it alone in the coming state assembly elections.
The convention was held in the backdrop of the BJP-Shiv Sena alliance's runaway success in Maharashtra during the Lok Sabha elections. Chavan described the BJP's ties with the Shiv Sena as a "three-legged' race" that had inhibited its growth in Sena-dominated areas and was fraught with tensions. Later, the BJP pulled the plug on the saffron alliance on the eve of the assembly polls, and emerged as the ruling party in Maharashtra.
Chavan's statement, which was part of the larger chain of events that culminated in the BJP breaking its alliance with the Sena, and outgrowing its once senior ally, embedded a phrase into the contemporary political lexicon — three-legged race.
Over five years on, this very phrase may return to haunt the Shiv Sena as it prepares to form a government in a rainbow coalition with the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) and the Congress.
For one, the three are ideologically and culturally dissimilar parties. Though the Congress and NCP are splitting mirror images of each other, which is inevitable as the latter was born out of the Congress in 1999, the Shiv Sena has a different style of functioning and wielding power. This had led to many doubting Thomases question the longevity of the dispensation led by Shiv Sena president Uddhav Thackeray.
Though the Shiv Sena was seen as having worked as the cat's paw of the Congress in dismantling the hold of the Left over Mumbai's working class movement during its salad days, a lot of water has flowed under the bridge since. Despite its broad political and social base and general lack of ideological convictions, the Shiv Sena's turn to radical Hindutva since the 1980s will inconvenience the Congress at the national level, especially when it comes to issues concerning the minorities.
On the other hand, the Sena and NCP share an overlapping base in large swathes of the state, making it obvious that beyond a point, one can only grow and sustain by cannibalising the other. Indeed, of the 124 seats contested by the Shiv Sena, 57 were against the NCP. The astute politician that he is, NCP chief Sharad Pawar knows that his party has walked off with a large chunk of the anti-incumbency vote, including some of which was against the Shiv Sena.
The alliance among these three unlikely allies has been born through political expediency, namely, gaining power in India's most urbanised and industrialised state, and a pressing need to keep the BJP away. As Arthur Koestler noted in his 'Darkness at Noon': "The principle that the end justifies the means is and remains the only rule of political ethics; anything else is just a vague chatter and melts away between one’s fingers…"
But, optimists note that if this experiment involving three seemingly incompatible parties succeeds, this may begin the unravelling of the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA). It may also lead to the creation of a grand Armada of regional parties which can sink the BJP.
The BJP, which has been left licking its wounds after the turn of events, will spare no opportunity to corner the Sena, and exploit these fault lines on communally-charged issues and those where the ideological dissonance between the trio is stark.
This includes a Bharat Ratna for Hindutva icon Vinayak Damodar Savarkar. Old issues with potential for communal polarisation like the protests by right-wing outfits against the veneration of the tomb of 17th century Adilshahi general Afzal Khan, who was killed by Chatrapati Shivaji Maharaj, on the foothills of the Pratapgad fort, in an event that has gone down in the annals of history, may also be resurrected.
The Shiv Sena and Congress-NCP are also on different sides of the fence on topics like controversial Hindutva leader Sambhajirao Bhide 'Guruji' of Shivaprathisthan Hindustan, who has been accused of involvement in the Bhima-Koregaon violence, and demands for quotas for Muslims (vast sections of the community are already covered under existing categories like OBC and scheduled tribes). These may emerge as potential flashpoints in their precarious relationship, if fringe Hindutva groups get into the act.
Speaking in confidence, Shiv Sena leaders admit that while they will not be able to abandon Hindutva altogether, they may have to relegate it to the back burner. This may see the party, which originally came into existence in 1966, as a nativist organisation espousing the cause of the sons of the soil, namely the Marathi Manoos, turn up aggression on the cause of Marathi pride. In such case, it may exploit and widen the linguistic and economic fault lines in Mumbai and the larger metropolitan region, where polarisation between the Marathi-speakers and non-Maharashtrians is a fact of life due to economic and social reasons. The Shiv Sena's turn to Hindutva had blunted this core agenda. But, the Congress, which has a bigger national footprint than the NCP, may find it tough to reconcile with this position.
Uddhav Thackeray, who will take charge as the next chief minister of Maharashtra, has no experience in governance and administration. The first Thackeray to hold a constitutional position, Uddhav, whose elder son Aaditya has become the first from the clan to contest and win an election, will have to act on his feet to acquaint himself with the finer points of governance.
The Shiv Sena has controlled the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC), which is the richest civic body in India, with a budget (around Rs 31,000 crore for 2019-20) larger than that of many small states, for almost three decades (1985- 1992 and 1997-till date). Though this helps sustain the network of “reward economy” that keeps party workers content and its formidable organisational apparatus well-oiled, the Sena's performance in terms of civic governance and managing the affairs of the metropolis, which has around 1.25 crore residents is lacklustre to say the least.
Like the British, who were described as a “race destined to govern and subdue”, the Congress and its political spawn, the NCP, who have traditionally ruled Maharashtra, can steal a march over the Shiv Sena when it comes to its control over the administration.
Unlike these two parties and even the BJP, the Shiv Sena does not enjoy a network of “committed” bureaucrats. It was unable to rise above its image as a rough-and-ready party with any administrative achievements to boast of even during its time in the outgoing Fadnavis government. The only showpiece initiative that the Shiv Sena could boast of was an ill-conceived and badly-executed ban on disposable, single-use plastic.
Though being in government as the first among equals offers an opportunity to the Shiv Sena to overcome and deodorise its reputation, the challenges are many. The slowdown in the manufacturing sector, flight of capital to other states and the agriculture sector, which has a negative growth rate and massive distress, are chinks in the armour of its economy.
As state government sources admit, an unfriendly government at the Centre will bode ill when it comes to devolution of finances and aid, over and above its share. Already, the Shiv Sena has rolled out populist promises like a complete write-off of farm loans, a 30% cut in tariffs for domestic power consumers, a wholesome meal for as low as Rs 10, and health check-ups for just Re 1. These measures, if implemented, will drain the state exchequer, and leave little funds for development.
Put together, this means that the Shiv Sena and Uddhav Thackeray, as also the other constituents of the 'Maharashtra Vikas Aghadi', may have to walk a tightrope as they negotiate these bends. The Sena is attuned to a rough-and-ready brand of politics, and the self-effacing Uddhav will have to gradually reconcile himself to such diplomacy.
The alliance will also have a tough task on hand. While number of ministerial births on offer and sinecures like appointments to various state run corporations are limited, there are large number of contenders across the three political formations. Frankly put, there are too many mouths to feed and poor little food to go around.
As experience of the Janata Dal secular Congress alliance government in Karnataka revealed, discontent or complacency can rock the boat.
Waiting in the wings like a raptor hovering over its prey, the BJP will be watching, in the hope that the alliance will collapse under the weight of its contradictions, helping it move in.
(The author is a journalist and author of the book ‘The Cousins Thackeray: Uddhav, Raj and the shadow of their Senas’ published by Penguin Ebury Press. This is the first political biography of Uddhav and Raj Thackeray, and has been translated into Marathi as ‘Thackeray Viruddha Thackeray’. Views are personal)