Cracks in the alliance between the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the Shiv Sena had started appearing even before this summer’s Lok Sabha elections, but hectic parleys between the top leadership of the two sides helped overcome the differences at that time, according to a senior BJP functionary.
The alliance appears to have imploded after the declaration of the Maharashtra election results on October 24, with the Sena asking for rotational chief ministership and an equal sharing of power. Uddhav Thackeray’s party has begun government formation talks with erstwhile rivals — the Congress and the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) — and is ironing out details of a common minimum programme for a possible stint in power.
The BJP leader cited above said the Sena, which had been with the BJP for over three decades and was considered its oldest ally, struck discordant notes even before the national elections over power-sharing in Maharashtra, and the ties between the two sides could have snapped if last-minute firefighting efforts were not initiated.
It all began in February, when the two sides announced a tie-up for the Lok Sabha polls. The Sena realised it was time to raise the issue of joint chief ministership, or two CMs from the two parties having a two-and-a-half year tenure each, as a condition for an alliance for the national elections, according to the BJP leader who did not want to be named.
It was just weeks before voting in the national elections, which began in the second week of April. Devendra Fadnavis, then Maharashtra chief minister, placed a call at 2am to BJP president Amit Shah, now the home minister, after a frustrating round of discussions, the BJP functionary said.
“What if the alliance breaks down?” Fadnavis asked Shah, who, according to the leader cited above, was very clear in his stand. Shah told Fadnavis that the chief minister’s post was not up for rotation and the BJP would accept it if it were the end of the alliance.
“The feeling among our cadre and leaders was that we couldn’t give that position to someone who uses every opportunity to attack [Prime Minister Narendra] Modi,’’ said the BJP leader, referring to Sena mouthpiece Saamana that has, time and again, criticised the central government over several issues — from the invalidation of high-value banknotes to the Rafale jet deal controversy.
But the PM did not want to lose an ally, according to this BJP leader. An agreement, which acted as an olive branch, was made on Maharashtra’s Palghar Lok Sabha seat, which was held by the BJP. The party agreed to let the Sena contest it even though it meant the incumbent BJP parliamentarian, Rajendra Gavit, joined the Sena to retain the seat. Gavit won the election.
This was then followed by Shah’s visit to the Thackeray residence, Matoshree. A Sena minister, who too spoke on condition of anonymity, said it was there that Thackeray agreed to the alliance with the BJP because Shah came himself to visit him.
During that visit on February 18, Thackeray and Shah hammered out a deal in view of the national as well as state elections in October.
Later, as the ties between the two sides worsened over power-sharing after the October 24 results, the Sena would say the BJP leadership had agreed to rotational chief ministership. The BJP would deny making any such commitment. According to the Sena, Thackeray raised the issue at the meeting with Shah.
“The broad strokes were set for power-sharing [at the meeting between Shah and Thackeray],’’ said the BJP leader, adding that these were then explained to Fadnavis, who would brief the press but was not present in the room where the talks were held.
The Lok Sabha polls went well for the alliance, with the Sena winning 18 and the BJP 23 of the state’s 48 seats. The Sena decided to rake up the issue of joint chief ministership again even as a section of the BJP was ready to part ways. According to the BJP leader quoted in the story, it was PM Modi who resisted again. “He felt that we can’t use and throw them [the Sena] since the Lok Sabha partnership was successful,” said the BJP leader.
In the assembly elections, the BJP won 105 and the Sena 56 of the state’s 288 seats; their combined tally was away above the halfway mark of 145.
Fadnavis placed his first call to Thackeray at 3.45pm on October 24, the result day. “He also spoke to Aaditya [Thackeray’s son who won his maiden election from Worli] and Rashmiji [Thackeray’s wife] to congratulate them,’’ said the BJP leader. The Sena leader requested that Fadnavis should postpone his press interaction till Thackeray visited his son’s constituency and spoke to the media.
“When we listened to the press conference, alarm bells went off,’’ said the BJP leader, “Uddhav said ‘all options are open to us’.’’ By Diwali, positions had hardened. Fadnavis, acting on the advice of his bosses in Delhi, made it clear that the sharing of the CM’s post was off the table. This had an immediate fallout. Sena’s intermediary, Subhash Desai, called off meetings between the two sides to decide government formation. And that’s when the BJP got to know that the Congress had sent feelers to Thackeray.
A former Sena minister confirmed to HT that trouble had been brewing for a long time. “Uddhavji agreed to the alliance by going back on his word after previous humiliations,’’ he said, “It was only because Shah turned up at Matoshree. But we will not tolerate it any further.” His reference was to the BJP and the Sena parting ways in 2014, but joining hands again after the state polls with the former playing the dominant role after impressive poll showings both at national and state levels. Five years later, the BJP would play the “big brother” and fight 150 seats in the state polls compared to the Sena’s 124.
Fadnavis dialled the Matoshree landline number twice just before Arvind Sawant, the lone Sena member in the Union cabinet, resigned on November 11, wanting to speak to Thackeray. He was told he would get a callback. That call never came.
“We will sit in the opposition and wait. This alliance cannot last,’’ said the BJP leader.
But the NCP disagrees. “I will reiterate what [NCP chief] Sharad Pawar has said. We have taken some time to form government only so that we form a stable government that will last five years,” NCP parliamentarian Majeed Memon said.
Political commentator Neera Chandhoke said, “Well, the Sena does not have a good record in respecting its coalition partners; the Congress. …is compromising its own political position. Bad idea all around.”