Tremors in the Shiv Sena

Print edition : October 22, 2004

Open rebellion and leadership issues dent the image of the Shiv Sena as a cadre-based party with an unquestioned command structure.

in Mumbai

MUCH as they would like to disguise it, it is evident that something is amiss in the Shiv Sena. To begin with, this cadre-based party is facing open rebellion in its ranks. Rebellion itself is an alien concept for the Sena, whose members faithfully follow the diktat of a single leader: Bal Thackeray.

BJP-Shiv Sena leaders Manohar Joshi, Pramod Mahajan, Uddhav Thackeray and Gopinath Munde releasing the election manifesto.-VIVEK BENDRE

Ahead of the nominations for the Maharashtra Assembly elections, party leaders were taken by surprise when a large number of aspiring candidates declared that they would contest as independents if they were not given the ticket. While such poll-eve theatrics are routine in the Congress and the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP), the unprecedented dissent shook the Sena, which prides itself as being "well-structured and well-organised". Significantly, there have been differences in the party on the issue of who will take over the baton of leadership from Bal Thackeray.

Although the Sena appears to have pulled itself together, rumours of the faction fighting continue and the powerful united front that it once portrayed is clearly not visible.

Until September 24, the day before the deadline for the candidates to withdraw from the contest, Shiv Sena leaders were not able to rein in the six defiant rebels. The next day saw high drama at Matoshree, the residence of Bal Thackeray, where senior Sena leaders hammered out a strategy to contain the dissent.

Eventually, four of the rebel candidates - Srikant Sarmalkar (who filed his nomination from Kherwadi), Chandrakant Padwal (from Opera House), Deepak Shirke (from Ghatkopar) and Ravindra Mane (from Sangameshwara) - withdrew their names after they were pacified by party executive president Uddhav Thackeray. Of the other two, Bhaskar Jadhav, a legislator from Chiplun in the Konkan region, quit to form the "Bhaskar Sena", and Ramesh Prabhoo, a former corporator and Mayor of Mumbai, decided to fight the elections as an independent candidate.

Initially, the presence of "independents" was dismissed as insignificant, but with increasing infighting in both the Congress-NCP and the Sena-Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) alliances, it is beginning to emerge that the independents are poised to tilt the balance in the numbers game. In fact, a Sena leader admitted that Jadhav who has a strong following could deny them a valuable seat. Similarly, Prabhoo is expected to put up a tough fight from the Vile Parle constituency in Mumbai.

The BJP has also had its share of rebels. Sitting legislators Hemendra Mehta (Borivali) and Kisan Kale (Sillod) and former legislators Narsingh Mengji (Solapur) and Lakhan Malik (Washim) were expelled from the party after they decided to contest as independents on being denied the ticket.

With independents and smaller parties such as the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), the Republican Party of India and the Samajwadi Party eating into the votes, the bigger alliances have cause for concern.

The break-up of the results in the Assembly segments in the April-May Lok Sabha elections indicates that the Sena-BJP combine led in 142 segments while the Congress-NCP trailed by just four segments. In the 1999 Assembly elections, the Congress and the NCP together won 133 of the 288 seats. The Sena-BJP won 125. Neither combine was anywhere near the halfway mark.

In this election, smaller parties may win a fair number of seats. For instance, the BSP's role in the elections cannot be dismissed as it has the potential to play spoil-sport. Its non-discriminatory policy in providing shelter to rebel candidates from all parties has given it a substantial following. In Nagpur city, the BSP has allotted every Assembly ticket to rebels from the Congress, the BJP, the Sena and the NCP. The BSP won eight seats in the Lok Sabha elections and some of its winners were Congress rebels.

Then there is the potential threat for the saffron combine from the newly formed Malegaon Taluka Vikas Aghadi, which comprises the Sena-BJP rebels from the powerloom town of Malegaon. But the Sena is unperturbed. "This so-called rebellion and those who have branched off will have no impact on the overall results," said Uddhav Thackeray, dismissing speculation about a crisis in the party. "Besides, whoever defected in the past has never made it back to power," he told Frontline. Taking a tough stand on the issue, he said "the party's doors are shut to all rebels".

Why did the Sena deny these candidates the ticket? Uddhav Thackeray said he followed a strict and methodical procedure for selecting candidates and that those who did not make the mark were not given the ticket.

On Bhaskar Jadhav, a Sena leader says, "He got too high-handed. The constituents were not happy with him, so he was axed." Jadhav believes he has been sidelined because the Thackeray family thinks he is a threat to the leadership. About the Ramesh Prabhoo case, Uddhav Thackeray said "it was time to give others a chance". Uddhav said those who remained in the fray as rebel candidates were merely "blinded by greed". Uddhav may have a point, says an observer of the Shiv Sena's politics going by the rags to riches saga of several senior Sainiks.

THE factor that may be causing discord in the Sena, the observer points out, is that it remains strictly cadre based and the Thackeray family controls the party with an iron fist. Uddhav Thackeray may be the chosen heir, but his was not entirely a popular choice. His cousin Raj Thackeray was a serious contender in the succession battle. Party insiders say he may have made a more capable leader. "Uddhav is much milder and less shrewd," says the Sena leader. Besides there are also senior Sainiks such as Manohar Joshi and Narayan Rane, both former Chief Ministers, who could take over but will not be given the position because the family comes first. With Bal Thackeray receding into the background owing to ill-health, leadership remains a big question in the Sena.

"As they grow perhaps they also need to re-think their organisational set up," says the observer. "Rebellion is sometimes a sign that the party is growing." Obviously there are not enough seats to go around especially since there is an electoral alliance. Perhaps the alliance needs to be looked at too. Earlier the Sena's problem was a power struggle with its ally. That seems to have been ironed out with the Sena emerging as the chief partner.

At the release of the election manifesto on September 28, it was clear that Uddhav was the protagonist. Although Pramod Mahajan, a senior BJP leader fielded questions, it was Uddhav who seemed poised to take on the role of the alliance leader. He was even dressed for the part: white kurta, a huge saffron-coloured Shiv Sena scarf and a visible vermillion "tikka" on his forehead. The quintessential saffron party leader.

The Sena-BJP alliance manifesto is packed with sops and promises - free power, waiver of loans taken by farmers, a Rs.3 a kg foodgrains scheme for the underprivileged and 10 per cent job reservation for the economically backward. This is perhaps an attempt to take on the sops offered by the Democratic Front government on the eve of the elections. Mahajan says the manifesto broadly follows the "Jai Jawan, Jai Kisan, Jai Kamgar" plan that Bal Thackeray spoke about at a recent public meeting in Aurangabad.

Both alliances realise the importance of winning this election. Maharashtra, being a prosperous State and the second most populous one in the country, is important for the Congress to prove it can win a State election. As for the Sena-BJP, they must recover lost ground or they could be written off. But the fundamental problem in this election is that it is devoid of issues. Eventually it will boil down to numbers.

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