The Bharatiya Janata Party-Shiv Sena alliance has secured its hold over Maharashtra for a second term, with the BJP set to win at least 103 seats in the 2019 Assembly election and the Shiv Sena 57 seats. Together with their smaller allies, the saffron alliance will easily form a government in the 288-seat Assembly.

While political analysts and exit polls had predicted their victory, few had expected the Shiv Sena to emerge stronger within the alliance.

At the start of the election season, most political commentators had written off the Shiv Sena as a weakening force in Maharashtra, diminished by the nationwide rise of the BJP under the leadership of Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

In 2014, the Modi wave had put a strain on the 25-year alliance in Maharashtra, with the BJP demanding more seats than the Sena was willing to concede. This had resulted in both the parties parting ways and contesting the elections independently. Of the 260 seats it contested, the BJP won 122 – a strike rate of 47%. The Shiv Sena, meanwhile, won just 63 of the 282 seats it contested – a strike rate of 22%.

Even though the parties renewed their alliance after the elections and went on to form the government in the state, the BJP had established its upper hand.

This year, the BJP went ahead and unilaterally announced that it was contesting 150 seats, leaving the Shiv Sena embarrassed.

But the dynamics now stand changed. The Shiv Sena has dramatically improved its strike rate – it is set to win at least 45% of the 124 seats it contested. This pales in comparison to the BJP’s strike rate – it is set to win 67% of the 150 seats it contested. But it is enough to make the Shiv Sena sound more belligerent. At a press conference on Thursday afternoon, party president Uddhav Thackeray said he would insist on the “50:50 formula” – a proposal to divide ministerial portfolios in the government equally.

Said Prakash Bal, a political commentator based in Mumbai: “The Shiv Sena clearly has more bargaining power now – without it, the BJP cannot form a government. The Sena can now leverage this to ask for the post of deputy chief minister or even a shared chief minister’s seat.”

No longer the small brother

Outside the Shiv Sena headquarters in Dadar in central Mumbai, jubilant party workers echoed the same sentiments.

“This year we are winning almost the same number of seats as the 2014 election, but the BJP is winning much fewer seats,” said Rakesh Kadav, a 26-year-old member of the Yuva Sena, the Shiv Sena’s youth wing. “Last time the political atmosphere was in favour of the BJP, and compromises had to be made, but this time we will have a bigger say in the alliance.”

Kishore Patil, a deputy shakha pramukh, or branch head, of Shiv Sena’s Dadar branch, wants party chief Uddhav Thackeray to now demand that the Chief Minister’s seat is shared between the two alliance partners, for two-and-a-half years each.

“Once upon a time we were the bada bhai [big brother] and BJP was the small brother in our alliance, but the last election changed that relationship,” said Patil. “This election, BJP has lost some big seats – like Pankaja Munde’s seat in Parli. So it is time for them to stop the big brother-small brother talk and treat us equally.”

Kishore Patil wants an end to the big brother-small brother dynamic between the BJP and the Shiv Sena. Photo: Aarefa Johari

While Shiv Sena workers acknowledged that the BJP won more Assembly seats in 2014 because of the Modi wave, they do not believe that they benefited from their alliance partner’s national popularity in this election. Most Sena workers who spoke to credited their improved performance to two factors: Aditya Thackeray and the Shiv Sena’s grassroots work in the state.

The grandson of Shiv Sena founder Bal Thackeray, 29-year-old Aditya Thackeray became the first member of his family to contest in an election. Bal Thackeray had famously said that he ran the state government by “remote control”. Aditya Thackeray won the Worli seat by a margin of more than 68,000 votes.

“Aditya Thackeray is a young star and he played a huge role in influencing young voters,” said Rashmi Surve, a member of Shiv Sena’s women’s wing.

In addition to the Thackeray factor, Surve credits the party’s women workers for bringing in votes by visiting “every building and every slum” in each constituency to talk to women voters. “The BJP has not been giving Shiv Sena much importance in the last five years, but their women don’t work much, while our women have proved that Shiv Sena can bounce back.”

Rashmi Surve is a member of the Shiv Sena women's wing. Photo: Aarefa Johari

Sharad Pawar, man of the match

Even as the BJP and Shiv Sena celebrate their victory, their total seat tally is much lower than the number of seats they won in 2014. The party that has gained the most from this is the Sharad Pawar-led Nationalist Congress Party, which had won just 41 seats in 2014 and is now set to win at least 53 seats this election. The Congress too has improved its performance from 42 seats in 2014 to 46 seats in 2019. This will ensure a more robust opposition in the Maharashtra Assembly.

“The man of the match this election is clearly Sharad Pawar, whose campaign made a huge difference to his party in Western Maharashtra and Marathwada,” said analyst Prakash Bal. “The BJP was overconfident about using issues of nationalism to get votes, and I think the electorate at the ground level did not like that.”