With the death of Shiv Sena chief Bal Thackeray, the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) has lost an important locus of power. However, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), the dominant NDA partner, is unanimous in its conclusion: with Thackeray’s exit, it would now be more, not less, difficult to run the Shiv Sena populace, both in Maharashtra and Delhi.
Few realise the Sena has been the BJP’s longest-standing ally— for more than two decades. In some ways, it has been an undemanding partner; it didn’t seek postings or appointments when the NDA was in power.
For the Sena, appointments in the UPSC board or governerships were irrelevant. Occasionally, it sought a Rajya Sabha seat and lately, the demands grew a bit fractious — while Pritish Nandy was elected without difficulty, the BJP and Shiv Sena parted ways on whom to send to the upper House against that vacancy.
Earlier, it was up to late BJP leader Pramod Mahajan to manage the loud and vociferous Sena. Owing to Mahajan’s presence, BJP president Nitin Gadkari, an important party leader even then, was ignored by the Sena. Gadkari, however, got his own back: a breakaway faction of the Sena (Maharashtra Navnirman Sena), headed by Bal Thackeray’s nephew Raj Thackeray, has ties with the BJP at the municipal level.
The question is would the BJP-Shiv Sena power equation change in the absence of Thackeray’s overarching personality? BJP leaders say a big faction in the party, led by Gadkari, would argue the party should align with Raj, rather than Bal Thackeray’s son Uddhav Thackeray. But much depends on how the two groups get along. “Only then would there be a choice,” said a BJP national executive member.
There is an element of anxiety within the BJP. Bal Thackeray was a single-window clearance system, many say. Now, if a strong leadership doesn’t emerge in the Shiv Sena, the BJP, a junior partner of the Sena at the state level, would see itself dwindling away in Maharashtra.
Few know some senior BJP leaders were uncomfortable with the party’s relationship with the Sena. Former BJP president Murli Manohar Joshi, for instance, never shared a platform with the Sena, not even when he headed the party, as it was believed Bal Thackeray was unconstitutional in some things he said and some beliefs he held. Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar, too, holds the same view.
The BJP would now have to decide whether it wants to deal with a single Sena or two. This might well lead to a tricky recalibration of power within the NDA.