Shiv Sena in crisis

Published : Dec 30, 2005 00:00 IST

The Shiv Sena, which has lost two senior leaders in the past year, seems to be in trouble after the latest blow, Raj Thackeray's resignation from all party positions.


BAL THACKERAY'S paper Saamna has always been an easy billboard to air the Shiv Sena chief's views. So when the time came to give some sort of explanation for his nephew Raj's resignation from his party posts, he naturally conveyed this through an article in it, instead of directly responding to the media's queries. Published on December 10, the column, worded in the earthy style so beloved of his supporters, said: "Stop worrying about whether there will be a split [in the party]. Whether it will be vertical or horizontal. Worry about Maharashtra and yourselves. We are competent to defend our fort.... I want to tell the media that whatever is in your minds is not going to happen.... The Shiv Sena is invincible and indestructible."

Thackeray then went on to dismiss rumours about Raj's plans to leave the Sena and start another party. "The Marathi manus and Hindus will not pay heed to someone setting up new temples in the name of Shiv Sena," he wrote.

The column is generally pompous, but two lines stand out especially for their denial of reality. One is the assertion that "I have lived my life like a sanyasi" in reference to his preference for `remote control' politics to the challenges of contesting elections, taking charge and being accountable. The other is: "The more you try to suppress the Shiv Sena, the more it will rise."

Thirty-nine years after its formation, the process of disintegration seems to have begun in the Shiv Sena. For those who have watched the party's meteoric rise and its increasing dynastic tendencies, the events of the last fortnight seem to suggest that the party is coming apart, which again would indicate a retreat of saffron politics in Maharashtra. Three important resignations in the party this year are undeniable evidence that the Sena is not the monolith it once projected itself to be.

Former Sena Member of Parliament Sanjay Nirupam, who is now with the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP), resigned in March on the grounds of being prevented from fighting nepotism and corruption in the party. The Sena-Nirupam relationship had always been an uneasy one since it was based largely on mutual convenience. The Sena used Nirupam's Bihari origins to whitewash its anti-North Indian image and he used the Sena for personal power. The tie ended when Nirupam wanted to raise the issue of a huge allotment of Reliance Infocomm shares to the Bharatiya Janata Party's Pramod Mahajan. To prevent any embarrassment to his coalition partner, Thackeray asked Nirupam to desist but he refused. The reality behind the split was nepotism, which led to rebellions at many levels in the party.

WHILE Nirupam's exit was a relatively small blow to the Sena supremo's self-importance, the next resignation certainly hit hard. Dissident Sena leader Narayan Rane, who joined the Congress, went on to retain his hold on the Malvan Assembly seat, doubling his victory margin from last time. The victory, which was expected, was not so much a milestone for him personally as it was a signpost for the Sena. As a politician with a strong grassroots background, Rane is a welcome asset for any party. The departure, and the subsequent electoral triumph, of this longstanding Thackeray loyalist have implications for the future of the party and its grip on the Konkan.

The debacle in Malvan was one of the worst defeats of the Sena, and it forced the realisation upon its leaders that an individual Sainik could be more popular than the supremo and that Uddhav Thackeray had failed as a campaign leader. Indeed, some of the slogans bandied about in the election campaign must have caused much agony to the greenhorn Uddhav - "Narayan Rane angaar hai, baaki sab bhangaar hai" (Rane is the personification of fire. All others are like bits of scrap). But what surely hurt more was his cousin Raj's resignation in the wake of the Sena's defeat.

Immediately after the Konkan debacle, Raj wrote to Thackeray asking for an explanation for the hammering the Sena received. Audacious as this sounds - the cub questioning the tiger - the letter was a culmination of many years of rage that have been building up in Raj on account of what he had begun describing as his sidelining in the party hierarchy. Without naming Uddhav, Raj reportedly said that a "sycophantic quartet" was misguiding Thackeray. The reference was to Uddhav and three other Sainiks, including his aide Milind Narvekar and Sena leader Subhash Desai, who guide him.

The quarrel between the cousins has been simmering ever since the post of executive president was created for Uddhav three years ago. Since then, the party's cadre have been divided, with the majority staying with Uddhav because he had his father's blessings. But Raj's resignation from party posts has plunged the party into a crisis.

When answers were demanded, Thackeray, in true Sena style, was evasive, saying it was a "family affair". Most Sena leaders were unavailable for comment, but some inside views of the situation did emerge. Here is how one senior Sena member understood the `story':

"If the antics of Raj Thackeray are to be summed up it would amount to this: As the nephew of Bal Thackeray, Raj has undoubtedly had a head start over other Sainiks. Thus, he has benefited from the very nepotism that he has now raised a banner of revolt against. However, unable to bear the promotion of Uddhav over him, he threw in his resignation. Balasaheb refused to bite - possibly because of the loss of face after Rane's resignation - and after a tense week-long standoff, Raj realised that he was in deeper waters than he had intended. Now each likes to think the ball is in the other's court, but the truth is that it is for Raj to take a step - he is the one who will lose more. Uddhav is very comfortable."

If this is a true reflection of what is happening in this very public battle between the two cousins, then Uddhav has definitely won the first round. But he has won it by proxy - by being his father's son - and not because of a superior strategy. This brings the Sena back to square one: Who can be the future leader of the party?

BEFORE Uddhav's entry into politics, a strong bond had developed between Raj and Rane. The two of them are close, both ideologically and in style of functioning, and many Sainiks saw them as the future of the party. Speculation about the connection between Rane and Raj continues, despite the former's departure from the party, and both are silent on the rumours. However, when the Sena lined up its top campaigners for the Malvan byelection, Raj had only a small role to play.

When Rane left the Sena, the party claimed the disagreement as only 15 days old. Rane said it had been brewing over five years. The Shiv Sainiks have always believed that the party ticket should go to loyal party men and not to newcomers who ride piggyback on the Sena and are willing to spend money on the ticket. In the last Assembly elections, however, Uddhav denied the ticket to loyal party workers. It was a gamble that did not pay off, particularly in the coastal Konkan region, traditionally a Sena fortress. Though Rane, who is from the region, retained his seat, he was angered at the way the elections had been managed and how loyal Sainiks had been passed over in the nomination process. He had Raj's support, but both Thackeray and Uddhav chose to ignore his objections.

To that extent, both Raj and Rane are on the same side of the fence. But when it comes to leaving the party, Raj's dilemma is different from Rane's. As an elected representative, Rane commanded the support of his workers, his voters and of other political parties. So when he quit he was a prize catch for rival parties. Rane did not face the threat of losing his identity in a larger party like the Congress or the NCP. As a four-time elected representative, he could hold his own and command senior and high-profile positions in his new party. Raj, however, does not have this option. He stands to lose far more than Rane if he quits the Sena. Raj is now paying the price for benefiting from family ties. His options are fewer than Rane's. He would be unable to swing the lead in any other party and is likely to lose the identity that has been so crucial to his rise. He would be valuable to any other party only to the extent that his departure weakened the Sena.

The BJP, a Sena ally, has few scruples about taking advantage of the chaos in the Sena. It has always rankled with the BJP that despite being the bigger partner at the national level, it plays second fiddle to the Sena in the State. When Rane left and threatened to take Sena legislators with him, the BJP saw its chance and demanded the post of Leader of the Opposition in the House. Nothing came of it, but in the wake of Raj's resignation the BJP is waiting for its chance again.

The implications a split in the Sena will have for saffron politics in the State are not far to seek. Thackeray's December 10 article, which contained proud references to the Sena's role in the 1992-93 riots in Mumbai when the party "protected our Hindu brethren from the `green locust', gave some indications.

The Rane-Raj episode has also awakened the predatory instincts of other parties. Political poaching has begun and Rane is pushing hard to try and destabilise the NCP as well as the Sena by winning over at least 10 Sena MLAs to the Congress so that the party's strength goes up to 79, surpassing the NCP's 72.

That the Opposition is in complete disarray because of the events was only too apparent during the winter session of the State Assembly. Despite a number of counts on which the ruling coalition could have been attacked, the Opposition failed to get its act together.

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