The strain in Maharashtra

Print edition : August 18, 2001

Conflicting political interests introduce severe tensions into the relations between alliance partners Shiv Sena and BJP in the State, and this gets reflected in NDA politics at the national level.

GIVEN its reason-defying roller-coaster twists and turns, it is not surprising that few people have been able to make sense of the Shiv Sena's summer spat with the Bharatiya Janata Party.

When Shiv Sena member of the Rajya Sabha Sanjay Nirupam lashed out at the Prime Minister's Office (PMO) last month, he made it clear that he was acting on instructions from his party chief, Bal Thackeray. Thackeray never said that Nirupam was not telling the truth, but asserted that Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee was not the intended target. Soon, Shiv Sena Members of Parliament were letting it be known that their party was even willing to break its long-standing alliance with the BJP. Then, Thackeray executed a neat volte-face. "The nation needs your leadership at this juncture," he reportedly told Vajpayee during their July 31 telephone conversation: "You should not resign under any circumstances." Nirupam was ordered to submit a letter of apology to the Prime Minister and was then subjected to an unceremonious ticking off at a meeting of Shiv Sena MPs with their supreme leader. Thackeray now announced that he had no intention of breaking his alliance with the BJP.

Shiv Sena MPs Mohan Rawle (left) and Sanjay Nirupam (right) and Union Minister and party leader Manohar Joshi after a meeting with party supremo Bal Thackeray at his residence in Mumbai on August 10.-VIVEK BENDRE

Shiv Sena cadre who had read Thackeray's views on the Prime Minister only last November might have been a little bemused by his turnaround. In a signed editorial in the Shiv Sena-run newspaper Saamna, Thackeray had charged Vajpayee with "leaving behind not only Bangaru Laxman, but even the Congress(I), V.P. Singh and Mulayam Singh Yadav in the appeasement of Muslims".

But the fact is that the Shiv Sena's assault on the BJP had little to do with its ostensible subject, the Unit Trust of India scandal. Last month, Shiv Sena and BJP politicians tried to use the absence of members of the ruling Democratic Front in the Maharashtra Assembly during a vote on supplementary financial demands, to stage a coup. Speaker Arun Gujarathi stonewalled calls for a vote. Leader of the Opposition and former Shiv Sena Chief Minister Narayan Rane then tried to move a no-confidence motion against Gujarathi. The BJP, however, refused to cooperate. Union Minister for Information Technology Pramod Mahajan, informed sources say, told Rane that the motion was certain to be defeated.

Many in the Shiv Sena believe that Mahajan, along with party colleague and former Deputy Chief Minister Gopinath Munde, has been sabotaging the party's successive efforts to instal a new government. In mid-July, Shiv Sena leaders claimed to have secured the support of at least eight MLAs of the Democratic Front, the minimum number needed to bring down the State government, mainly from the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) and the Congress(I). However, informed sources close to Deputy Chief Minister Chhagan Bhujbal told Frontline that only four MLAs had actually offered to resign. Narayan Pawar and Popatrao Gawande of the NCP and Shivajirao Nilangekar and Kirti Gandhi of the Congress(I) are believed to have told the Shiv Sena's negotiators that they would resign their seats if ministerial positions were guaranteed to them in a new dispensation. Both Rane and Munde met Gujarathi on August 2 to discuss the issue but failed to produce letters of resignation or other evidence to support their claims.

IT is far from clear, then, if the Shiv Sena-BJP alliance actually had the numbers to bring down the Democratic Front. It is clear, however, that the Shiv Sena believed that it could have done so but for the BJP's position. More important, the fracas has focussed attention on the continued tension between the alliance partners. The latest episode in this long-running tussle began in the run-up to the monsoon session of the Assembly. Characteristically, in an attempt to project itself as the true representative of the Hindu Right in Maharashtra, the Shiv Sena published the first of a three-part interview in Saamna on July 1 in which Thackeray warned Vajpayee against "entertaining any proposal to part with any territory of Jammu and Kashmir". He also made it clear, however, that the Shiv Sena had no wish to bring down the Vajpayee government. "The country," Thackeray said, "cannot afford the fall of the Vajpayee government at a stage when the Inter-Services Intelligence and the Lashkar-e-Toiba are active."

But Jammu and Kashmir was not the main issue on Thackeray's mind. Saamna's July 3 issue, which carried the last part of the interview, laid out an elaborate blueprint for bringing down the Democratic Front government. Asked about his repeated assertion that there would soon be a Shiv Sena-led government in place in the State, Thackeray replied that this would already have been the case but for "the treachery of some people". "The Sena-NCP- BJP can come together and form a government in Maharashtra," he said. "(Former Chief Minister and NCP leader) Sudhakarrao Naik stood solidly behind us," the Shiv Sena chief continued. "It was his desire that the Sena, the BJP and the NCP come together, but it was not possible for me owing to Bhujbal." Thackeray concluded emphatically: "I will never tolerate that arrogant man. Instead of having the company of that man in power, we would prefer to sit in the Opposition."

Bal Thackeray.-VIVEK BENDRE

Soon enough, rumours that Thackeray had cut a deal with the NCP spread, and the anti-Democratic Front campaign gathered momentum. At the end of a State-level convention on July 8, State BJP president Pandurang Phundkar said his party would "completely support the Sena in its attempt to create a new government". At the same time, Phundkar added, the BJP would "leave the initiative" to the Shiv Sena. This formulation addressed two disparate needs of the BJP. On the one hand, it needs the Shiv Sena's support in the elections to the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation, scheduled for February 2002. At the same time a powerful faction within the BJP, led by Munde, believes it needs to break the alliance if the party is to expand its constituency in Maharashtra.

HOW this conflict now plays itself out will be interesting to watch. The Shiv Sena's decision to boycott the August 1 National Democratic Alliance (NDA) meeting that affirmed faith in Vajpayee has irritated many State BJP leaders. Mahajan has also, for obvious reasons, not taken kindly to Thackeray's assertion that this was done because he was "upset over the actions of a leader in New Delhi who sabotaged our move to form a Shiv Sena-BJP government in Maharashtra." In fact, BJP leaders insist, all that Mahajan said was that the alliance simply did not have the numbers to stage a coup. "If we had actually had to face a vote," one of his aides argues, "it would have been horribly embarrassing. Six MLAs had offered us support, but we need eight, and also the independents and the minor Democratic Front constituents. On top of it all, many who offered us support have been backing out."

Leaders of the BJP believe the bad blood will affect the State-level functioning of the Hindu chauvinist alliance. Many in the party are incensed by Thackeray's meeting with former Defence Minister George Fernandes on August 1. Although the Shiv Sena claims Fernandes had been sent by the NDA leadership to resolve the differences, BJP functionaries say Fernandes was acting for no one other than himself. "It was just an effort to pressure the Prime Minister," says one senior Maharashtra BJP leader. Although both the Shiv Sena and the BJP have formally approved an alliance for the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation elections, negotiations are likely to be difficult.

For its part, within the NCP, signs are that all is not well. Many party leaders believe Bhujbal's rise in Maharashtra politics has begun to threaten his mentor Sharad Pawar. Events surrounding the Democratic Front's recent decision to initiate a judicial investigation into the Enron deal have fuelled speculation that Bhujbal is using the issue to secure his flanks. Thus, on July 11, the NCP formally announced its support for the judicial investigation, despite Pawar's long-standing support for the controversial project and his central role in securing its realisation. "An impression has been created that we are shielding Enron," Bhujbal said, "and we want to dispel that impression." Bhujbal and Pawar have clashed in the past, notably over Bhujbal's campaign to secure Thackeray's arrest.

Things are not much better on the other side of the fence either. Recently, Enron has also been a cause of strife between the Shiv Sena and the BJP. Shortly after the Democratic Front government announced that the Enron deal would be investigated, Thackeray met Enron chief Kenneth Lay and then called on the Shiv Sena cadre to "leave Enron alone". Four days earlier the BJP had called for an investigation into the deal - a slight for Thackeray, whose personal intervention led to the signing of the highly-skewed agreement for the production of power from Enron's Phase-II. With the BJP now increasingly alienated from the Shiv Sena, it might not be averse to using the findings of the judicial investigation as a means to pressure its alliance partner. "The Sena," says a BJP leader, "will not walk out of the NDA, because it knows it cannot bring the Union government down. All it can do is try and create problems for the BJP in Maharashtra, but it can only go so far."

For the moment, both the Shiv Sena and the BJP know that electoral compulsions make it imperative to sustain their marriage, however unhappy. But both understand that the alliance is standing in the way of their individual ambitions to represent all of the Hindu Right in Maharashtra.

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