Why Rane had to go

Print edition : July 29, 2005

Narayan Rane is perhaps an inevitable sacrifice the Shiv Sena must make if it is to aspire for a liberal image and a broader political role.

LYLA BAVADAM in Mumbai

Expelled Shiv Sena leader Narayan Rane at a press conference in Mumbai after holding a meeting with some party legislators.-VIVEK BENDRE

LIKE the proverbial snake that ate its own tail, the Shiv Sena seems to be turning upon itself, except that, in the present case, the dismissal of Narayan Rane, a Sainik of 39 years' standing, is likely to shake up rather than destroy the party. What the crisis has definitely exposed is the power struggle in the Shiv Sena.

When Rane announced his intention to resign as "Sena leader" on July 2, he opened up a can of worms. The Leader of the Opposition in the Assembly ended up being expelled from the party itself. Rane still holds on to the post of Leader of the Opposition, saying he has not been constitutionally removed and the Speaker of the House continues to recognise him as the incumbent because of the failure of the Sena to follow required constitutional procedures for his dismissal.

Constitutional confusions and exaggerated claims of support aside, the crisis in the party has brought to the fore two issues - a change in the leadership and hence a change in policies within the Sena, and the new balance of power that other parties could experience once Rane decides his future political path.

The immediate trigger for the crisis was apparently Rane's disagreement with the way in which Uddhav Thackeray, party supremo Bal Thackeray's son and the party's executive president, was running the Sena. Rane plainly said that Uddhav lacked political charisma and was unable to connect with the Sena's grassroots workers. The remark was one in a series of broadsides that Rane had been delivering ever since the party lost the 2004 elections, fought under Uddhav's leadership, to the Congress-Nationalist Congress Party combine. Rane also alleged that posts were available for a fee in the Sena and that the party's interests had become secondary to the interests of the Thackeray family. Throughout, Rane expressed a clear preference for Bal Thackeray's nephew Raj as the next chief of the party.

Rane's accusations did not come as a surprise to Sena supporters, many of whom were disgruntled at the way Uddhav had distributed the party tickets in the last elections. Post-election analysis revealed errors of judgement on the part of Uddhav, especially in the Konkan region, where the Sena lost some of its traditional seats. This fact, possibly more than any other, riled Rane, who is from the region and has derived much of his power within the party because he had nurtured it as a Sena bastion.

A large part of Rane's power emanates from the influence he wields with a section of the Sena. Recognising this, Thackeray swung into action in an attempt to checkmate Rane. The Sena's Sindhudurg district working committee was dissolved. New shakha pramukhs were announced for the Chembur-Trombay constituency, the heartland of Rane supporters. He was also removed from the powerful post of chairman of the BEST Kamgar Sena, the labour union in the Brihanmumbai Electric Supply and Transport corporation.

Sena supremo Bal Thackeray at a press conference announcing the expulsion of Rane. He is flanked by son Uddhav (left) and nephew Raj.-

Thackeray also sealed off another possible arm of attack by rallying 100 of the 101 Sena councillors in the Mumbai Municipal Corporation. With the political lan his supporters have come to expect, Thackeray promised an end to the crisis in the party and exhorted the councillors to work hard to ensure that the Sena retained its hold on the Corporation. Rane had earlier implied that his past activities in city politics would ensure that he had the backing of the councillors. By retaining this core group of power in Mumbai, Thackeray closed off one potential breach.

Rane's immediate future was made clear on July 6 when 51 of the Sena's 62 legislators were present at a meeting convened by Thackeray. Their presence was an endorsement of Rane's dismissal, though Rane alleges that they were there under duress. Oddly enough, the support of the 51 MLAs and the 100 councillors is not a neat end to the Sena's problems. It is understood that the pledges have been given because the MLAs and councillors stand by Thackeray, and not specifically by Uddhav, on whom this entire crisis hinges. As far as leadership goes, Uddhav is still a nonentity with a large number of Sainiks and leaders apparently preferring Raj.

The last major rift in the Sena leadership took place 15 years ago when Chhagan Bhujbal was lured away by Sharad Pawar. After that the party closed ranks and its authoritarian top-down hierarchy became even more stringent, though not enough to prevent defections like those of Ganesh Naik (now in the NCP) and more recently, Sanjay Nirupam, who joined the Congress.

However, as Thackeray advanced in years, the question about succession became louder, until Thackeray announced in the last elections that he would campaign only in Mumbai. It was an informal announcement of his failing health and of the fact that he was passing on the reins to Uddhav.

The choice of heir had been common knowledge for a while, but that did not dull the shock for Raj Thackeray and his supporters, who felt cheated. Raj, Thackeray's nephew, was always seen as his natural heir. Apart from looking like his uncle, Raj had the same way of functioning and commanded unconditional respect from younger Sainiks. And, unlike his cousin Uddhav, he had also grown up learning the ropes. As students, while Raj was involved in student political affairs and learnt the finer points of street-smart politics, Uddhav was diligently studying at the J.J. School of Arts. The shock of being led by a `scholar' rather than a rough and tough chief created an instant rift in the Sena. Among the senior leaders, Rane allied himself with Raj while former Chief Minister Manohar Joshi allied himself with Uddhav.

The rift in the party is also an indicator of the turmoil among the Sena's main supporters. At one time the Sena was the rallying point for Maharashtrians. The party's inception drew on a feeling of being done out of rights in their own State and of non-Maharashtrian `outsiders' taking over. The Sena chose to respond to the situation by taking advantage of it for its own ends. Instead of tackling the problem in a positive manner, the party tapped into the seething rage and channelled it into violence against non-Maharashtrians. Initially directed against the economically successful Gujarati merchants, the antipathy later included white-collar South Indian workers and, more recently, North Indians, who the Sena claims are monopolising jobs in every field. At first the party was enormously popular as it proved to be a rallying point, but as the years passed and campaign slogans did not translate into reality, the support group thinned.

The last straw for many Maharashtrian supporters came during the Sena's term in power between 1995 and 2000, when the party's abuse of power was quite plain. The zhunka bhakar stalls, supposedly created to make the cheap, nutritious Maharashtrian dish easily available, soon degenerated into a property scam with the stalls being converted into more profitable phone booths or photocopying shops. Likewise, Raj Thackeray's controversial employment generation scheme for Maharashtrian youth fizzled away after registering scores of jobless people. The halo around Raj faded.

The dilemma before the Sena is this. Should it continue to be seen as a party that represents Maharashtrian interests, or should it grow out of its parochial mindset and look to the priorities of the State as a whole? The challenge in ditching its regional mindset is to manage a careful balancing act so as not to alienate core voters. The crisis in the party was inevitable. Given the fact that the Sena is here to stay, it is to be expected that the party will have to reinvent itself within the parameters of a mature political party. The departure of Rane, who was known as the `muscle' of the party, is seen by some as the natural course of things when a regional party aspires to become a State and national party. A Sena leader said: "Maybe Rane's departure is a good thing for the future of the Sena." The point is proved by the survival of Sena leaders with a more liberal face. Sainik Manohar Joshi was not only Chief Minister but also, and more significantly, the Speaker in the Lok Sabha.

Rane's options now seem limited. With his expulsion from the Sena, his identity as a Sainik will fade. Hence, forming another regional party, though the idea was bandied about, was never really a viable option. So Rane has the choice of the NCP or the Congress and he is hot property for both. Neither party wants to appear desperate for this prime catch, but he has been approached by Chief Minister Vilasrao Deshmukh and by Sonia Gandhi's political adviser Ahmed Patel. Apart from the political coup of winning over a senior Sena man, Rane's hold over Mumbai, Thane and Konkan makes him valuable to both the Congress and the NCP. The three regions account for 65 of the 288 Assembly seats in the State. On the flip side, it has to be remembered that though Rane is powerful, his power comes from being a Sainik. It is debatable how long his aura will last after his expulsion.

He has been slow to show any outward interest in illustrating what Ratnakar Mahajan, spokesman of the NCP, prophesised when he said, "Rane has his own agenda and his own timetable." The byelections to be held later in the year will be the ultimate proof of whether Rane is a leader in his own right or merely by virtue of his association with Thackeray's Sena.

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