Within a year of coming to power and a year before the all-important Lok Sabha and Assembly elections, the ties between the BJP and the Shiv Sena are showing signs of strain. The alliance between the two parties has remained on track under the leadership of Chief Minister Eknath Shinde and Deputy CM Devendra Fadnavis.
But state BJP chief Chandrashekhar Bawankule’s statement last week that the party would contest 240 seats in the Assembly elections — indicating that the Sena would be left with 48 — caused consternation in the Sena. “We will contest 248-250 seats. The Shinde group does not have more than 48-50 MLAs who will contest the elections,” Bawankule said at an internal party meeting on Friday.
As the remarks created ripples on social media, the Shiv Sena took offence. Sena MLA Sanjay Shirsat said, “What nonsense, are we foolish to accept such few seats?” Another Sena MLA, Sanjay Gaikwad, said, “The Shiv Sena will not settle for less than 130 to 135 seats. The BJP should remember their alliance is with the original Shiv Sena founded by Bal Thackeray.”
The ally’s anger forced Bawankule to go into damage control mode and he clarified the following day that no seat-sharing formula between the BJP and Shiv Sena had been reached yet. The Shiv Sena also downplayed the comments and said there was no seat-sharing agreement in place, with party spokesperson Naresh Mhaske saying “there is no quarrel between us”.
Asked how Bawankule, a seasoned politician, could have slipped up like this, a senior BJP functionary said, “While the BJP has pledged support to the Shiv Sena, it cannot restrict its organisational expansion. To keep its cadre in the poll mode it had to send a loud message to get ready for a majority on its own.”
The BJP leader said it was no secret that Shinde and Fadnavis would strike the seat-sharing deal and get approval from the BJP central leadership. The functionary said there was no question of dismissing the Sena with mere 48 seats, adding, “The seat sharing will be in proportion to the actual strength of each party.”
Another BJP insider said, “In any case, the BJP that has set the target of 150 seats for itself will not settle for less than 185 to 190 seats. The Shiv Sena will have to reconcile to getting 98 to 103 seats.” If that pans out, it will be lower than the 124 seats that the Shiv Sena contested under Uddhav Thackeray in 2019. In that election, the BJP contested 164 seats, winning 105 while the Uddhav-led Sena bagged 56 seats.
The BJP’s assertion that it is the bigger partner in the alliance and in extension Bawankule’s statement stems from the fact that Sena’s electoral base is limited to Thane, Konkan, and parts of Marathwada and eastern Vidarbha. The BJP’s organisational base is stronger with each of the 90,000 booths across Maharashtra manned by teams of 10 to 25 workers. The party has also claimed it is in a position to further weaken the Opposition. “At least 10-12 MLAs from Congress, NCP, and Shiv Sena ( Uddhav Balasaheb Thackeray) are in talks with us. Once we have them to our side it will make a huge difference.”
In the current Assembly, the BJP has 105 MLAs while the Shiv Sena has 40 MLAs and is supported by 10 Independents.
The disagreement in the ruling alliance saw the Opposition reacting with glee. Opposition leader Ajit Pawar took a dig at the government, saying, “Your failure to expand the Cabinet is a comment on the ruling combine. To avoid backlash from members you have avoided expansion. It has impacted administrative work.”
The Nationalist Congress Party’s (NCP) state chief Jayant Patil asked if the Sena would get to contest a decent number of seats in 2024. “Bawankule has dismissed you with 48 seats. When elections draw near you may be asked to contest fewer than 48 seats. Don’t be surprised. The BJP is known to finish its allies.”
State Congress chief Nana Patole said, “What was in his mind came on his lips. So, Shinde Sena should know what the BJP is.”