Maharashtra: How the BJP is being foolish by alienating Shiv sena
The BJP might have been tactically right to play hard-to-get with its oldest ally, the Shiv Sena in Maharashtra, in order to wrest some additional seats for the assembly polls, but stretching the alliance towards break-point is akin to shooting yourself in the foot. Neither the Sena nor the BJP can win a three-legged race in Maharashtra.
The BJP acted foolishly in angering the Sena to the point where the damage to the relationship can be long-lasting despite a possible last-minute patch-up. The party may be right to think it can do better than the Sena, but this assumption misses the point of alliances. In all alliances, some parties will be stronger and some weaker at some point of time or the other. The Sena is certainly weaker after the death of Bal Thackeray. The question is whether the allies are better off acting separately or together.
In fact, the BJP could actually use smarter tactics to gain more seats: for example, by promising to project Uddhav as CM if it gets more seats and some key ministries. Smart tactics work better than low bloodymindedness. Especially after the death of Gopinath Munde, the BJP does not even have a CM candidate to project. So it is Uddhav by default anyway – if the alliance wins.
Here are 10 reasons why the BJP would be making a serious mistake in damaging the relationship with the Sena.
First, the alliance is on the brink of a clear victory in Maharashtra after 15 years in fruitless opposition. Both parties will benefit from the anti-incumbency wind behind them. Do they want to ruin what is a sure thing for uncertain gains from going separate? Hang together or hang separately?
Second, the BJP-Sena alliance (like the BJP-Akali deal in Punjab) is actually closer to a meeting of ideological minds than probably any other alliance driven by pure caste of religion arithmetic. Every other alliance that the BJP can or will enter is essentially one of convenience.
Third, the BJP does not have the kind of ground-level organisation that the Sena has in many areas of Maharashtra. Even though it is true that in May the Modi wave carried them to an easy and sweeping victory, in regional elections, the logic of a national election seldom holds – as the BJP found to its cost in Uttarakhand, Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, Karnataka, and even its own bastions in Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh.
Fourth, the logic of an alliance is mutual support in areas of the other party’s weakness. The Sena-BJP alliance was built on this principle. The BJP got a greater share of Lok Sabha seats, while the Sena got a larger share of assembly seats. There may be a need to give more seats to the BJP in the assembly, but this is a matter of hard negotiation, not excessive brinkmanship.
Fifth, the Sena may need the BJP’s muscle in Maharashtra, but the BJP needs the Sena’s muscle in parliament even more. If Narendra Modi has to push through difficult legislation, his 281 MPs (Gopinath Munde having died) can only assure him the passage of bills in the Lok Sabha. In the Rajya Sabha, and especially if a joint session of parliament has to be called, the BJP needs every Sena MP on its side. The Sena has 18 solid MPs.
Sixth, the loss of a close ally of 25 years can have snowballing effects on other allies. The Akalis will wonder if they are next. Chandrababu Naidu in Andhra Pradesh would be wondering what the BJP’s game will be in his state. Ram Vilas Paswan and smaller allies may also be chafing at the bit, especially given Modi’s strong grip over their ministries. Not only that, if the BJP is seen to be losing support of even its close allies, what is the chance that potential fair-weather partners like Jayalalithaa’s AIADMK or Naveen Patnaik’s BJD will soon become more anti-BJP? Worse, a break with the Sena could also ultimately make factions inside the BJP restive. The BJP thus has more to lose than just an ally in a state.
Seventh, the BJP is also underestimating the importance of local feelings. Modi, as a Gujarati, can easily be projected by a wounded Shiv Sena as an outsider by stoking anti-Gujarati sentiment in Maharashtra. Nobody will be able to stop that if the alliance breaks. This is the last thing a national leader like Modi needs.
Eighth, Uddhav Thackeray is actually less of a rabble-rouser than either his late father Bal Thackeray or his cousin Raj Thackeray of the MNS. By fighting with Uddhav the BJP actually will end up having to choose some other partner for the state when the Sena under Uddhav is actually the most moderate among the Marathi parties.
Ninth, what happens in Maharashtra can impact even UP and Bihar. A BJP alliance with Raj Thackeray, for example, can alienate Biharis given the latter’s strong statements against UP and Bihar migrants in Maharashtra. The BJP wants to win big in UP and Bihar in 2015 and 2017. Of course, it is possible for the BJP to ally with parties like the NCP, but this would involve tying up with the likes of Sharad Pawar – who has not distinguished himself on probity.
Tenth, the BJP has to evaluate the possibility of big short-term losses against doubtful long-term gains. Breaking with the Sena means a possible loss in Maharashtra, and kissing goodbye to what Modi wants to accomplish at the centre in his first term using a large NDA majority. It is only when the BJP is sure that it wants to sacrifice the short-term for the long-term should it even think of breaking with Sena. It is not clear the party brass, especially the local leadership, has thought things through what it gains and loses from taking on the Sena just before an election.
The upshot: the BJP has acted foolishly with the Sena. It should kiss and make up without much ado, even while haggling for a few more seats. Wisdom lies in knowing how much you can stretch a relationship without damaging it.