Early on in its existence, the Shiv Sena in Maharashtra was seen as an alternative to the Congress and Bal Thackeray was seen as a future Chief Minister. However in 1978, it was the Janata Party which ended the Congress monopoly, emerging as the single-largest party with 99 seats.
With the Congress splitting with great regularity, it was Sharad Pawar who floated something called the Progressive Democratic Front and became the first non-Congress CM of the State and the youngest to boot.
When that experiment ended in 1980, the Sena would see itself as the principal Opposition party of Maharashtra. In the 1980s, the mill strikes of Mumbai came to a head and Pawar and Thackeray joined hands to neutralize Datta Samant.
On hindsight, it could be said that this move hit the Sena more than Pawar or the Congress. The Congress weakened the Left to grow stronger and Pawar eventually returned to his old party. However the average Marathi mill worker never forgave Thackeray for whom the latter had sold out to the rich mill owners.
To make matters worse there was an influx of migrant workers who did not identify with the Sena in any way and ended up becoming an adversary of the Sena. While the Trinamool, DMK, ADMK, SP, BSP, BJD… all managed to capture more than 50% seats in their respective States Assemblies in at least one election, the Sena’s best hovered around the 25% mark.
The Sena is easily the underachiever of India’s regional parties.
But Pawar wasn’t finished with the Sena yet. Chhagan Bhujbal was the undisputed Number 2 of the Sena and seen as Thackeray’s natural successor.
In what was seen as a sensation at that time and saw banner headlines in Marathi newspapers, Pawar got Bhujbal to defect and join the Congress with 12 other Sena MLAs in 1991. That move alone ensured that the Sena would never come to power on its own.
From then on Sena hurtled from one disaster to another. When it finally did come to power in 1995 with the help of the BJP, the absence of Bhujbal saw two puppet CMs in 4 years and a government that could hardly govern.
Raj Thackeray tried to fill the vacuum left by Bhujbal by becoming the de facto No. 2, but Balasaheb sprung a surprise by anointing Uddhav. Uddhav was in effect the No. 3 choice amongst party men to succeed Balasaheb (after Bhujbal and Raj) and that clearly shows up in his authority, charisma and handling of the Sena.
Moves like expelling Narayan Rane on the heels of Sanjay Nirupam’s exit only made matters worse.
Uddhav almost dealt a death blow to the Sena by breaking up with the BJP just before the elections. After the elections the BJP led the Sena 122-63 in terms of MLAs and emerged as the dominant force in the State.
By all indications, the BJP and Sena would have come together and the latter had a chance to claw back into the minds of the people in the next 5 years.
However, Pawar checkmated the Sena yet again.
He said that the NCP would offer support to the BJP government and that totally turned Sena calculations upside down.
It is clear that if the BJP forms a minority government then it will survive because the NCP will abstain. That gives it at least 6 months.
So the BJP suddenly is in no hurry to take support of the Sena.
Immediately after the counting, the BJP found itself with 123 seats and desperate for 22 extra seats, which could only come from the Sena.
Now thanks to the relief given to it by the NCP, the BJP started talking with Independents and smaller parties. Some reports say that the BJP already has the support of 137 MLAs in the Assembly.
“Is it worth tolerating the tantrums of the Sena for just 8 seats,” any BJP MLA may well ask now.
In the last 10 days, power has shifted firmly to the BJP.
The Sena finds itself in a Catch-22 situation. If it joins the government, then it will come as an extremely meek and submissive player, something that the Shiv Sena ego doesn’t allow.
If it doesn’t join the government, then it’s well possible that a minority BJP government will do well.
If the Sena keeps quiet: The BJP gains. If the Sena topples the government: It faces the ire of the electorate during mid-term elections. The Sena is not a natural Opposition to the BJP as the Afzal Khan fiasco showed.
And what is Mr Pawar’s game plan in all of this? One may well ask. Well in Maharashtra it is clear that the BJP is at the top and the Congress is at the bottom. The battle is for the No. 2 spot between the Sena and the NCP.
The NCP has deeper coffers and Pawar has much more experience. This is one battle with the Sena that Pawar may win yet again. Why didn’t Bal Thackeray ever become Chief Minister?
Why didn’t the Shiv Sena ever get a majority in the Maharashtra Assembly all by itself?
While there are many answers to these questions, the most prominent of all could well be a person called Mr Sharad Govindrao Pawar!
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The author is a Bangalore-based journalist and blogger. He blogs here.