The Shiv Sena can wait. There will be no vacancy on the 6th floor of Mantralaya, the Maharashtra chief minister’s office in upscale South Mumbai, if the BJP leads its alliance back to power on October 24. Maharashtra politics have changed and so has the hierarchy in the saffron alliance. With a perceptible shift in its position, the BJP is now firmly in the driver’s seat, having relegated its ally Sena to play second fiddle in the ensuing assembly polls—a scenario few political pundits would have placed their wagers on five years ago. And by the looks of it, Devendra Fadnavis looks well on course for his second consecutive term in office.
Back in 2014, when Prime Minister Narendra Modi and BJP’s national president Amit Shah reposed trust in Fadnavis—only the second Brahmin leader since Shiv Sena’s Manohar Joshi to become the CM—there was no dearth of skeptics wondering whether the 44-year-old leader from Nagpur had it in him whatever it takes to govern the richest state, dominated by powerful Maratha satraps over the years. Five years on, Fadnavis has tightened his grip on the party and his deft handling of the Maratha reservation issue, among other things, appears to have further endeared him to the central leadership.
As the state goes to the polls on October 21, a weakened opposition has failed to build any anti-incumbency narrative against Fadnavis’s regime while his own party rivals have fallen by the wayside. The Sena—once the big brother in the alliance—has been forced to play the secondary role despite harbouring ambitions to change the coalition’s power equation back to its original factory settings.
Fadnavis, in the fray for his fifth term in from Nagpur South West, has doubtless emerged as the undisputed leader of the BJP, which is contesting 164 out of the 288 seats along with a few smaller allies. Shiv Sena is left with only 124 seats in its kitty after weeks of intense seat-sharing negotiations with the BJP for a 50:50 formula bore no fruit. For the record, the BJP and the Shiv Sena had won 122 and 63 seats respectively after contesting the 2014 state polls separately.
The BJP bosses apparently consider Fadnavis to be the best bet for the party. A leader with a clean image, he has consistently provided good governance to Maharashtra in the past five years, says Bhupender Yadav, the party’s national general secretary and in-charge of the Maharashtra elections. “Our alliance will return to power with more than three-fourths of the seats this time and its biggest reason is the excellent work done by the Fadnavis government,” Yadav tells Outlook. “The state has got a stable, transparent and development-minded government after a long time. Be it roads, irrigation, health or education, it has lived up to expectations in all fields. Investment-wise, Maharashtra is the No. 1 state in the past five years and it created maximum job opportunities.”
Hardly surprising then that the BJP sounds more than optimistic that Fadnavis will be rewarded by the electorate and sworn in again as the CM—the first in the state to have completed his full term since Congress’s Vasantrao Naik between 1963 and 1975. Political analysts believe that a second term will not only help Fadnavis grow in stature but also force Shiv Sena to keep its chief ministerial ambitions in abeyance for now, notwithstanding party chief Uddhav Thackeray’s promise to his late father and party founder Balasaheb.
In a recent interview to the Shiv Sena mouthpiece, Saamna, Uddhav revealed that he had given his word to his father that a Sainik would become the chief minister again. “I will fulfil that promise, come what may,” he was quoted as saying. Close on the heels of the BJP’s announcement that Fadnavis would be its candidate for the top post, Uddhav’s remarks fuelled speculations that he would press for sharing of chief ministership after the polls. The presence of his son, Aaditya Thackeray, in the poll fray has lent further credence to such rumours. In fact, when the party declared the Yuva Sena chief’s candidature from the prestigious Worli assembly seat, Saamna’s executive editor Sanjay Raut was quick to share what many considered to be the sentiments of an average Shiv Sainik. “Chandrayaan 2 couldn’t land on the moon but we will ensure that this son (Aaditya Thackeray) reaches the sixth floor of Mantralaya on October 24,” he said.
Pradeep Sharma, Shiv Sena
Once known as ‘encounter specialist’ of Mumbai police, the former “trigger-happy” cop is in the poll fray, hoping to win the election on the Shiv Sena ticket with ballots, not bullets, which helped him win many a battle against criminals in the past. A 1983-batch state police service officer with declared assets of Rs 36.21 crore, Sharma is contesting from Nalasopara constituency a few months after taking voluntary retirement from police. Shiv Sena apparently believes that Sharma’s popularity will help him win this battle and rid the constituency of the “lawlessness”, which has been its bane for many years.
The entry of Aaditya in the poll arena, the first member from the Thackeray clan to join electoral politics, has enthused thousands of Sainiks, though Uddhav has subsequently made it clear that “Aaditya has just entered politics, which does not mean he will become chief minister or deputy chief minister”.
Political observers interpret Uddhav’s remarks on his party’s claims to the chief ministership as a bid to lift the morale of his cadres who felt let down by the seat-sharing formula. Many Sainiks are said to be miffed with the BJP for having reneged on its promise of equal seats. But Uddhav has sought to assuage their feelings by saying that he has compromised on seats in the larger interests of the state. He has also lately spoken many times that Shiv Sena will win most of its seats, apparently conveying to his cadres subtly that ultimately it is the number of winning candidates that holds the key to the chief ministership. “As of now, the issue is not who is the elder brother or younger brother in the alliance but keeping our brotherly relations intact. So the first thing is to contest and win the elections,” he said.
Nonetheless, simmering unease within the party over the “big brotherly” attitude of BJP keeps surfacing every now and then. The Sena has been extremely critical of the Fadnavis government’s stand in recent times over the felling of trees for the construction of a metro car shade at Aarey Colony in Mumbai. In its editorial, the Saamna even dubbed it to be a dictatorial move akin to “Hitlershahi”. Uddhav and Aaditya have also promised action against erring officials after coming to power even though it was the BMC, presently under Shiv Sena, which had initially approved of the controversial decision.
Ajaz Khan, Independent
The former Bigg Boss contestant is fighting the assembly polls from Byculla seat in south Mumbai as an independent after he failed to get the ticket of Asaduddin Owaisi’s AIMIM. He is pitted against jailed don Arun Gawli’s daughter Geeta Gawli among others. Known for kicking up controversies and landing in trouble every now and then, Khan has been jailed for uploading videos following the Jharkhand lynching of Tabrez Ansari, which allegedly stoked communal hatred. He was also arrested in the past on various charges, including alleged possession of narcotics and sending obscene pictures to a model.
Nevertheless, Shiv Sena chose not to part ways with the BJP as it did in 2014 despite their mounting differences. Uddhav says that it is the thread of Hindutva that binds them together. Political observers, however, attribute it to the NDA’s phenomenal performance in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections. In Maharashtra, the BJP-Shiv Sena combine had won 41 of the 48 parliamentary seats five months ago, only one less than its 2014 tally. The Modi government has since taken landmark steps on key issues such as Article 370 and triple talaq which are believed to be its trump card.
Bhupender Yadav agrees that their coalition will benefit from the performance of the Modi government. “The people have started realising that the Modi government has taken decisive steps to strengthen the country, be it in the realm of international diplomacy, its fight against terrorism or securing our borders against infiltrators,” he says. “As far as Kashmir is concerned, it has also initiated various welfare measures to solve administrative issues, thereby clearing the way for ameliorating the condition of women and scheduled castes in particular.”
That the BJP would like to make these issues a major plank in Maharashtra polls was pretty clear from the very first rally of home minister Amit Shah at Beed on Dussehra where he spoke about the Modi government’s bold move of scrapping Article 370.
Despite differences, Uddhav Thackeray (left) has stood by CM Fadnavis. Uddhav says the Hindutva thread binds the two parties.
The BJP-Sena coalition is also helped by the fact that its rivals are in total disarray. The Congress, which is contesting 144 seats in alliance with the NCP and some smaller parties, has been grappling with infighting which began before the Lok Sabha elections when Sanjay Nirupam was replaced by Milind Deora as Maharashtra Congress chief. Deora subsequently quit after the party’s debacle in the Lok Sabha polls but there has been no let-up in dissension. Peeved by denial of the party ticket to one of his confidants, Nirupam has now sounded the bugle of revolt against the central leadership and opted out of the party’s campaign.
With barely a few days left to go for the polls, the Congress’s campaign does not seem to have got any momentum. While Rahul Gandhi is said to be on a foreign trip, there is no word yet on the campaign itinerary of Sonia Gandhi or Priyanka Gandhi. Party leaders, however, claim that there is enough support on the ground for the Congress. Veteran Baldev Khosa, a four-term MLA and party candidate from Versova who is contesting for the seventh time, says that the people in general are fed up with the sagging economy and price rise. “From a big businessman to a street vendor, everybody tells me that they are suffering,” Khosa tells Outlook. “Their businesses have collapsed.”
Congress spokesman Anant Gadgil also says that people have gradually realised that the economy has worsened under this government. “Ahead of Diwali, there is gloom in the market. Many traders who had voted for the BJP last time have told me that they will not commit the same mistake this time.”
The NCP, which is fighting for 122 seats, is facing a big challenge. Apart from the Enforcement Directorate (ED) cases against party supremo Sharad Pawar and his nephew Ajit Pawar, the party has witnessed large-scale migration of its leaders to the saffron camp like the Congress. “Unlike 2014 when we had contested separately, there will not be any division of anti-NDA votes this time,” says Gadgil.
The BJP-Sena alliance, however, is not taking any chances. It has planned a host of rallies by its top leaders led by Prime minister Modi and Amit Shah in the run-up to the polls. Strategically, it has also gone into the poll battle after junking the traditional ‘sitting-getting’ formula for distribution of tickets this time, denying even powerful leaders and ministers.
This is probably what distinguishes the BJP from the rest of the parties and may well have a bearing on the overall poll results on October 24.
By Giridhar Jha in Mumbai