Maharashtra: Amit Shah rattled by Sena’s tactics in Palghar bypoll

After the Karnataka setback, BJP chief Amit Shah can ill-afford another political defeat. But the BJP is threatened in the Palghar bypoll by the alarming aggressiveness of its own ally, the Shiv Sena

IANS Photos
IANS Photos
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Raman Swamy

On Monday, voters in Palghar, Maharashtra will re-elect their Member of Parliament. After watching its Lok Sabha majority steadily dwindle down to a knife-edge, every Parliamentary bypoll has become crucial for the BJP. Yet Palghar is about more than just Lok Sabha numbers. It is a potential Singur.

Situated along the route earmarked for Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s proposed bullet train project, it is vital for the government to acquire land in Palghar. Having a BJP MP there is considered crucial to overcoming the stiff resistance from the local tribal population. Moreover, after the Karnataka assembly election setback, BJP chief Amit Shah can ill-afford another political defeat. The BJP Chief Minister of Maharashtra Devendra Fadnavis thus made it a personal prestige issue to retain the seat for the BJP.

The Palghar seat fell vacant due to the untimely death of sitting BJP MP Chintaman Wanga. But in a cunning move that caught BJP totally by surprise, its own ally in the centre and in the Maharashtra government, the Shiv Sena offered a ticket to Chintaman’s son Srinivas Wanga. The BJP, in a desperate bid to counter that move, gave a ticket to a former Congress leader Rajendra Gavit. Gavit has a hold over tribal voters but local RSS workers do not like him.

The Congress meanwhile has fielded Damodar Shingada as part of an experimental deal with the NCP; Congress is contesting in Palghar and NCP is contesting the other Lok Sabha bypoll in the state, Bhandara Gondia seat in Vidharba. Local strongman Hitendra Thakur’s Bahujan Vikas Aghadi, which has been drawing huge crowds at its election rallies, is also in the fray. BVA also boasts of three sitting MLAs out of the six assembly seats of Palghar. No one can predict who is the favourite in this four-way race.

For the BJP, the main threats to retaining the seat come from the BVA and the aggressiveness of the Sena. The deteriorating relationship between Uddhav Thackeray and the Mod-Shah-Fadnavis combine is what is causing the most furrows on saffron foreheads. Uddhav Thackeray is vocally against Modi’s bullet train passing through the area by usurping farmland and displacing local agriculturalists. Thackeray has said: “For whom are you bringing Mumbai-Ahmedabad Bullet train and Mumbai-Baroda Expressway projects? Why should the tribals give away their land for Modi’s pet projects? The people here want additional trains to go to Mumbai. This is their ‘mann ki baat’ and yours is ‘money ki baat’”.

Village activist groups are saying that the fight to save land from infrastructure projects matters more than the battle for political dominance between Sena and BJP.

An editorial in Shiv Sena mouthpiece Saamna bluntly accuses the BJP of “backstabbing” NDA alliance partners. Uddhav Thackeray himself has been quoted as saying—“The BJP is a mad murderer that is stabbing anyone coming in its way”

Uddhav determined to be a thorn in Modi and Shah’s flesh

With each passing day, evidence is growing that the Sena is not only determined to act like a thorn in the BJP’s flesh, but appears hell-bent on thwarting the Prime Minister’s dream project by siding with the tribals in Palghar. Even otherwise, Sena chief Uddhav Thackeray has mastered the art of getting under the skin of the big two of the BJP—Modi and Shah.

For biting political satire, there is no one in Indian politics more effective than Uddhav Thackeray. Not a day goes by without him coming out with a telling quip or a piercing comment, thereby proving that he has inherited the genes of his legendary father Bal Thackeray who used to be a feared newspaper cartoonist before becoming a fiery political leader.

A few samples of his latest salvos are sufficient to show how effective he can be in ruffling the feathers of the BJP leadership. An editorial in party mouthpiece Saamna bluntly accuses the BJP of “backstabbing” NDA alliance partners. Uddhav Thackeray himself has been quoted as saying—“The BJP is a mad murderer that is stabbing anyone coming in its way”.

The Sena has also taunted Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath, who has been campaigning in the seat to attract the large number of North Indian votes, for not removing his footwear while garlanding the photo of Chhatrapati Shivaji during his recent visit to Mumbai’s Virar suburb. “Yogi comes here and gives lessons on Chhatrapati,” the editorial read. “However, while garlanding his statue, he does not even remove his chappals. This is an insult to Chhatrapati Shivaji. What does the BJP have to say on this?”

Uddhav Thackeray issued another statement saying that his father, Bal Thackeray, had tolerated the BJP's "misdeeds", but he would not do so. Addressing a campaign rally he said his party put up with the BJP for the sake of Hindutva for 25 years. "Balasaheb tolerated BJP's misdeeds. But we have had enough of it, and I will not tolerate this anymore".

In an interview with a Marathi news channel, Uddhav said the BJP had become “arrogant” after coming to power. He said the Palghar Lok Sabha bypoll on May 28 would be a “fight between arrogance and loyalty”. In another scathing attack, the Sena chief said there are no ideals left in the BJP—anyone with money power can join it.

Referring to the BJP’s bid to form a government in Karnataka, Uddhav said "Stop holding elections. So that time and money can be saved. Appoint chief ministers the way governors are appointed".

Clearly the bridges have been burnt between the two allies. This is a matter of concern for the BJP, which has much more to lose. BJP president Amit Shah has been attempting to sound conciliatory. He expressed “willingness” to form a pre-poll alliance with the Sena for the 2019 Assembly and Parliament elections.

But the Shiv Sena promptly rejected the idea. It has been attacking Modi and Shah personally on several important policy issues including demonetisation, Maratha reservation and farmers’ suicides.

Amit Shah is now beginning to show signs of desperation. On Saturday, he said: “We want to contest 2019 elections along with the Shiv Sena in Maharashtra. We have no desire to oust them from the NDA. But if they go out, what can we do? We have to be prepared for any situation”.

The situation in Maharashtra appears dire for the BJP, indeed, if the ground situation in Palghar proves to be a preview of the general elections next year. If the BJP and the Sena remain on opposite sides in 2019, as they are in Palghar, the split in the Hindutva vote across the state, complicated by the revived alliance between the Congress and the NCP, will spell curtains for BJP in both Lok Sabha and assembly elections in the state.

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