Gadkari's gamble is still a gamble

The story of the Maharashtra Navnirman Sena and the Shiv Sena in Maharashtra will begin and end with family. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), however it sees itself as a national party or the only worthwhile party or Narendra Modi’s little plaything in the rest of the country, is a bit player here. The reason why Nitin Gadkari of the BJP has been trying to negotiate with Raj Thackeray of the MNS is because he is desperately looking to increase the BJP’s tally in Maharashtra and he does not think he can do it with the Shiv Sena and Uddhav Thackeray.

High stakes: BJP’s Nitin Gadkari has been trying to negotiate with Raj Thackeray because he is desperately looking to increase his party’s tally in Maharashtra and he does not think he can do it with the Shiv Sena and Uddhav Thackeray

Forget cries about loyalty and all the rest of it. This is politics. The Shiv Sena has been the BJP’s most consistent ally, unlike so many other fair weather friends. The parties which the BJP is collecting — or trying to collect — around it now all fled either during the NDA’s five year term from 1999 to 2004 or after it. Except for the Shiv Sena. There were many fights while the two parties ruled Maharashtra in the 1990s, but they stayed together — thanks, as many have pointed out, to the diplomacy of the late Pramod Mahajan of the BJP. Even now, Mahajan’s brother-in-law Gopinath Munde apparently disapproves of Gadkari’s flirting with Raj Thackeray pointing to a schism in the BJP in Maharashtra.

Raj Thackeray is playing a clever game here. He has said that he will contest the Lok Sabha elections, thus rejected Gadkari’s request that he opt out so as not to split the vote that tends towards both parties. But he has also said he will support Narendra Modi for prime minister after the elections. That sends a neat little message to cousin Uddhav — watch out, you are not safe after the elections. However, a short while ago Raj Thackeray disapproved of Modi’s election speeches in Maharashtra which made Gujarat appear superior. As anyone with an iota of knowledge about Maharashtra knows, the Thackerays thrive on identity politics.

Understandably, the Shiv Sena is upset with this perfidy on the part of the BJP and Saamna, the party’s mouthpiece has been scathing. But for all that, there is no doubt that unless the Shiv Sena has learnt some new magic mantras, it is Raj Thackeray and his MNS who have the clear advantage in the battle of the cousins. After all, it was because Raj Thackeray thought he was the late Bal Thackeray’s rightful heir and not his cousin Uddhav that he broke away and formed his own party. The MNS has played spoiler with the vote bank at all levels.

And since then, the MNS has been a thorn in the side of the “saffron alliance”. And it has been called a Congress agent or failing that, the one constant in Maharashtra politics, an agent of Sharad Pawar. It has to be pointed out that according to popular lore, Pawar has agents everywhere and controls everything in Maharashtra. The truth of this is borne out by the fact that his party, the NCP, is junior partner in the alliance with the Congress. Should one remember also that before the MNS was switching sides, the Shiv Sena was known as the “Vasant Sena” for the assistance it gave Congress chief minister Vasant Naik when he wanted to keep his rivals in check. His rivals within the Congress, that is.

The BJP was not born yet.

And in Maharashtra therefore, for all Gadkari’s games, he still has to woo one cousin or the other to get the BJP some dividends. He has chosen Raj but the gamble is still a gamble so far. The election has to be fought with the Shiv Sena and Uddhav; it cannot be fought with both cousins on the same side. The BJP has to play second fiddle in any alliance because that is as far as its traction goes.

The Thackerays like humility from the political partners and they are used to it from the BJP. They also want Maharashtra to be seen as superior. How far the BJP and Narendra Modi can deliver both those is another story.

Ranjona Banerji is a senior journalist. You can follow her on twitter @ranjona

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