It started with the usual acrimony just before the 2019 Maharashtra Legislative Assembly election. The Bharatiya Janta Party’s (BJP) perenially junior partner the Shiv Sena was as always bickering about the Chief Ministers post. Then the predictable happened with the settling of seats and fighting the polls under an alliance between the two and some smaller parties. After the elections, the two parties lost more seats compared to the 2014 elections but the tally was comfortable enough to form the government. Then the usual post-poll bickering started. Rest of Maharashtra knew the drama was for more representation of seats in the government. After a few weeks went by, a majority of us woke up to the fact that this had gone too far. The BJP and its poisonous trolls were attacking the Shiv Sena chief Uddhav Thackeray, his son Aaditya Thackeray and the outspoken party member Sanjay Raut with full force. Suddenly the comparisons with Uddhav’s father Balasaheb Thackeray were out showing Uddhav in poor light and Aditya as Maharashtra’s Pappu (Nationally it is reserved for Rahul Gandhi of the Indian National Congress (INC)). Shiv Sena was more poised and suddenly the former Chief Minister and aspirant for a second term Devendra Fadnavis of the BJP acquired the image of a power-hungry politician.
To everyone’s surprise, the Shiv Sena started parleys with Sharad Pawar’s Nationalist Congress Party (NCP). Even the Shiv Sena cadre was in disbelief but their anger over BJP’s mistreatment of the Shiv Sena leadership was evident. Soon the trolls were trending the dynast, Hindutva and corruption bogey to the forefront. Accusations and denials flew fast and thick. Both Amit Shah and Fadnavis denied they had promised Shiv Sena the Chief Ministers seat. Accusing the BJP of backstabbing, Shiv Sena went ahead and announced the alliance with the NCP and INC dubbed the Maha Vikas Aghadi (MVA) government.
Fadnavis, BJP’s blue-eye in Maharashtra, who was now perceived as power-hungry also earned the perception of being comical as he had declared “I will return” (as the Chief Minister) and then his fiasco of taking the oath as the Chief Minister with Ajit Pawar only to learn that Ajit Pawar had no backing from the NCP. While Uddhav is seen as a soft and down to the earth leader, Devendra Fadnavis is seen as a soft but elitist leader due to his tendency to hobnob with the elites and Bollywood. Udhav is seen as a Marathi manoos while Fadnavis is seen as the representative of the powers in Delhi. Fadnavis is no Manohar Parrikar. The masses have a connect with Uddhav mainly due to his father’s stature and Fadnavis is not seen as a mass leader. Udhav has total support from his party, unlike Fadnavis who is known to be disliked by a big section of Maharashtra BJP.
Soon after taking over as the Chief Minister, Uddhav was faced with the challenge of the COVID-19 pandemic. Mumbai being one of the most densely populated cities in the world was the hardest hit due to overnight knee jerk lockdown by PM Narendra Modi. Uddhav has managed the lockdown very well considering his inexperience at state-level administration. Making available the necessities, facilitating the orderly exit of migrants from the state and allowing people moving out to villages from cities have been excellent moves. This was followed by rigorous testing unmindful of the criticism of Maharashtra having the highest number of cases in India. Even the BJP couldn’t find much fault except blaming Uddhav for not opening temples when bars are already open which does not carry much weight as the temples are already accessible throughout the state except in some pockets. The exit of migrants also facilitated the Marathi manoos to try their hands in businesses which were dominated by the migrants. The key part of Uddhav’s outreach to the people was his online videos through which he explained his actions.
The matter of Uddhav’s election to the Maharashtra Legislative Council shows the maturity of Shiv Sena in politics. Shiv Sena managed to keep the INC in check and allow BJP candidates to be elected as a quid pro quo. Another sign of political maturity on display is the willingness to take advantage of Sharad Pawar’s experience and willingness to listen to criticism like Uddhav’s reluctance to move out of office even when the floods had affected certain parts of the states.
The past two months were dominated by a gradual relaxation of lockdown and rise of attacks on Udhav under the pretext of the death of ‘an actor from Bihar’ Sushant Singh Rajput. The later was run under the garb of Justice for Sushant, media trial by BJP leaning channels, trending on social media and of course the verbal attacks by the actress Kangana Ranaut. Shiv Sena responded to the unconventional situation with the conventional methods it knows the best. Kangana Ranaut is now garnering sympathy by showing her broken home. Republic TV is under investigation for the TRP Scam and Uddhav has withdrawn the General Consent for the caged parrot the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI, a caged parrot is in reference to the observation by the Supreme Court of India in the past). If the opposition knows how to ‘accuse big and withdraw small’, Shiv Sena knows how to keep it boiling. The justice for Sushant Singh Rajput may drag beyond the Bihar General election 2020 for some.
Uddhav has ordered shifting of the Metro 3 car-shed out of the biodiverse Aarey forest. Fandnavis had fought tooth and nail to get this project up and running by felling trees and arresting activists. Fadnavis’s offensive against the Shiv Sena for escalating the cost of the project by at least ₹ 4,000 crores does not have any takers as the Nagpur based Fadnavis does not understand that Aarey is priceless for the Mumbaikars.
The BJP and its infamous IT cell have underestimated the Shiv Sena but it won’t stop the attacks like in the case of West Bengal’s Mamta Bannerji, Delhi’s Arvind Kejriwal and Kerala’s Pinarayi Vijayan. In the psychological war between Shiv Sena and BJP, Shiv Sena currently seems to have an edge. The effect can be seen in Bihar elections, where the No 2 of BJP Amit Shah has repeatedly backed Nitish Kumar of the JD(U) as the Chief Ministerial candidate even if Nitish gets fewer votes than BJP. For the BJP, even the best of media management is not able to shore up the sinking feeling after the loss of allies, losses in state elections, failed policies like demonetisation or Goods and Services Tax (GST) or aimless reforms, failed COVID-19 lockdown, China capturing parts of Ladakh etc. All Uddhav has to do is pick any topic and point it out.
The lockdown is nearly over and it is time for Uddhav and MVA to start cracking on the economy and administration. MVA is an alliance of three experienced parties. They come with their own strengths, weakness and history. Shiv Sena is placed in a unique position for the development of the state. Even though it is known as a Hindutva party like the BJP, Shiv Sena has some flexibility which is endearing to people of other faiths. Unlike BJP which has to put the Central leadership and ideologies first like in the case of Bullet Train, Metro 3 Car shed etc, Uddhav can easily put Maharashtra first and has demonstrated it by keeping the religious institutions, including the temples, closed for worship in spite of personal attacks on his personal belief.
The performance in the next four years will decide if Shiv Sena will emerge as the big brother of BJP or it will go back to the BJP as the perennial junior partner.