Competing for the communal plank

Print edition : July 22, 2000

The Shiv Sena rediscovers its roots and gets set to fight on.

"SHAT pratishat Bhajpa" ("100 per cent BJP") goes the Bharatiya Janata Party's slogan on its long-term political vision for Maharashtra. Its alliance partner in the State, the Shiv Sena, is far from amused. Confronted with the threat that the BJP could d isplace it as the organic party of the Right in Maharashtra, the Sena has been working hard to revive its core politics. The organisation has rediscovered the aggressive ethnic and communal chauvinist ideologies that spawned it in 1966, and begun mobilis ations to put them into practice. This battle for power within the ranks of the far Right is certain to have fateful consequences for both Mumbai and Maharashtra.

Jammu and Kashmir Chief Minister Farooq Abdullah provided the pretext for Shiv Sena supremo Bal Thackeray's latest assault on the BJP. In an interview to The Asian Age, given shortly after the Jammu and Kashmir Assembly demanded greater federal au tonomy, Thackeray described his allies in the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) as "absolute idiots". "Idiots," he said, "are ruling this country, not people with some intelligence or capacity." "I am afraid to say," he continued, "that the thinking of these people has become old." Thackeray went on to claim that "a benevolent dictatorship is the only solution for this country, not the democratic process or the Gandhian way." "The meaning of freedom and democracy," he concluded, "should be changed and there should be limits."

Thackeray's opinions were not particularly new. His contempt for democracy, and admiration for fascism, had figured regularly in the would-be-Fuhrer's articles in the Sena-run journal Marmik from the 1970s onwards. What disturbed the BJP was their wider context. At the organisation's 34th anniversary meeting, held in late June, the Sena had decided to force the pace of events in its relationship with the BJP. One specific area of concern related to the portfolios allotted to its representatives i n the Union Ministry. The portfolio issue was perceived as part of a larger unwillingness on the part of the BJP to concede a role in New Delhi to the Sena, despite its being the third largest party in the NDA. The Sena boss was now signalling that he wa s no longer willing to be taken for granted.

Union Home Minister L.K. Advani promptly flew to Mumbai, attempting to stave off a potential crisis within the NDA. By this time the Union Cabinet had rejected the Jammu and Kashmir autonomy motion, offering Thackeray to claim that his protests had been instrumental in bringing about the decision. More important, Advani told Thackeray during their meeting that the issue of portfolios could be discussed with Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee. Thackeray came out of the closed-door meeting proclaiming th at there was "complete co-ordination and harmony between the two parties". Advani, in turn, said that media reports of trouble between the alliance partners were not borne out during his discussions.

Yet, it is unlikely that either leader took his own statements with great seriousness, to that Vajpayee's promise of an additional Cabinet berth for the Shiv Sena will solve the problem. Towards the end of June, top BJP leaders had met to discuss their approach towards the Sena. While BJP president Kushabhau Thakre was believed to have argued for a pragmatic approach with regard to his party's relationship with the Sena, younger figures like Union Information Technology Minister Pramod Mahajan and form er Maharashtra Deputy Chief Minister Gopinath Munde took a drastically different line. Munde, sources told Frontline, asserted that the BJP's long-term prospects depended on its ability to win over its allies' constituency. Mahajan, in turn, cast the need for such growth in the context of the BJP's ambitions to come to power in New Delhi on its own. Both Mahajan and Munde believe that the Sena has no choice but to sustain the alliance, for should the alliance crack, the Sena could in turn break r anks, and the dissident faction could join with the BJP and elements of the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP).

SHIV Sena leaders have been working overtime to address their tactical problems. The components of its new mobilisation were unveiled at the party's anniversary celebrations. One element was outright communal fascism, of the kind the Sena had avoided aft er the Election Commission initiated action against the organisation for the use of hate speech for electoral purposes. "Muslims cannot be trusted," Thackeray said in his keynote address. "They are like snakes. You never know when they can turn around an d bite you. Look how Mohammed Azharuddin turned around." He hailed film star Hrithik Roshan as a Hindu hero who had undermined the ascendancy of Muslim film stars. "We have tolerated the Khans of the film industry for too long," Thackeray asserted, "how long will we continue to do so?"

Hatred of "the Khans" has not, however, stopped Thackeray's film-producer daughter-in-law Smita Thackeray from using them to raise cash for her charity projects. But then, Thackeray's stream-of-consciousness venom has never had much to do with fact. Shor tly after the rally, Thackeray used his Asian Age interview to restate his communal platform. "Muslims have never assimilated into our culture," he said. "We go to their iftaar parties and wear caps. But Muslims never wear a tika on their forehead s. If they are so proud of their religion, let them go to Muslim countries." But no one is certain when Thackeray, indicted by the Justice B.N. Srikrishna Commission of Inquiry for his role in the Mumbai riots of 1992-1993, was last seen at an iftaar par ty wearing a cap.

The second theme in Thackeray's speech, the supposed marginalisation of Maharashtrians in their own State, was similarly replete with irony. "Marathi industrialists like Kirloskar and Garware," he complained, "have been replaced by Marwari businessmen." No mention was made of the Sena's own connections with "Marwari businessmen". Anti-Gujarati polemic frequently figured in early Sena mobilisations, with the party seeking to represent itself as the defender of Maharashtrian Mumbai against predatory capit al. But the organisation rapidly made its peace with the affluent community to finance its rise to power. During last year's Assembly elections, Thackeray briefly attacked the Gujarati community after M.P. Mukesh Patil broke ranks with the Sena, but prom ptly denied ever having made his controversial statement.

Regional chauvinism rather than communalism has been the issue the Sena has so far translated into physical action. On June 30, Sena cadre painted over English language signboards on shops and banks in posh south Mumbai localities. The action was, it cla imed, carried out in order to protest against business establishments' failure to observe laws that mandate signboards must bear Marathi language text. Sena politicians, however, did not explain why they did nothing to implement the law during their year s in power. Another major campaign is related to the recruitment of staff to government jobs. The Sena has been protesting against employment policies at the Tata Memorial Hospital, a premier Central government funded cancer care facility in Mumbai. The organisation believes that south Indians are over-represented in the hospital, and has been demanding that half of all nursing staff jobs be reserved for Maharashtra residents.

IT takes little to see what the sena is up to, and the party leaders are remarkably candid on their objectives. Gajanan Kiritkar, head of the Sthaniya Lokadhikar Samiti, a Sena organisation set up to assert the rights of ethnic Maharashtrians, sees the o ngoing mobilisations as part of a larger project. "Of the four parties in Maharashtra," he says, "we are the only one which is a truly regional party. Neither the BJP nor the Congress(I), not even the NCP, can meet regional aspirations." Translated into plain language, the Sena believes that an aggressive campaign to pit Maharashtrians against non-Maharashtrians will enable it to recover the mass base lost through its years in power. Anti-Muslim mobilisation, similarly, will help the party represent its elf as the sole party of the Hindu Right.

History provides at least some insight into the Sena's broad thinking. During the Sena's first phase of growth, from its formation in 1966 to 1971, south Indian immigrants to Mumbai, Communists and Muslims were represented as enemies of a glorious Mahara shtrian tradition. The organisation successfully exploited the nebulous fears of the marginalisation of Maharashtrian workers and businesses, fears bred by the recessionary climate of the period, to serve the interests of capital by destroying the trade union movement. The organisation was almost wiped out after 1971, when the Congress(I) adopted an aggressive populist platform, but it survived by transforming itself into a Hindu vigilante outfit. The saffronisation of the Sena was to culminate in 1984 with its alliance with the BJP. In the course of the next decade, the Sena rode to power on the wave generated by the Hindutva movement.

Power, however, proved in at least some senses to be the Sena's undoing. The evident corruption of its rule alienated much of its middle class Maharashtrian constituency, leading much of it to defect to the ostensibly more respectable BJP. Within Mumbai, the party's claims to be a representative of the urban poor were shattered by its increasingly brazen affiliation with the rich. Thackeray now seeks to revive the Sena by rediscovering the idioms which propelled its rise to power. The objective conditio ns seem, to the Sena, to be full of opportunity. Desperate urban poverty; shrinking opportunities for secure, decent jobs; the anarchic operation of capitalism; a State government which seems disinterested in securing economic or social justice for the p oor: all these constitute a terrain that the Sena understands well.

Just how the Sena's programme plays itself out will be interesting to watch, replete as it is with possibilities. While the Congress(I)-NCP alliance seems only minimally interested in combating the Sena - action promised against Thackeray for his well-do cumented role in the riots of 1992-1993 is yet, for example, to materialise - the BJP's reactions could prove significant. At least once in the past, during the build-up to the 1990 elections, the Shiv Sena's lumpen tactics almost forced the BJP to disas sociate itself from the organisation. The alliance was saved by the dramatic events which preceded and followed the demolition of the Babri Masjid. Today, with the BJP desperate to represent itself as a moderate party of the Right, untainted by its fasci st heritage, the Sena mobilisation could conceivably propel, in the long term, a hunt for new partners.

One thing, however, might upset all these calculations. It has not passed unnoticed, inside or outside the Sena, that its mobilisations have not aroused much mass enthusiasm, bar well worn cynicism. This second war for power set off by the Shiv Sena's < I>senapati might just play itself out as farce.

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