Keeping the option of a tie-up with the Shiv Sena for the upcoming Mumbai civic polls open, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) on Saturday made sure its ally was happy at the foundation-stone laying ceremony of a bunch of showpiece projects in the presence of Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
The Shiv Sena, too, followed suit, although there were some uneasy moments at the function at Bandra-Kurla Complex (BKC), when workers from both sides resorted to sloganeering.
Through the entire event, chief minister Devendra Fadnavis ensured Shiv Sena chief Uddhav Thackeray gets “due respect” that the latter had asked for, giving him a place and preference higher than even Union cabinet ministers.
Thackeray, who has been on the offensive against the BJP-led government, of which it is a part, over demonetisation, had made it clear before the event that he will attend only if he is given “due respect”.
Not only was Thackeray invited to share the stage with Modi at the public address at BKC, but he was also taken aboard the hovercraft that took the Prime Minister to the islet, where the proposed Chhatrapati Shivaji memorial is to come up, for jalpujan. Thackeray was given a cauldron full of water from Maharashtra’s major rivers, and stones and soil from the state’s forts, to pour into the water after Modi and perform the jalpujan.
At BKC too, the Sena leader was seated second from Modi, next to the chief minister, with Fadnavis and Governor Vidyasagar Rao being on the prime minister’s either side as per protocol. Union ministers were seated after Thackeray, while BJP’s Maharashtra chief Raosaheb Danve was given a place at the edge of the dais.
Relations between the Sena and BJP, which have ruled the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) in an alliance for 20 years, have been choppy of late. The BJP has aggressive ambitions to grow in Mumbai, the Sena’s hometurf. It wants control over the Mumbai civic body that governs India’s financial capital and has been under control of Sena for more than two decades, even though the two parties are in an alliance.
The Shiv Sena, reduced to being the BJP’s junior partner at state level, wants to establish its significance in the alliance by playing the dominant force in the Mumbai civic polls. The situation has led to uncertainty over continuation of the alliance for the upcoming election and over the past few months there have been frequent instances of friction between the allies.
For the BJP, while the Modi government’s demonetisation move to target black money was initially welcomed with robust enthusiasm by its voter base, it later led to several of them questioning the efficacy of the move, considering the distress caused to people. There are concerns the criticism over demonetisation could deepen by next month, closer to the election, as the dust settles, and the BJP is trying to keep the option of contesting with the Sena open to blunt any potential impact.
Even while acknowledging the presence of dignitaries on stage, both Modi and Fadnavis took Thackeray’s name right after the governor, ahead of any of their cabinet ministers.
Union cabinet minister Nitin Gadkari also mollycoddled the Shiv Sena by sending a veiled message that the BJP is not trying to usurp the name of Chhatrapati Shivaji, as has been the criticism, and recognises the Maratha warrior king has been the Sena’s icon for years.
“When we formed the Shiv Sena-BJP government in Maharashtra in 1995, Shiv Sena Chief Balasaheb Thackeray told us that we have to establish shivshahi of Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj’s ideals in Maharashtra. I am happy our prime minister is a Shivbhakt (devotee of Shivaji) and aims to establish shivshahi in the entire county,” Gadkari, a senior BJP leader from Nagpur, said.
Although Thackeray made it clear right in his first sentence that he was present for Chhatrapati Shivaji, he went soft on his party’s ally, even showering praise on the Union and state governments for launching infrastructure projects for Mumbai.
However, everything was not hunky-dory. There were slogans and counter-slogans between the BJP and Shiv Sena workers at BKC, right in front of Modi and Thackeray. Fadnavis was forced to intervene as the ruckus went on and urged the crowd to maintain order. He sought to unite foot-soldiers of both parties in the name of Chhatrapati Shivaji. “Tumhi Chhatrapati Shivajinche mavle asal tar shantata rakha [If you are all Chhatrapati Shivaji’s foot-soldiers, you will maintain order],” Fadnavis said.
The bitter tussle between workers of the both parties indicate things could turn either way ahead of the crucial Mumbai civic polls.