BJP went out of its way to accomodate Shiv Sena in the just concluded Maharashtra assembly elections by agreeing to Sena’s request for a bigger share in the seat allocation. The fact that Sena didn’t counter BJP and Fadnavis’ aggressive campaign ‘Mee Parat Yetoy’ (I am returning as CM) says that the Sena too on its part was quite flexible prior to the elections but suddenly changed its tune as the election results were out. What really happened between the pre and post election scenarios that made Sena change its tune so dramatically and feel confident enough to align with NCP and Congress, brazenly disrespecting the joint mandate they got with the BJP. On the face of it Sena put up CMship as an excuse but given their numbers and that too in coalition with the BJP, even the staunchest of Shiv Sainiks would have found it very hard to believe in their party leadership’s claim on the post. What must have triggered this new alignment thinking in Sena leadership? Here is my perspective:
The answer lies in Maharashtra’s caste politics. Maharashtra has 3 dominating caste groupings- 1) Marathas 2) Dalits and 3) OBCs. Like all major communities in India, at any given point in time, the political choices of the Marathas too are being driven by either of nationalism or regionalism or casteism. With some exceptions here and there, generally the section of the community driven by the dominant nationalistic considerations have aligned themselves with the BJP, those with an over bearing regional leanings traditionally have aligned with Shiv Sena but of late have also been drifting towards Raj Thackeray’s MNS and finally those driven by the over-riding caste allegiance have naturally aligned with NCP and Congress. In the recently concluded assembly elections, caste considerations seem to have over powered the nationalistic and regional considerations within the community.
Since the formation of Samyukta Maharashtra in sixtees, Marathas owing to their numerical strength, have been the dominant players in Maharshatra’s power politics and have traditionally aligned with the Congress party for a long period of time. Thackeray and Pawar both belong to the same community. Pawar assumed the leadership mantle of his community from Late Sh. Yashwantrao Chavan (another Maratha), while he was in the Congress in the seventees and formed a coalition govt. Later, he left the Congress party to form his own regional outfit called Nationalist Congress Party (NCP), which is known in Maharashtra politics as a Maratha party, owing to its strong support base in the community and also due to its politics being largely centred around that community alone.
Aging Pawar (80 years old) has been on a lookout for some time now to find a successor and pass on his caste legacy. His nephew Ajit, apparently was the chosen one earlier but due to Pawar family’s internal feud involving Supriya Sule, Ajit has probably fallen out with his uncle. This was the time a few years ago when Pawar started promoting Raj Thackarey actively, sending strong signals to his community that Raj along with Supriya could be his successors. This wasn’t as threatening to Udhhav then, till the assembly election results came out, primarily because Uddhav (and even BJP) took the aging Pawar as a spent force in Maharashtra politics. In the post-election scenario, seeing the way the community has stood behind Pawar (despite Fadnavis having ensured the caste based quota/reservations to the community), especially in the Maratha bastion of western Maharshtra region, the Maratha caste vote bank has suddenly become all too important for Uddhav. This election has probably opened Sena’s eyes to this caste vote bank like never before. Given this, Pawar projecting Raj must have made Uddhav bit wary and insecure, knowing that if the Pawar patronage to Raj continues, he may well end up hugely benefitting from the Maratha community votebank, in the process not only resurrecting Raj’s almost defunct MNS but also undercutting Sena’s voter base (which also happens to be the same Maratha community).
By aligning with NCP, Uddhav is eyeing a couple of things 1) to block Raj and get him out of the equation with Pawar and 2) seeking to send a message to Maratha community that he and his party should be considered the rightful heir of the caste leadership after Pawar. That is why Sena is so brazenly disrespecting the mandate that Maharshtra gave for BJP-SS.
Now, there are many interesting aspects to this unfolding story:- 1) What will Raj do now? Will he go back to his pre-2014 stance and align with the BJP? If Udhhav blocks him out with Pawar, he will be forced to move to the other end knowing he and Uddhav can’t remain on the same side of the divide. His statement after Ayodhya verdict, which he welcomed is an interesting one. BJP won’t be too happy to take him now given 2022 UP elections and that is the window of opportunity Sena would like to tap into and block Raj out for the next few years at least. Raj would expect Pawar to play a balancing role here which is not going to be as easy, even for a seasoned player like senior Pawar.
2) Normally when the Marathas galvanise on the caste basis, Maharashtra has seen a strong counter polarisation of OBCs as well as Dalits. These communities then tend to align with a party that marathas are not likely to support. Pramod Mahajan and Munde played in this space in maharashtra for long. Will BJP go back to that again? Unlikely, but would be interesting to watch this space.
3) How will Pawar protect Supriya Sule’s interst and not let Aditya pose a challenge for her in the long run? Pawar wont easily handover the caste leadership baton to Udhav for this reason, the Aditya factor. Ignoring Ajit could also be tricky for Pawar for he has a sizable following in few Western Maharashtra districts and could rock the NCP boat there.
4) Sena will definitely want the coalition to continue till BMC elections in 2022 and ensure continuity there. Will Pawar and Congress continue to support them till then?
5) If BJP were to go back to Mahajan-Munde formula, then they will have to bring up a strong OBC leadership to reap the harvest of counter polarisation in the next elections. Pankaja Munde could gain prominence since Khadse is unlikely to be rehabilitated or BJP could groom another OBC leadership. But that would be a defeat of Modi-Shah’s ‘politics of perfromance’ plank and would also mean going back to the old ways of caste based politics that Congress and co has mastered.
Returning to the ‘politics of performance’ epitomised by Fadnavis’ leadership and not succumb to Opposition’s caste led politics will be the biggest challenge for Modi-Shah duo. Would be very interesting to see how things unfold in Maharashtra in the days to come.