Narendra Modi, right, waves to supporters as Shiv Sena party chief Uddhav Thackeray looks on at an election rally in Mumbai in 2014, prior to their poll win. The parties have had strained ties but could link up again before the national poll. Photo: AFP / Indranil Mukherjee

The love-hate relationship between the Bharatiya Janata Party and its estranged ally Shiv Sena in the west Indian state of Maharashtra has tensed up ahead of the general election.

After a meeting of Shiv Sena chiefs, party MPs and state legislators on Monday, Sena leader Sanjay Raut said: “Shiv Sena is the big brother in Maharashtra and will continue to be so.”

However, recent developments have kept the suspense high, with neither of the parties revealing their cards about an alliance.

High suspense

The ‘big brother’ claim by Shiv Sena means the party wants to contest as many seats as the BJP, if not more. Maharashtra has 48 Lok Sabha (Lower House of Parliament) seats and 288 state Assembly seats. Reports suggest that the BJP has offered Shiv Sena half of the 48 Lok Sabha seats as an alliance deal.

Shiv Sena has also told the BJP it would prefer simultaneous polls, but this is not the main demand in the seat-sharing pact as of now.

Reacting to Raut’s “big brother” comment, Maharashtra Chief Minister and BJP leader Devendra Fadnavis asserted that BJP was open to an alliance but not fretting about it. He said: “BJP does want an alliance with the Shiv Sena but we are not desperate for it. We want the alliance as custodians of Hindutva and a strong force against corruption.”

The BJP and Shiv Sena have long been allies based on their shared ideology of Hindu nationalism. Although the power struggle has strained ties of the two Hindu nationalist parties, they could well stick together to fight off all challengers.

The Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) agreed on January 14 to share 45 of the 48 Lok Sabha seats in Maharashtra. In this context, political experts say it will be hard for BJP to gain a majority in the state without Shiv Sena. After BJP lost state elections in Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh – in and around the BJP stronghold in the Hindi heartland, the party has started to look shaky ahead of the election.

Allies to enemies

But even if an alliance is formed, it may not be a sweet one given the two parties’ recent bitter history.

Shiv Sena officially broke the alliance in January last year. The party said it would contest the 2019 Lok Sabha and Maharashtra Assembly elections without its ally BJP in Delhi and in the state. However, the state government, headed by BJP leader and chief minister Devendra Fadnavis said it would fulfill its term.

This was not the first time the two parties have parted ways. The BJP contested 24 Lok Sabha seats, the Sena 20 and other allies contested the remaining four seats in the 2014 general election. The alliance won 41 of the 48 seats in the state five years ago.

But the alliance fell apart in the state election later that year after the BJP refused to accept Shiv Sena as the senior partner in the state. They fought separately after being allies for 25 years. The BJP won 122 seats riding on the PM Modi’s popularity while the Shiv Sena bagged 63.

The two parties came together after the poll to form the Maharashtra government, but their relationship remained uneasy. Later, in local municipal body elections too, the parties contested separately.

Shiv Sena founder Bal Thackeray and former Indian PM Atal Bihari Vajpayee (from BJP) shared a mutually respectful relationship, keeping the alliance stable in Maharashtra. But recent clashes between BJP leaders and Sena head Uddhav Thackeray have been fought in public.

Shiv Sena has criticized Modi vehemently and openly on issues of demonetization and farmer distress. These two issues bore special significance as they directly affected Maharashtra’s agrarian communities and Mumbai, which is both the state capital and India’s financial capital.

Uddhav Thackeray even borrowed Congress leader Rahul Gandhi’s jibe towards the prime minister: ‘Chowkidar chor hai’ – ‘The guard himself is a thief’. Although Thackeray did not name who he was referring to.

The Sena leader also slammed the BJP for not pushing for constructionof the Ram Temple at the disputed birthplace of the Hindu God Ram.

However, it remains to be seen if Shiv Sena-BJP relations will thaw if ‘big brother’ gets a better deal on seat-sharing.

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