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Will BJP, Shiv Sena strike a deal in Maharashtra?

LiveMint logoLiveMint 01-03-2017 Abhiram Ghadyalpatil

Mumbai: Even as the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) continues to maintain a studied silence over its stand on the mayoral election in Mumbai, efforts are underway to strike a deal with the Shiv Sena, and set at rest uncertainty about the future of the Devendra Fadnavis government in Maharashtra.

BJP functionaries in Mumbai said the central leadership doesn’t want to let the confrontation between the BJP and Shiv Sena “flare up to the extent that the opposition Congress and NCP stand to benefit from it”. The BJP wants “an honourable compromise with Sena under which the Sena drops its critical posturing on every issue and tones down its anti-Modi rhetoric”, according to two BJP leaders and ministers in the Maharashtra government who requested anonymity.

However, the Shiv Sena also gave mixed signals on Wednesday. Its mouthpiece Saamana attacked the BJP government for the “farmers’ plight and suicides” even as party chief Uddhav Thackeray held discussions with senior party leaders “possibly over the mayoral election”, according to a Sena spokesperson who refused to say anything more about these discussions.

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The election of Mumbai’s mayor, an issue that is central to the BJP-Sena relationship, has been scheduled for 8 March at 12 noon. Nominations have to be filed by 4 March.

BJP leaders said the party may try to reason with Thackeray that there was no credible alternative to the BJP-Sena government in Maharashtra but that Thackeray would have to make the first move to seek support in the Mumbai mayoral election. “We do not know if Thackeray is thinking of an alternative alliance between Sena, NCP, and Congress. Though their numbers add up, that was not the mandate in 2014 polls nor is that the reflection of people’s wish in the civic and zilla parishad elections. Shiv Sena has to work with us only and work respectfully,” one of the ministers said. He warned that Thackeray needs to watch out for the NCP.

“The central leadership feels that Congress and NCP, especially NCP, are exploiting this atmosphere of uncertainty and speculation. While Congress has lots of serious questions to think about before it decides to help Shiv Sena in any way in Mumbai, NCP has no such inhibitions or national ambitions. NCP is desperate to become a factor again in Maharashtra and this uncertainty is giving NCP some kind of a foothold,” said a top BJP leader in Maharashtra requesting anonymity. In order to keep the NCP at bay, the central BJP leadership has asked party leaders in Maharashtra to see if an “honourable patch-up with Shiv Sena” could be worked out, this BJP leader said.

“In the numbers game at Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation, the BJP is least likely to win the mayoral election. We have 82 members of our own against the majority mark of 114. Taking support from Congress or NCP is out of question. Shiv Sena won’t support our mayoral nominee if we decide to field one. So, the mayoral election is not a big thing for us. We don’t grudge Shiv Sena this post. But the central leadership and Fadnavis are clear about one thing—we want Shiv Sena to behave henceforth and respect the BJP’s status as the leading party in Maharashtra. These two things are non-negotiable,” said another senior BJP leader and minister in the Maharashtra government who did not wish to be named.

He said the BJP rank and file in Maharashtra as well as Delhi were livid with the Sena’s “persistent and uncharitable” criticism of Modi in the Saamana.

“Some in Delhi have also taken offence at Uddhav’s campaign speeches in which he spoke the same Saamana kind of language against Modi and Fadnavis. The central leadership wants this criticism to stop or at least toned down,” the BJP minister said. He, however, conceded that Thackeray could be under pressure from a section within his party which was in favour of snapping ties with the BJP and withdrawing from the state government.

“These Sena cadres probably feel that their boss has gone too far criticising Modi and Fadnavis and now to go back to the BJP would be a political anti-climax and a surrender,” he said.

For the record, the state BJP wants Shiv Sena to blink first. BJP spokesperson Madhav Bhandari said the Shiv Sena needed to come clean on the status of its relationship with the BJP. “It was Shiv Sena which broke the alliance ahead of the civic polls and it is only logical that it clearly states its position now. It needs to make the first move now,” Bhandari said.

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