More than any other state – Karnataka, Goa, Arunachal Pradesh – where the BJP’s “Operation Lotus” succeeded in winning over opposition legislators, Maharashtra is a prize which the party was loath to lose.
Hence, the unseemly haste in swearing-in a government of its own when only a few weeks ago, the party had expressed its inability to do so. What made the BJP change its mind was the apparent success of the three unlikely allies – the Shiv Sena, NCP and Congress – in being able to cobble together a Maharashtra Aghadi and come within striking distance of forming a government.
For the BJP, such a turn of events was unacceptable for two reasons. One was the message the new combine would send out that the mighty electoral machine of Narendra Modi and Amit Shah was not invulnerable. This could not but have an adverse impact on the party’s prospects on the eve of the Jharkhand elections, which have assumed extra importance in the aftermath of the BJP’s lacklustre showing in Maharashtra and Haryana.
The other reason was the possibility of the first serious breach in the Hindutva camp. Although the BJP and the Shiv Sena had been carping at each other for the last six years, there was no doubt that they were on the same ideological page. If the Aghadi was constituted with a modicum of success, it would entail a toning down of the Shiv Sena’s Hindutva rhetoric.
The BJP will then be left alone to hold aloft the saffron banner, making it difficult for the party to push through its anti-Muslim agenda – National Register of Citizens (NRC), Citizenship Amendment Bill (CAB) – since there are other parties in the NDA, such as the Janata Dal (United), which is not as enthusiastic as Big Brother about these measures.
What is more, the Janata Dal (U) will undoubtedly be encouraged by the Shiv Sena’s revolt to confront the BJP with greater energy. As it is, the party is contesting the Jharkhand elections on its own. The fallout of these developments will be what the RSS chief, Mohan Bhagwat, had predicted during the war of words between the BJP and the Shiv Sena before the break-up.
The paterfamilias of the Sangh Parivar had said that both sides will be weakened by their selfishness – the refusal on the BJP’s part to accept the Sena’s demand for a rotational arrangement for the CM’s post and the latter’s unwillingness to settle for anything else, such as the deputy chief minister’s post.
The BJP’s mulish conduct was odd since it had fallen well short of the majority mark of 145 seats. But arrogance and aggression have become such an integral part of its psyche in the last few years that it was reluctant to yield any ground. Besides, the party was probably acting on the assumption that the Shiv Sena had nowhere to go.
But this is where the BJP’s hauteur blinded it to the possibility that the Sena did have other options, viz. tying up with the “secular” lobby. However, such a transition from one ideological camp to its diametric opposite is not unusual in Indian politics.
In the mid-1960s, the Jan Sangh had cohabited with the socialists and communists in several states to oppose the Congress and, in 1977, it had merged its identity with such parties, including the Congress (Organisation) which was opposed to Indira Gandhi.
It all depends on how parties regard a threat serious enough to band together in seemingly antagonistic combines. Clearly, the Sena saw the BJP as posing as some kind of an existential threat to its position in Maharashtra where it had been reduced from its earlier No. 1 status to be the BJP’s camp follower. It was a relegation which the party of Bal Thackeray found galling.
The weakening of the BJP’s position evident from the drop in its number of MLAs from 122 five years ago to 105 this time evidently encouraged the Sena to assert itself. The BJP’s uncompromising attitude also made the Sena more receptive to overtures from the “secular” camp.
It was Sharad Pawar’s political acumen and wide acceptability which laid the foundation of the new group.
There is some distance to go, of course, before the Aghadi can enter the corridors of power, if at all, but what the BJP has done, perhaps unwittingly, is to enable the group’s three discordant members come closer together by challenging them by means fair and foul.
If their nascent unity did not face a threat from a powerful adversary, they might not have developed the sense of camaraderie which their current mutual predicament of hiding in hotels from a predator lurking outside has generated.