A possible rapprochement between the BJP and Shiv Sena, triggered by the recent unscripted meeting between Uddhav Thackeray and Prime Minister Modi in Dehli, is not entirely implausible, at least three political leaders from Maharashtra told me over the weekend.
While details of the 30-45-minute meeting between Uddhav Thackeray and the PM are yet to emerge, it's fair to assume 'peace talk' was on the table. The Chief Minister led a delegation to the Prime Minister to discuss the issue of reservation - job and college seat quotas - for the upper caste Marathas, a powerful community in Maharashtra; after that, the PM met separately with the Chief Minister. The private face time would have served as a chance for Uddhav Thackeray to explain to the PM the circumstances which led him, in November 2019, to break his party's 30-year alliance with the BJP, said the leader.
Two days after the meet, Sanjay Raut, an MP from the Sena and a fierce critic of the BJP, described Mr Modi as a "top leader of the country". Publicly, all members of the Maharashtra Vikas Aghadi (MVA) - the Sena, Congress and NCP - have played down any threat to their government as a result of the meeting. But there are telltale signs of a thaw.
Over the weekend came the news that a Sena MLA has written to Uddhav Thackeray, urging a reunion with the BJP. The MLA is being investigated for money-laundering. A reconciliation, he argued, would get central investigative agencies to back off - the presumption being that the investigations are done at the behest of the BJP to harass political opponents. Pratap Sarnaik, the Sena MLA, wrote in his letter that though the BJP and the Shiv Sena are not partners anymore, their leaders have good relations and that "we should make use of this". Yesterday, the president of the Congress in Maharashtra, Nana Patole, snapped that the alliance with the Sena was formed for five-years, insinuating that its long-term prospects are far from guaranteed.
When Uddhav Thackeray swapped the BJP for the Congress and Sharad Pawar's party, the NCP, he said the BJP was overplaying its hand and exaggerating its importance in demanding a larger role than the Sena in the Maharashtra government. The election results had thrown up the BJP as the biggest winner, with Sena as runner-up. Uddhav Thackeray inserted his Sena into a new coalition - the Maha Vikas Agadi or MVA - and started his first term ever as Chief Minister.
The Sena is not unhappy with the present arrangement, the leader who spoke to me, was quick to add. The alliance, despite the occasional creaks, is working well, and Uddhav Thackeray broadly has a free hand in decision-making, he said.
Yet, he said, there is a growing view within a section of the Sena to mend fences with the BJP; for one, the Sena has no emotional connect with the Congress, even after two years of governing the state together. Uddhav Thackeray's comfort lies, he said, with Sharad Pawar of the NCP, who, it has been reported from time to time, plays the double role of mediator and top strategist in smoothing over differences that crop up within the tripartie alliance.
Another leader pointed to this straw in the wind - that Uddhav Thackeray, in his address on the Sena's Foundation Day this weekend, did not directly target the Modi-led government or the BJP. This despite a physical clash just three days earlier between Sena and BJP workers in Mumbai over a scathing editorial in the Sena mouthpiece, Saamna, on allegedly shady land deals in Ayodhya by the Ram Mandir Trust.
In his speech, the Chief Minister's sharpest barb was reserved for recent comments by the Maharashtra Congress chief saying his party is keen to go solo in future elections. Without naming him, Uddhav Thackeray said "if we do not offer solutions to people's problems, but only talk about going it alone in politics, people will beat us with chappals."
No such sharp words, though, for the BJP. This 'silence' was significant, said a BJP leader.
If indeed some within both parties hope for a BJP-Sena reunion, the sticking point remains the obvious question of Chief Ministership - Uddhav Thackeray will not surrender his term and the BJP wants the top office for its own man. Closely linked to this X-factor is the as yet unresolved friction between Devendra Fadnavis, who was replaced in office by Uddhav Thackeray. The competing political ambitions of both men is widely believed to one of the primary reasons behind the Sena-BJP break.
Since his dramatic ouster in 2019, Devendra Fadnavis has made several unsuccessful attempts to stage a counter-coup to recapture the chair that he believes was wrongfully usurped from him, only worsening tensions with Uddhav Thackeray and the Sena.
While it is uncertain if the BJP believes it should insist on reclaiming the Chief Minister's post (a demand the Sena is unlikely to concede), one possible solution gaining currency is shifting Devendra Fadnavis to a prominent role in the Centre to pave the way towards a BJP-Sena patch-up.
In the event, said a leader, Uddhav stays on as Chief Minister but, possibly, with 2 BJP deputies. (The names of the BJP's Sudhir Mungantiwar, an OBC leader from Vidarbha, and Ashish Shelar, a Maratha leader from Mumbai, are doing the rounds, albeit speculatively).
At the same time, all three leaders I spoke to said nothing is likely to change as of now. All parties in Maharashtra, like elsewhere , are reading the ripples of post-pandemic political waters.
Matters could come to a head closer to elections to Mumbai's powerful and cash-rich municipal corporation in February next year, more than one leader said. By then, said one of them, both the BJP and the Sena would need clarity on whether a homecoming is on the cards, to decide whether to "go all out" against each other or not. This clarity may come sooner rather than later. "July will be a significant month" he said.
(Sreenivasan Jain is Group Editor, NDTV)
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