Shiv Sena at a crossroads

Print edition : November 05, 2004

The feud in the Thackeray family, rebels and an ambiguous and shifting political strategy push the party to the brink.

THE Shiv Sena, which aspires to a major presence at the Centre, may be in serious danger of losing its way in Maharashtra after recording its worst-ever performance in the Assembly elections: it won only 62 seats - seven fewer than in 1999 - of the 163 it contested.

Shiv Sena chief Bal Thackeray with former Prime Minister A.B. Vajpayee and Sena leaders Manohar Joshi and Uddhav Thackeray at a rally in Mumbai.-VIVEK BENDRE

Many observers believe that Shiv Sena supremo Bal Thackeray, 78, may have participated in his last Assembly elections, one in which his fragile health did not allow him to campaign vigorously. A family feud and a few fundamentally wrong decisions also set back the Sena campaign.

Significantly, the Sena bastions of Mumbai and Konkan seem to have given it the thumbs down. Of the 31 seats in the Konkan region, it won only 12 in this round as against 15 in 1999. In Mumbai, where it built its political base, it won just eight of the 34 seats, three fewer than in 1999.

Observers attribute the defeat largely to the internecine feud in the Thackeray family, more specifically the power struggle between cousins Uddhav Thackeray, working president of the Shiv Sena, and Raj Thackeray, which the ailing patriarch failed to sort out.

While Thackeray's son Uddhav is the anointed heir, Raj is said to be more popular within the party. The factionalism, which is apparent but is hotly denied by the leadership, had the effect of demoralising and fragmenting the rank and file of the party and this reflected in the results, said a Sena observer. For the first time in the party's history there was open rebellion against the high command when the party ticket was distributed.

"This kind of defeat points to a leadership problem," said Nikhil Wagle, editor of Mahanagar, a local daily, and a Sena watcher. "Bal Thackeray is like a dictator. He has always been the undisputed leader who holds the party together. Since the Sena has no real ideology to speak of, there is no path for its members to follow except swearing undying loyalty to Thackeray. It is Thackeray who decides or at least decided the agenda and strategy for the party." The second rung leaders just played out his command.

In doing that, they did not, for the most part, have the services of Bal Thackeray the campaigner, as failing health did not permit him to travel much. Given the fact that few can match his ability to connect with people, his absence cost the party dearly. Unlike the Congress-NCP alliance, which had Sharad Pawar, another crowd puller, the Sena-BJP combine could not quite get its campaign off the ground. "Without the patriarch, its hard to imagine how the party will survive," said Wagle.

Shiv Sena leader Raj Thackeray at a rally in Ahmednagar.-

"Following this defeat, either the Sena will collapse completely or its leaders may form splinter parties leading to the disintegration of the party," said Kumar Ketkar, editor of Loksatta.

The Sena is at a crossroads on the question of leadership and its future may well depend on how this question is settled. When Uddhav took over as working president of the party questions were raised about his capability to step into his father's shoes. These elections were seen as a litmus test of his abilities.

When Uddhav spoke to Frontline just before the polls, he was categorical that all the problems within the party cannot be attributed to the leadership. "Does the rebellion in the Congress and NCP mean that the people are against Sonia Gandhi and Sharad Pawar?" he asked. Nevertheless, the Sena's debacle in the elections has given rise to the feeling that Bal Thackeray may have erred in appointing his son the next leader of the party. Had he paid attention to the ambitions of his nephew, whom many perceive as more in the Bal Thackeray mould, the Sena supremo may have had a lot more to cheer about.

One of Uddhav's mistakes appears to be the "Me Mumbaikar" campaign launched last year. Aimed at wooing the rapidly increasing non-Marathi population in Mumbai, the campaign's basic slogan was to build a better Mumbai for all those who made the city their home. Since almost 60 per cent of Mumbai's population is non-Maharastrian, it was probably necessary for the Sena to make the right gestures to add to its voter base. Unfortunately, the attacks on Biharis in Mumbai in early January, when they came for a railway recruitment examination, and other incidents of violence against north Indians, allegedly by Raj Thackeray's men, crippled Uddhav's efforts.

During the Lok Sabha as well as Assembly elections, the north Indian community voted against the Sena. The party was not able to appeal convincingly to the rural electorate, saddled as it is with its image of being an urban-oriented party.

WHEN the Sena was launched in 1966, it had a simple programme aimed at job reservations and economic opportunities for Maharastrians in Mumbai. The crisis in Mumbai's textile mills gave the Sena movement an impetus. By the 1970s it grew into a fairly strong political party, having won control of the Municipal Corporation in 1968 and subsequently in 1973. In the 1980s, the Sena set its sights on national politics by shifting its thinking towards Hindutva in an attempt to capitalise on the Hindu fundamentalist wave sweeping the country. Over the past three decades the party evolved into a fundamentalist organisation, the leader of which never misses an opportunity to attack the minority communities, particularly Muslims. Today Bal Thackeray calls himself the "Hindu Hriday Samrat", the emperor of Hindu hearts. And the Sena believes it is the upholder of Hindutva.

One of the problems in this election was that the Sena was unable to use the Hindutva card. Uddhav said: "It is still very much the party's identity" but they used it with restraint because of the election code of conduct. The Sena had won elections in the past by polarising communities, but that strategy did not work this time round. "They need to have an emotive issue to appeal on. They need a wave election, just as in the 1995 Lok Sabha elections, when the Hindutva issue was instrumental in bringing the saffron parties to power," said a senior Congress leader.

Instead of using the past five years to consolidate its position, review its strengths and failures and make a vengeful comeback, the Sena came out of this election looking listless and directionless. The party seems to be facing an identity crisis and Bal Thackeray may be facing his toughest test yet.

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