Split wide open

Print edition : October 17, 2014

Election material out for sale in central Mumbai on September 23. Photo: Vivek Bendre

Chief Minister Prithviraj Chavan and his party colleague Manikrao Thakre in talks with Praful Patel and other NCP leaders on seat sharing for the Assembly election, in Mumbai on September 23. Two days later, the alliance fell through. Photo: PTI

Two long-standing alliances come to an end in Maharashtra over seat sharing.

NEVER in Maharashtra’s 54-year-old history has there been so much confusion and uncertainty within political parties before an election. With less than 48 hours to go for the last day for filing nominations, the 25-year-old Shiv Sena-Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) alliance and the 15-year-old Congress-Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) alliance were broken.

The splits in the two major alliances have marked this Assembly election as a historic one. Maharashtra will now see a four-cornered contest. In the field are the BJP and some minor State parties as allies, the Shiv Sena, the Congress and the NCP. Votes will get divided. Hindutva issues will get diluted even though both the Sena and the BJP will continue to fight on that plank.

When Deputy Chief Minister Ajit Pawar of the NCP spoke after announcing the split with the Congress, he said he was withdrawing support to the State government. This makes the current government a minority one, though not for long since its term expires on November 8.

“From today our alliance is over.” With this simple sentence, the BJP’s Eknath Khadse, who is the Leader of the Opposition in the Assembly, announced to the media the end of the Sena-BJP alliance in Maharashtra. At the press conference, the panel of BJP leaders sat with sombre expressions. Clearly, the split was not something they welcomed, though they knew that it could happen.

Khadse was at pains to make it clear that the BJP had tried hard to keep the alliance as “the main goal is to defeat the Congress and the NCP”. He harped on how at the closed-door meeting in his bungalow he and the others in the BJP had told the Sena leaders that “a split will only benefit the Congress and the NCP”.

Devendra Fadnavis, president of the State unit of the BJP and an MLA from Nagpur, added: “We tried to accommodate the Sena. We tried to be flexible. We spent hours talking to them, but they were stuck on two points. They wanted 151 seats and they were adamant about getting the chief ministerial post.” The last offer for seat sharing before the talks were deadlocked was 151 seats to the Sena, 130 to the BJP and seven to the minor allies.

Interestingly, the BJP has taken the high ground in this fiasco. The party’s tone while announcing the split was that of an aggrieved elder brother trying to convince an errant, spoilt sibling of the error of his ways. The announcement was rife with phrases like “we tried”, “we explained for hours”, “our wish was to stay together”, and so on, but the fact remains that the BJP was equally strident about a split until a few days ago.

Post-election alliance?

From a political standpoint the split seems foolhardy. Why would two like-minded parties with a dedicated vote base part ways? If the BJP was so keen to stay together and the Sena had upped its seat share to 130, what then was the sticking point? Pride? No, hardly likely in the shadowy world of politics. Why did the BJP not go with the Sena? The answer possibly lies in a post-election alliance.

Both parties were adamant about fighting certain seats and were demanding more seats because they were confident of winning them. Thus, if both parties fight separately, contest the seats of their choice and possibly win them, then, to come together after the election is a simpler matter than bearing the heartburning of staying in an alliance and bickering over seats. The likelihood of this happening is even stronger when seen in the light of the announcement that the BJP central leadership was keen that the Sena-BJP alliance be preserved.

Some recent history is essential to understand the end of these two alliances. Buoyed up by its success in the Lok Sabha elections, the State unit of the BJP had been openly calling for the severing of ties with its ally of 25 years. The Sena, the senior partner all these years with a 169-119 seat-sharing agreement with the BJP in the 2009 Assembly elections, was not overtly rattled. Instead, its president Uddhav Thackeray talked right back.

The ruling Congress-NCP combine was in equal disarray. Over the years, the State unit of the Congress had become more and more dependent on advice from the party headquarters in Delhi. This centralised style of functioning had destabilised the Congress in the State and, some say, the State too. The NCP, which was never a party with high political credibility, further undermined itself, especially in rural Maharashtra, with what many call an overbearing style of functioning.

And the smaller parties of the State, including the once formidable Republican Party of India (RPI), were all waiting to see which way the wind blew. As it so happened, the Swabhimani Shetkari Sanghatana Party, the Rashtriya Samaj Party (RSP) and the Shiv Sangram Party will go with the BJP.

After weeks of bickering, the Sena and the BJP seemingly came to an understanding on seat sharing that allowed them to preserve their alliance. The final proposal from the Sena was that it would contest 151 of the 288 seats in the Assembly and the BJP 130. The remaining seven would go to the smaller political partners. What the BJP actually wanted was for the Sena and itself to contest 135 seats each, leaving 18 for their allies.

In a quandary

The saffron alliance has been in a strange quandary after the election was announced. Their alliance has been mutually beneficial for 25 years. When it was established, for the Sena it meant national recognition and for the State BJP unit it meant a chance to establish itself with Marathi manoos via the Sena. And, of course, the duo’s coming together cemented the saffron cause. But the changing politics in the State and the at Centre meant that none of the above was a prerequisite and so the alliance became shaky.

Much else had also changed. The men instrumental in creating the alliance—Shiv Sena founder Bal Thackeray and BJP leader Pramod Mahajan—are dead and so is Gopinath Munde of the BJP, who was like the glue that kept the alliance together.

The sidelining of senior leader L.K. Advani in the party also affected the State BJP. The BJP’s new leadership is yet to develop a rapport with the Maharashtra unit. Indeed, Narendra Modi and Mahajan were never the best of friends, and since Mahajan controlled virtually everything in Maharashtra BJP, it naturally followed that members of the State unit of the party would follow him and consequently be in the doghouse as far as Modi was concerned. After Mahajan’s death, his brother-in-law Munde took his place. Soon, there were two factions, a Munde group and a Nitin Gadkari group, in the party, but neither leader could claim to be close to Modi.

Yet, neither the BJP nor the Sena was keen to go their separate ways for obvious reasons. The Sena wanted to capitalise on the BJP’s current good fortunes. And the BJP was loath to lose the edge, however small, that the Sena’s name gives it in the State—a fact proven by the stream of BJP leaders, from Amit Shah and Sushma Swaraj to Rajnath Singh and Rajiv Pratap Rudy, who were brought in for talks with the Sena.

Besides, the Sena and the BJP have become synonymous in Maharashtra politics. But seat sharing continued to be the weakest link in the alliance. The BJP is confident of winning more than 120 seats—that is 74 more seats than what it won in 2009—and therefore demanded more. The Sena refused to up the BJP’s quota of seats, wanting to maintain its position as the senior partner and keep a grip on the chief ministership.

For 54-year-old Uddhav, this is a crucial election. It is the first time he will be fighting alone and the first Assembly election after his father Bal Thackeray’s death. Many had labelled Uddhav too weak to control the Sena. In the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, the Sena won 18 of the 20 seats it contested, a performance that its detractors say was because of the Modi effect rather than Uddhav’s leadership (the BJP won 23 seats). But it is this election success that gave Uddhav the power to refuse the BJP’s demand for an equal number of seats in the Assembly election.

Another thorn in the Sena-BJP partnership has been the BJP’s association with Raj Thackeray’s Maharashtra Navnirman Sena (MNS). The BJP allied with the MNS in the 2012 civic elections in Nashik, and the MNS came to power in the Nashik Municipal Corporation. But some weeks ago, the BJP severed ties with the MNS. The MNS fared miserably in the last Lok Sabha elections, losing not just the 10 seats it contested but also its security deposit in all. Possibly the BJP did not want to be associated with a loser.

Raj Thackeray is also viewed as something of a political loose cannon. Though the MNS is a party in its own right, the general perception is that Raj is waiting for a patch-up with the parent party, the Shiv Sena. The commonly held belief is that Raj formed the MNS out of spite. He is finding it difficult to shake off this public perception. He has kept a low profile so far though the MNS was the second party (after the Congress) to release a list of candidates. In keeping with the Thackeray tradition, Raj himself is unlikely to stand for elections.

Congress-NCP travails

The Sena and the BJP were the “stars” of the pre-election period. The ruling NCP-Congress coalition has had a terrible record of governance. This, coupled with the BJP’s stunning win at the Centre, eclipsed the floundering Congress-NCP alliance. The rumour that the NCP was waiting to see how the Sena-BJP alliance would play out before it took a stand on its own with the Congress turned out to be true. Within an hour of the saffron break-up, the NCP announced it was parting ways with the Congress. The sticking points were, again, seat allocation, seats for independents and a rotational plan for chief ministership, with each party having its own Chief Minister for two and a half years of the term.

Flexing its muscles, the NCP insisted on contesting an equal number of seats instead of the 174-114 division that the Congress-NCP had in the 2009 elections. Part of this insistence stemmed from the fact that the NCP emerged as the bigger party between the two in Maharashtra in the recent Lok Sabha elections (the Congress won two seats and the NCP four). But the Congress rejected the NCP’s demand for 144 seats and offered 124 instead. This was scorned by the NCP. The NCP also wanted the independents it had inducted to be fielded from Congress constituencies. The Congress refused.

To step up the pressure, Chief Minister Prithviraj Chavan of the Congress announced that his party had already decided its candidates for the 174 seats it had contested in 2009. He also said that the Congress had in mind candidates for the 114 seats the NCP was meant to contest, thereby giving a thinly veiled take-it-or-leave-it threat to the NCP. A day before the break-up, the Congress even released its first list of candidates—that was the first inkling that the fight was a serious one and more so because some of the announced seats had been under discussion with the NCP. For its part, the NCP had been publicly saying it wanted to continue the alliance but on new terms. It has also been busy holding back-door talks with the BJP and making no secret about it.

As for the smaller parties, they waited to see how the teams formed. Some have already tied themselves with the BJP’s star, while others like the RPI (Ramdas Athavale faction) are still being wooed. The MNS, if it does well, may be considered for a post-election alliance.

The last day for candidates to file nominations for the Assembly elections was September 27. That the State’s major parties came so close to this deadline before making their decisions on their alliances shows the political turmoil that Maharashtra is now in.

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