TO all appearances, the Shiv Sena has no great concern for principles. Its style is to take up a populist issue and dump it when it is no longer useful politically. Many of its campaigns were too simplistic and yielded results it never bargained for. For instance, through the Shivaji cult it apparently sought to elevate the national hero, but its methods actually cheapened the iconic figure. The infamous zunkhabhakar food stalls, touted as bringing cheap and nutritious local food to the masses, very soon became valuable real estate. A few of these are still in existence, but most have been leased out to other businesses, often run by the very communities the Sena has at some point targeted. Then there was the Michael Jackson concert, meant to raise money for a youth employment scheme which never quite got off the ground. There was never any public accounting of the money collected.
As the Sena gathered political strength, its inconsistencies increased: the double take on Enron, the backtracking on the promise of free housing to slum-dwellers in Mumbai, the James Lane incident in which the American scholar was threatened because of certain `inaccuracies' in references to Shivaji in his book, the mishandling of Mumbai's real estate, the muzzling of the Srikrishna Commission report and the complete betrayal of Mumbai's mill workers. The Sena's role in the 1992-93 Mumbai riots was a `high point' in its career, which deeply tarnished its image.
When Bal Thackeray established the party in 1966, it was with more than just a little behind-the-scenes assistance from some Mumbai industrialists. His mandate then was to destabilise the Communists, who were establishing themselves in the city through a strong trade union movement. In this, he had the tacit support of the political establishment and the police. In fact, the Sena was used by the Congress in the 1967 election to disrupt the campaign of the Left-leaning independent candidate, V.K. Krishna Menon. The success with which this was achieved possibly emboldened the Sainiks in what they saw as a mission - the complete destruction of the Communist movement in the city.
While responding enthusiastically to the anti-Communist call of the government, Thackeray also had an agenda of his own. For him, forming the Sena was a natural response to what he saw as a simmering demand of the 1960s in the aftermath of the Samyukta Maharashtra movement which resulted in the birth of the State. Incidentally, Thackeray's father, Prabhodhankar Thackeray, was a major player in this movement.
The backbone of Thackeray's party - its membership and its philosophy - was based on the `Maharashtra for Maharashtrians' principle - the infamous `Marathi manus' standard, by which practically everyone in Mumbai was an `outsider' except the 28 per cent or so of Maharashtrians in the city. This displayed a lack of understanding of who and what made Mumbai, and also a denial of the historical context. This attitude evolved recently into the `Mee Mumbaikar' campaign - a supposedly milder attempt of `integration', but this too was nothing more than cloaked violence. In essence, it asked `outsiders' to give up their culture and "integrate". While there was no outward threat of violence, the familiar `or else' clause of the Sena was only too clear.
The Mee Mumbaikar campaign was meant largely to `integrate' the North Indians - the Sena's latest bugbear. It died a natural death after serving to highlight the hypocrisy of the Sena. Despite its avowed sons-of-the-soil policy, the Sena has unfailingly chosen non-Maharashtrians as its Rajya Sabha nominees. The Sena supremo's excuse for nominating Chandrika Kenia, Mukesh Patel, Pritish Nandy and Sanjay Nirupam was to have a diverse representation at the Centre. But the choices rankled with the Sena's Maharashtrian voters, who recognised the real reason for the choices - a penchant to be associated with wealth rather than faith in Marathi manus.
The violence that the Sena indulged in in its early years lessened slightly with time, but it did not stop entirely. Always parochial, the Sena leadership has unfailingly managed to rally its troops around with a call to arms. This ability was terrifyingly displayed during the Mumbai riots of 1992-93, when Bal Thackeray unleashed his troops on the city's Muslims and established himself as the self-proclaimed saviour of Hinduism.
This ability was first exhibited in the 1960s. The initial victims were skilled labourers, primarily from the southern States, who came to Mumbai looking for jobs provided by new industries. It was a situation of mutual benefit until the Sena decided that the newcomers were depriving the local labour pool of jobs. That was when the migrant workers were branded as "lungi-wallas" and the businesses of South Indians were attacked ruthlessly. The pattern established then is still being played out. After the lungi-wallas, it was the turn of the Gujarati entrepreneur and more recently, it is the North Indian or `Bihari' migrant. It is ironical that during the Mumbai riots of 1992-93 the Sena allied itself with these communities to target Muslims. From ethnicity, the focus shifted suddenly to religion.
Such irrational shifts became a trademark of the Shiv Sena over the years as it became a party with elected members in the Mumbai Municipal Corporation and finally the dominant partner in the ruling coalition in the State, between 1995 and 1999.
The Sena has always expected the support of the Maharashtrian community, though it was hardly consistent with its initial pledge of "Maharashtra for Maharashtrians". This once vocal support group is now silent and brooding, and this is perhaps where the greatest threat to the Sena lies. This is a group that has watched the Sena ride to power on its votes, but has seen none of its promises fulfilled.
Distrust of the Shiv Sena started growing when the Sena-Bharatiya Janata Party combine came to power and Thackeray's position in the government became a moot point. He resolved the issue by saying that he would not accept any official position but would exercise "remote control" on the party. There was a collective squirm of embarrassment from his electorate who felt he was ducking his promises and duties. However, that was allowed to pass. Then came the Ramesh Kini case in which his nephew Raj Thackeray was embroiled in a real estate-related dispute that led to a murder. But that was hushed up. Once again, it was allowed to pass. However, the recent family feud has exposed the hunger for power that drives the Sena to the disgust of the party's core electorate. This "family affair" could be the proverbial last nail in the coffin.