May 26, 2020
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Coalition At Loggerheads

The tenuous Sena-BJP combine can't seem to agree on anything

Coalition At Loggerheads

WHEN Ashraf Jahangir Qazi, Pakistan's high commissioner in India, called on Bal Thackeray in January,he had to wait for over 10 minutes before getting past the tight security ring around the Sena chief. Later, Thackeray fumed to a journalist who complained about his security: "These securitymen have no sense. They even did this to Qazi, a diplomat, his country's ambassador, and yes, a nice man." That was Thackeray before the elections, and the drubbing his alliance received.

One conclusion is that Thackeray's suggestions about national monuments in Ayodhya did not cut ice with the minorities. Worse, there are some who feel that such postures may have even cost the Sena the hardline Hindu vote. That has revived the Sena snarl. Thackeray's handshake with the minorities is now a memory and as Sharad Pawar put it at a Congress meet in Nashik last week: Thackeray's effort now is "to play the militant Hindutva card to win the next assembly elections".

This marks a return to a position that is over a decade old. Militant Hindutva turned into a trademark by the 1990 assembly polls and lines like "Garv se kaho hum Hindu hain (say with pride we are Hindus)" became familiar. The BJP, which piggy-backed to power on its ally's muscle-over-mind style, shows signs of retreating as the Sena returns to its old stage props.

But that won't be too easy. The BJP and the Sena are locked in a tenuous sharing that is glued by the fact that each needs the other to be in power. Coming under the overall umbrella of saffron, the sharing sometimes gains from the image of ideological compatibility. But beneath that surface, it is clear that the two parties are essentially different.

The Sena still has a narrow agenda and can, therefore, look forward to gaining locally from the recent enforcement of a cultural code. On the other hand, the BJP is well aware that such wild cat whims can only cost the party its image and votes. The BJP would want to build its independent base and get away from having to deal with Thackerays. On the other hand, the Sena would not want to share key portfolios with the BJP.

These differences were the subject of a meeting last week between Thackeray and senior state BJP ministers in the run-up to cabinet expansion. To sort out these differences, a coordination committee of senior leaders from both parties has been set up. The move towards a committee comes at a time when there is growing resentment towards Manohar Joshi and the Sena tackles new problems like the rebellion of two ministers asked to resign.

At the root of the problem is the fact that the first anti-Congress state government has no issues left to talk of. With two years left for assembly polls, the BJP is keen on improving its image and wants to convey to the Sena that it cannot take the law in its hands and enforce a cultural code of its choice. After a drubbing which reduced the BJP seat tally from 18 out of 48 to just four Lok Sabha seats, the BJP feels it can do without the negative fallout of the Sena's style. Says Madhav Deshpande, who fell out with Thackeray and left the party: "When he becomes more and more politically insecure, he uses this kind of drama." For Thackeray, whose vaulting ambitions were curtailed by his party's performance (six seats, down from 15), one formula to gain ground seems a return to the Sena's irrational hardline tactics.

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