With Narayan Rane, the BJP looks to expand its footprint in Mumbai and Konkan. But a perceived self-goal by him may have galvanised the restive Shiv Sena cadre and voters to coalesce around their party. Dhaval Kulkarni reports
In July, when Narayan Rane was inducted as minister for micro, small, and medium enterprises (MSMEs) in the Narendra Modi-led Cabinet, it was evident that the purpose was more political than administrative.
A former Shiv Sainik who retained the aggressive mannerisms of his parent party, Rane was expected to give an edge to the Bharatiya Janata Party in the crucial Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation election, due early 2022. The BMC, the richest civic body in Asia with a budget of around Rs 39,000 crore, is under the Shiv Sena’s control for several years (1985-1992 and 1997-until now).
The Sena’s power in the BMC helps it nurture a "reward economy" culture for its cadre.
The Shiv Sena’s estrangement from the BJP in 2019 and party president Uddhav Thackeray’s anointment as chief minister in alliance with the Congress and Nationalist Congress Party have led to BJP leaders girding their loins to wrest the BMC. In 2017, the Sena and the BJP had contested separately, and the BJP fell short of the Sena’s tally by just two seats (84 seats against 86).
As someone who launched his career as a corporator in Mumbai before contesting the assembly election from Sindhudurg, Rane knows the chinks in the Sena’s apparatus in the BMC.
But a perceived self-goal by Rane may have galvanised the restive Shiv Sena cadre and voters to coalesce around their party. Recently, Rane sparked a controversy by saying he wanted to "slap" Thackeray for his alleged ignorance about the year of India’s independence. Rane was arrested in Ratnagiri district during his ‘Jan Ashirwad Yatra’ and granted bail.
Responding to a dare by Rane’s younger son Nitesh, a BJP MLA from Kankavali in Sindhudurg, activists of the Yuva Sena -- the youth wing of the Sena -- protested outside Rane’s Mumbai residence and clashed with his men. This was a far cry from 2005, when Rane, a former chief minister and then leader of the Opposition, had put the Sena on the back foot after quitting the party following a power struggle with Thackeray. Rane’s men had forced Shiv Sainiks, whose writ otherwise ran unchallenged, to withdraw in street fights.
"Rane was arrested for threatening to slap the chief minister, who holds a constitutional position... This is an insult to the 125 million people of Maharashtra," charged Shiv Sena leader and legislator Bhaskar Jadhav.
Another Shiv Sena leader said that anger against Rane was simmering. His elder son Nilesh, former Lok Sabha MP, had made "uncharitable comments" against the late Shiv Sena supremo Bal Thackeray. The Ranes also played an active role in the controversy over the death by suicide of actor Sushant Singh Rajput and Rane Sr’s comments last Monday, may have been the final straw, the leader explained. Sena insiders admit that despite his gentlemanly demeanour, Thackeray is known for holding grudges.
The Rane versus Shiv Sena battle should also help the Sena paper over differences in the ranks. Sena leaders rue that despite the party being the senior partner in the Maha Vikas Aghadi, it is the NCP that holds crucial portfolios like finance and home, and calls the shots. Coalition pressure has forced the Shiv Sena to accommodate independents and outsiders as ministers, ignoring the claims of its loyalists. However, the late Sena chief has a talismanic hold over the party faithful, and the cadre and sympathisers are upset at any slight to the first family. Hence, the conflict with Rane will rally them around the party.
"This may be advantage Shiv Sena. Being in power elevated Thackeray’s profile within the middle class but the party was not strengthened. There was a sense of inertia in the organisation and growing anger against some new inductees who had overtaken loyalists," explained a Shiv Sena leader from the Konkan.
Shiv Sena voters and fence-sitters, who felt strongly about the party "abandoning" Hindutva after joining hands with the "secular" Congress and the NCP, are likely to stand with the party in the BMC polls if Rane was pitched as one of the BJP’s faces in the campaign.
"The Shiv Sena may have unwittingly made Rane into a potent force. Rane is not someone who will forgive and forget this slight and will go after the Sena. The BJP central leadership wants such leaders who can challenge the Shiv Sena on its own terms," averred a former BJP minister. He added this "heavy handed" action by the NCP-controlled home department will now present another hurdle in any likely rapprochement between the BJP and the Sena.
Another BJP leader with a background in the RSS said that despite reservations in the party, Rane’s induction in the BJP and the Union Cabinet was aimed at expanding the party’s footprint in Mumbai and the Konkan. While the three districts of Raigad, Ratnagiri and Sindhudurg account for just three Lok Sabha and 15 assembly segments, political developments in the region impact the politics of Mumbai. This is because people from this area form substantial numbers in Mumbai and Thane, and have strong social, economic and cultural linkages with their native places.
The claim that this "vindictive" action by the state government will generate sympathy for Rane was guffawed by an NCP minister. "Rane’s politics may have run its course. He was defeated twice in the assembly elections (2014 from Kudal and from the Bandra East bypoll the next year) and Nilesh lost the Lok Sabha polls twice (2014 and 2019)," he stated.