Kumar Ketkar is a senior journalist, who spent 25 years as editor of Marathi newspapers Loksatta and Divya Marathi. He has been a bold and fair critic of the RSS, the BJP and the Shiv Sena. He was nominated to the Rajya Sabha in 2018 but has an active presence in journalism. Speaking to Frontline, he placed the current political crisis in Maharashtra in historical perspective and delineated the events that led up to the fall of Uddhav Thackeray and the Maha Vikas Aghadi (MVA). Excerpts:
The BJP had sworn revenge on the Shiv Sena after 2019 and seems to have achieved it.
There is a complex history to this that stretches back to the 1980s, but the short answer is: revenge was of course a motive. But mere vengeful feelings were not enough. It was necessary to fuel hostility within the Sena. That could be achieved only by a multi-pronged attack right inside the castle. That approach included a sustained campaign to undermine Uddhav Thackeray’s authority, identifying the “weakest” links in the Sena, and as Sharad Pawar repeatedly said, through raids by agencies such as the Enforcement Directorate, systematic blackmail, pressure through the media, and even threats.
The initial raids were on the residences, offices, and properties of some who finally went on a junket to Surat-Guwahati-Goa. Suddenly inquiries against them were suspended. Eknath Shinde, the chieftain of the rebels, was once a target of the BJP for huge and unaccounted wealth accumulated over the last two decades. Today, he is their biggest asset. Fadnavis knew that Shinde was ambitious, had “substantial resources”, and a large network of activists obliged by him and could be lured into breaking the Sena.
It was personal to an extent. But it was more than personal in the sense the Modi-led BJP does not want any party or individual to question or challenge it. In recent days, Uddhav had become more vocal and strident. For instance, he said recently that except for building concentration camps, the Modi regime was doing everything that the Nazis did.
What is left for Uddhav Thackeray now? Will the much prized loyalty of the Sena be replaced by a desire to be with the powerful?
What is left for Uddhav is a difficult sociological question than political. At the outset, it must be understood that the Shiv Sena was born and shaped on the streets of Mumbai and Thane. It is not a regional party in the classical sense. It does not have roots in the peasantry, which regional parties usually have. It is neither Left nor Right as it has no ideology as such.
The core of the Sena’s identity politics was “Marathi manoos” [son of the soil]. That struck a chord with the vast number of unemployed Marathi youth as well as lower middle and working classes, who were surviving on low wages in chawls or slums.
So the Shiv Sena grew from bottom up, inspired by Balasaheb Thackeray’s aggressive, even violent, speeches that led to the image of the Sena as a rowdy, reckless, and violent outfit.
Uddhav had seen this Sena as an adolescent but could not identify with it. He is a “new” product of the “old” Sena. He began to emerge as an upper caste, higher middle class, urban heir to a legacy that was rooted in rowdyism and even local mafia. But those who grew up in the “old” Sena school of thought could not identify themselves with Uddhav’s leadership and style and sober speeches. So, at a cultural level there were two Senas: one was seen as “uncouth” and the other was trying to become “respectable”.
The “old” Shiv Sena could not really spread its tentacles in western Maharashtra, Vidarbha, Marathwada or northern Maharashtra (Khandesh) and had no hope of coming to power. The Vajpayee-led BJP helped it obtain the double identity of Marathi plus Hindu. The destruction of the Babri Masjid helped the Sena. The new middle class was given the “respectable” identity of Hindutva. As a result, the gap between the rowdy and the respectable was filled by militant Hindutva.
The simple definition of Hindutva, then and now, was being strongly “anti-Muslim” and of course “anti-Pakistan”.... The violent destruction of the Babri Masjid was, then and even now, a “proud” moment for Hindus. Balasaheb Thackeray quickly jumped on to the Hindutva bandwagon by declaring that he was proud of the Shiv Sainiks who participated in the mayhem. It is this legacy of “violent action” of the Hindu-Marathi lumpens that is being projected by Eknath Shinde to mobilise and split the Sena.
Uddhav was carefully trying to distance himself from that tradition and was projecting himself as a “respectable” and “urbane” Mumbaikar, rather than a Marathi-Hindu. He has alienated the “old” Sena. The BJP under Modi practises violent Hindutva and the politics of hate. That is what brought Amit Shah, Fadnavis, and Shinde together.
Neither Shinde nor his 40 followers understand the concept of Hindutva. They don’t care as long as they hit at Uddhav for not following militant Hindutva or hate politics. The threats of the ED, Income Tax Department, or criminal proceedings were given a “politically acceptable” ideology and slogan of Hindutva. Now the rebels can publicly say that they did not betray the Sena, nor were they blackmailed, but only came out to promote and protect the Hindutva identity.
It seems unlikely that Shiv Sena will just die or disappear into political oblivion. It is true that Uddhav as well as Shiv Sena are facing an existential crisis. Uddhav simply inherited the party. His skill has not been seen so far in actually mobilising, organising and coordinating the party. But he has shown skill in maintaining the organisation, in a sort of “management” pattern. But even that skill is now being questioned.
The Sena is not like the RSS or the communist party. It was born as a spontaneous expression of anger, frustration, and angst for identity in the huge, multilingual, multicultural and multi-class metropolis of Mumbai. Despite the changes in demography, living standards and cosmopolitanism, that “identitarian” issue has survived.
Mere Hindutva cannot hold the Marathi community together, just as mere Islam could not hold the Bengali and Punjabi-Sindhi populations of Pakistan as one country. The Bengali linguistic identity and cultural dimension led to the formation of an independent country. The Marathi community is not seeking such separation, but surely it wants to retain its sovereign autonomy, manifesting in language and culture.
It is clear that neither Uddhav nor Eknath Shinde can “conquer” the Mumbai Corporation this September. Shinde, however, can have very impressive victory in the entire Thane region. But the victory in Thane is no guarantee of support in the rest of Maharashtra, and hence even Shinde will have to tour the whole State to establish connectivity and credibility. If he succeeds in convincing the people in other parts of the region, he could indeed become the Sena supremo.
Shinde is younger than Uddhav by about four years. Unlike Uddhav, he has no health problems. Moreover, Uddhav is upper caste, a “Chandraseniya Kayastha Prabhu”. Shinde is Maratha. Nearly 34 per cent of the people in Maharashtra are Maratha by caste. The upper castes including those other than Brahmins are less than 9 per cent (Brahmins are around 4 per cent). Today, Uddhav has won the hearts and minds of most upper castes and a substantial number of non-Marathi communities. But in this very class of people, the BJP is strong. Can they vote for Uddhav and go against their chosen party and Modi? The Mumbai Corporation election will answer this complex question.
Today, the Shiv Sena has the largest number of seats in Mumbai Corporation. The BJP is a close No. 2. Now it has the Shinde-led faction of the Sena. If Uddhav cannot win enough votes (say about 70), he will lose control of the Corporation, the cash cow and prestige icon of the Sena. Then Shinde will emerge as the rival Sena and it can survive, albeit without Thackeray.
Eknath Shinde can challenge the leadership and indeed has also disrupted the party. But he will not be able to give the party its legacy, charisma, or the Thackeray surname. Dynasty does matter, though it is not enough to create a formidable party outfit.
The ground-level Shiv Sainik is emotionally attached to Thackeray. But whether that emotion will translate into political votes remains to be seen. The NCP and Congress cannot really rescue Uddhav and his Sena in Mumbai. The Sena too has practised anti-Congressism. It is hazardous to predict the future because neither the “games” of Amit Shah nor Uddhav’s thus far untested abilities for hard campaigning are predictable.
Legally, the Thackeray faction seems to have a leg to stand on. Can you foresee what forces will be acting to influence decisions?
We have seen how the governments in Karnataka and Madhya Pradesh were toppled and the governments in Goa and Manipur or Meghalaya were formed. Given the manipulative skills of Shah and other strategists, the decisions of the Election Commission and courts could go in Shinde’s favour.
But almost all legal and constitutional experts have said that there has been a blatant violation of constitutional, legal and moral propriety— the manner in which the confidence vote was taken, the way the disqualification issue was sorted out, and the way the newly installed Speaker was allowed to take a call. If the Election Commission and the courts take a different view, the situation can change.
For instance, the legislative majority has never determined the “real” and legitimate party. The organisation is spread far and wide, in over 200 shakhas. The shakha pramukhs and other senior functionaries have not yet deserted Uddhav and his Sena. If the majority of them leave him and join the Shinde faction, then Uddhav’s fate is sealed. But if they choose to stay with Uddhav and regard the rebels as betrayers of the organisation, then the symbol and the status of the Sena as the legitimate party will survive.
What forces will operate in influencing their decision? The most important is the assessment of the prospects in the 2024 election. All the State legislators and MPs of the Sena had fought the 2019 Assembly and Lok Sabha elections as the BJP’s alliance partners. They are not comfortable with the new partners—the NCP and the Congress. Distribution of tickets would mean collaborating with the “enemy” of yesteryears.
Will they be able to work with the NCP and Congress and defeat the strong BJP candidates? Election funding is the most crucial issue today. The BJP has huge financial muscle, which no party can match. So the bread is buttered on both sides if they go with the BJP. They cannot raise that kind of funding and the Congress and NCP are unlikely to help them. Electoral pragmatism will be the clincher, not loyalty to Uddhav or Hindutva.
Hindutva, in any case, is a camouflage and an excuse to get out of the ED/I-T/CBI trap. The fear of arrest, blackmail, and possible electoral defeat, and the most likely return of the Modi government at the Centre are the factors influencing their choice. That is how the legislative majority will be reflected in the organisational majority.
The only negative factor for Eknath Shinde is absence of charisma and credibility. So, it is not a fight for any principle or even politics of Hindutva: just political opportunism on the one hand and emotional attachment to Uddhav Thackeray on the other.
What is Raj Thackeray’s role here? Is he being taken seriously in the political arena?
Raj Thackeray is an X factor. After having campaigned vigorously against Narendra Modi and Amit Shah in 2019 (when Uddhav was part of the alliance), Raj has suddenly become the Marathi face of strident Hindutva and vicious anti-Muslim campaigns. Again, it is neither love for Hindutva nor classic anti-Congressism in play. He too was heavily raided by the ED, and then suddenly changed his tune.
Equally important is his passionate hatred and jealousy of his cousin Uddhav. He joined hands with Fadnavis much before Shinde’s rebellion. He will go along with Fadnavis and Shinde. But his ego and ambition are larger than his politics can accommodate. He will not fundamentally influence the course of events or politics in Maharashtra but will be like a tiger who roars in the wild.