The BJP has begun overtures to Uddhav Thackeray seeking a do-over of the alliance that unspooled so dramatically in 2019. This is according to sources in both parties who I spoke to for this column. Governor BS Koshyari's resignation -he had huge run-ins with the Opposition led by Thackeray- is seen as a significant gesture in this regard.
Eknath Shinde turned against Uddhav Thackeray in June, forcing the Sena to split. The exercise was enabled by the BJP and allowed it to return to power in Maharashtra with Shinde as Chief Minister; the BJP's Devendra Fadnavis had to reconcile to being subjugated to Deputy Chief Minister, a considerable comedown given that he was top boss from 2014 to 2019 when the BJP ran the state with Uddhav Thackeray.
Of late, the BJP in Maharashtra has been asking publicly for Fadnavis to return as Chief Minister, suggesting that ahead of the next general election, it will position its own man for the job that Shinde currently holds. Shinde himself is preoccupied with long-running tussles of power with Thackeray: who gets rights to the Sena party symbol, for example, and more importantly, converting the cadre into treating him as the true holder of the legacy of Balasaheb Thackeray, who founded the Sena and was Uddhav's father.
What this means is that the Shinde-BJP alliance is in loosey-goosey mode barely 400 days to go for the general elections. Prime Minster Narendra Modi, running for a history-making third consecutive term, wants to take no chances with the 48 Lok Sabha seats of Maharashtra.
Sources tell me that the initial outreach to estranged ally Thackeray was via a billionaire industrialist trusted by both sides. Now a powerful BJP politician is hoping to move the operation to negotiations stage. Thackeray is less than enthused after his bitter experience with the BJP dismantling his party and the Maharashtra Vikas Agadi (MVA) government which he headed.
A big test for all players lies in the election to the financial capital's municipal corporation. Dates for this have yet to be announced but Thackeray, in a deft political move, announced this week that his faction of the Sena will combine with the political outfit of
Dalit leader Prakash Ambedkar. Thackeray said it was the coming together of the "Bhim Shakti and Shiv Shakti to save democracy". Thackeray's other two allies, the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) and the Congress, share a voter base with Ambedkar's party. Yet, in a bid to keep Thackeray within the fold, they have offered no criticism of his new partner. Sources say Sharad Pawar was in the know of Thackeray's negotiations with Ambedkar and is fine with the add-on, provided that Ambedkar's share of candidates is carved out of the Sena's quota.
Interestingly, BJP central and BJP Maharashtra may be working at cross-purposes. Fadnavis, the reluctant Deputy, is getting impatient with his downsizing. Fadnavis has made the Maharashtra BJP in his own image and state leaders from the part want the Shinde Sena to merge with the BJP, which would allow the latter to claim the lion's share of positions. But the central BJP feels promoting Fadnavis at this time will eclipse the larger cause of concentrating whole-time on the approaching general election. It also knows that Fadnavis is an irritant for Uddhav.
The icy equation shared by Shinde and Fadnavis is currently the biggest fodder for gossip in Mumbai with tales of two police commissioners being appointed and critics of Fadnavis accusing him taking unilateral decisions and making big announcements such as studying the viability of the Old Pension Scheme.
Shinde is chafing at all the Fadnavis moves and is still bitter at the public relations disaster of multibillion projects such as the Foxconn-Vedanta deal moving to Gujarat just before the elections there. Shinde projects himself as the little guy in opposition to Thackeray's dynast and a fierce protector of the "Marathi Manoos". This image has been severely dented. Multi billion projects going to Gujarat is a particularly bad look for the BJP in Maharashtra as the Maharashtra-Gujarat equation is freighted with bitter history and anxiety.
Shinde is paranoid that members of his Sena are already in touch with Fadnavis.
Some recent voter surveys have pointed to Maharashtra and Karnataka as the two states were the 0pposition can make a dent in the BJP's winning spree. That could be the reason for the outreach -or the rumours of one - to Uddhav Thackeray.