The Shiv Sena Dussehra rally has always been a mega event. During the late Bal Thackeray’s time, it was a show of power, an evening of entertainment and a validation that the Shiv Sena owned Mumbai. This year for the first time in the Sena’s 56-year-old history there were two Dussehra rallies, with Uddhav Thackeray addressing one and the rebel Sainik and now Chief Minister Eknath Shinde addressing the other.
Uddhav won the first victory in the ongoing fight between the two when he retained the right to use Shivaji Park, the traditional hallowed ground for the Dussehra rally. Not to be outdone or cowed down, the Shinde faction-BJP government hired the huge MMRDA grounds at the Bandra-Kurla complex.
Each leader stuck to one main theme. Uddhav chose to hit out at the BJP while Shinde scrambled to assert his and other rebels’ commitment to Bal Thackeray and his ideals. Both rallies abundantly displayed Bal Thackeray’s picture as well as the bow and arrow symbol of the Shiv Sena whose right of use is still being debated by the Election Commission of India.
While it was expected that Shinde’s rally would have a vast crowd estimated at about two lakh, it was interesting to see that Shivaji Park, where Uddhav addressed the crowd, was filled to capacity with an estimated one lakh people.
The Congress and the NCP have publicly said that the government spared no expense in hiring transport to bring in people from all over Maharashtra. Food packets for three lakh people were prepared. While this is not an uncommon practice, the government had a greater need to show numbers since it had a point to prove, whereas Thackeray’s rallies have always attracted crowds that came of their own accord.
Bal Thackeray never disappointed his followers. He was a natural orator spewing venom and wit, while drawing on literature, mythology and his opponents’ missteps. He hit hard and often below the belt and had the audience in the palm of his hand. From his thick black glasses, orange clothes, and casually draped shawl over one arm akimbo, everything about him could have been trademarked. He was a natural and his son, Uddhav, had a tough act to follow. But Uddhav was wise in that he chose not to imitate his father but to project his own style even though it was diametrically opposite to that of his father.
Uddhav’s choice to remain true to himself went down well because he had the opportunity to put it on display at a time when fire and brimstone was not the call of the hour. During the pandemic, Uddhav shone with his quiet speeches and well-implemented assurances. He won over those who would never have voted for the Sena. This is when the BJP recognised him as a dangerous opponent and began the work of ‘winning over’ Sainiks as a means to destroy not just Uddhav but the Sena as a whole.
Since the BJP-Sena partnership was forged three decades ago, it was the intention of the BJP to use the Sena as a stepping stone. Its ultimate aim was to politically annihilate the Sena and hold complete power in the State. Pramod Mahajan’s declaration to this correspondent many years ago that Bal Thackeray was a “small man” and that the BJP was the greater party is now coming true.
Given this background, it is laughable that Shinde is trying to lay claim to saving the Sena and being the actual political heir of Bal Thackeray. The main accusation that Shinde and his fellow rebels have thrown at Uddhav is that he abandoned Hindutva. This is not true. If there was a red flag flying over Uddhav, it was that he had consistently stated that despite being a part of the Maha Vikas Aghadi he was firmly committed to Hindutva. He followed this through with visits to the Ayodhya where the temple is being constructed, even taking along Shinde whom he now refers to as a gaddar or traitor.
The crowds that came to Shivaji Park and the MMRDA grounds knew what they would be hearing. Shinde could have used the opportunity to showcase his government, to talk of a path forward and the plans his government had for the State. But as Uddhav pointed out, “In 100 days [of rule] there have been showers of announcements but a drought of implementation.”
It was a missed opportunity for Shinde. His speech was the equivalent of a whine, of a man who had to repeatedly justify his actions as if to convince himself bringing to mind Shakespeare’s point about protesting too much. His attempt to link Narayan Rane and Raj Thackeray’s departure from the Sena to Uddhav’s purported abandoning of Hindutva only showed his complete lack of understanding of the historical occurrences in the Sena. Both Rane and Raj Thackeray left because of a power struggle in which they were the losers. There was no ideology involved in their exit.
Uddhav used his time in front of the Dussehra rally audience to reiterate his position. He called the rebels traitors and reminded them that they were going to be used and discarded by the BJP. The BJP’s attitude towards the rebel Sainiks was a veiled contempt right from the start. Like a true foot soldier, Devendra Fadnavis bowed his head in agreement to Shinde being made Chief Minister, but Shinde’s public behaviour and body language and choice of words from the very start showed he was beholden to the BJP, something the right-wing party will be reminding him of repeatedly.
In the one-upmanship conveyed though the rallies, the rebel faction gave a prime spot to an empty chair that Bal Thackeray used when he addressed rallies in Thane, Shinde’s district stronghold. The chair was garlanded by Shinde as he professed his loyalty. The rear screen of the stage had emblazoned Garv se kaho hum Hindu hai – Take pride in being Hindu – the post-1992 communal riots slogan that Bal Thackeray had coined.
For his part, Uddhav Thackeray chose a completely new slogan for the Dussehra rally. The single word Ekanishtha or loyalty, something that was once the core of the Sena. Shinde mocked Ekanishtha, asking who was left with Uddhav to be loyal.
This then is the point of danger for Uddhav. The BJP continues to lure Sainiks away with the means it has. Once they succeed in doing this the Shiv Sena as Maharashtra knew it will be just a shell. This is the BJP’s final aim and Shinde is just a tool. The Dussehra rally confirmed it.
Perhaps the most enduring image and truth of the Dussehra rally is the Ravana effigy created by the Sena this year. Uddhav called it the Khoke asur Ravana. It was made of 50 boxes or khokes, thus Khoke asur was the box demon – a neat reference to the Rs.50 crore that are believed to have been given to the rebel Sainiks to leave Uddhav and join Shinde.