At its core, the Shiv Sena, founded by Balasaheb Thackeray on June 19, 1966, was a regional and sectarian party championing Marathi pride. It later adopted the Hindu nationalist ideology, with Balasaheb referring to himself as the “Hindu Hriday Samrat” (king of Hindu hearts). As the party commemorates its 57th anniversary, it seems to have lost its moorings, with a fierce battle for Balasaheb’s legacy erupting between two factions, and the mantle has passed on from son Uddhav Thackeray to rebel leader Eknath Shinde.
While the party has faced storms in the past, with leaders such as Chhagan Bhujbal, Narayan Rane, and Uddhav’s cousin Raj Thackeray himself raising the banner of revolt, never has it been as severe as it is now, with its core ideology in question. The real test of superiority will be proven in the mandate in the Assembly election next year.
The current crisis can be traced back to 2019, when the Shiv Sena formed the Maha Vikas Aghadi (MVA) government with the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) and the Congress. The ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-Shiv Sena combine had won the election, but Uddhav broke away to form the MVA on the grounds that the BJP had failed to honour its word on sharing the chief ministerial post with his party. He said that at a meeting at his residence in January 2019, Amit Shah, the then BJP president, had assured him of a rotational arrangement between the BJP and the Shiv Sena for the Chief Minister’s post. Shah denied giving Uddhav any such assurance.
The BJP had apparently been trying to discredit the government and engineer defections since then and got the opportunity on June 20, 2022, during the elections to the Legislative Council. That evening, after the voting, Shinde, the then Urban Development Minister, left for Surat in BJP-ruled Gujarat, accompanied by 15 party MLAs. (The BJP won five of the 10 MLC seats, two more than it had expected to win, pointing to suspected crossvoting. Two Shiv Sena candidates won.)
Two days later, more Sena MLAs moved to Guwahati in Assam, another BJP-ruled State. The Uddhav camp asked the then Deputy Speaker of the Assembly to initiate the disqualification process against these MLAs. (The Maharashtra Assembly did not have a Speaker then, as the Congress’s Nana Patole had resigned from the post a few months earlier.) The Shinde group in its plea in the Supreme Court on June 26 maintained that the Deputy Speaker had no right to decide on the disqualification, a view which the court upheld. By June 27, 40 of 56 Shiv Sena MLAs had joined Shinde in his coup against Uddhav.
Following this, Shinde staked his claim to power, and Governor Bhagat Singh Koshyari asked the MVA to face a vote of confidence in the Assembly. However, Uddhav decided to resign on June 29 before the vote was to be taken. On July 1, Shinde, along with Devendra Fadnavis of the BJP, formed the government.
In the legal battle that ensued, the Supreme Court ruled on May 11, 2023, that the Governor’s ordering of a vote of confidence was illegal. The Supreme Court, however, refused to dismiss the Shinde government on the grounds that Uddhav had resigned before the vote could be taken. The court also upheld the Governor’s decision to invite Shinde for the swearing-in. Currently, the matter rests with the Speaker, Rahul Narvekar, a BJP MLA who was elected immediately after the Shinde government won the trust vote.
Shinde faction’s claims
To avoid disqualification under the anti-defection law, Shinde claimed before the Election Commission that his was the real Shiv Sena. In addition to the backing of 40 MLAs, the Shinde faction submitted affidavits from around three lakh office-bearers and workers to support its claim. In the Shiv Sena parliamentary party, too, 13 of the 19 MPs joined the Shinde faction. In February 2023, the Election Commission accepted the Shinde faction’s claim and granted it the name “Shiv Sena” and symbol (bow and arrow).
Shinde’s is not the first rebellion that the Shiv Sena has seen. The first major rebellion in the party was in 1991, when Chhagan Bhujbal, now an NCP leader, quit over Thackeray opposing the implementation of the Mandal Commission report. Another significant rebellion came from Narayan Rane in 2005. Then the Leader of the Opposition in the Assembly, Rane left over differences with Uddhav. Raj Thackeray left the party in 2006, dealing a blow to the Thackeray family. But Shinde’s revolt is significant in that no rebel so far has laid claim to the party itself.
Jatin Desai, a veteran journalist in Mumbai, attributes Shinde’s success not just to the BJP’s support but also to the changes in the character of the Shiv Sena in the past 15 years. “The Shiv Sena has seen several electoral ups and downs. But its nature was more like that of an aggressive spontaneous organisation than a typical structured political party,” he said. “Uddhav tried to instil a party culture in the Shiv Sena. This diluted the original nature of the organisation, and a complex web of interests developed in the party. That is why it became possible to hijack the entire party with monetary promises and by utilising investigative agencies.”
Shinde’s charge against Uddhav is ideological betrayal. He calls the alliance with the Congress and the NCP a betrayal of the voters as well as of his father’s legacy of Hindutva.
Politics of survival
It is evident that for Uddhav, the survival of his party as a political force was important in post-2014 politics. The Sena and the BJP first came together in the 1986 byelection to the Vile Parle Assembly constituency and won on the Hindutva plank. This paved the way for the BJP-Shiv Sena alliance in the 1990 Assembly election. The alliance remained intact until 2014, when Modi came to power. In the post-Bal Thackeray era, Modi became the new Hindu Hriday Samrat and the BJP took the hardcore right-wing mantle in the State away from the Shiv Sena.
“Uddhav understood the paradigm shift in Indian politics,” said journalist Jaydev Dole. “Now, votes on the Hindutva line will predominantly go to the BJP. That is why he is striving to return to his son-of-the-soil politics.”
Prathmesh Sawant, the taluka chief of Kankavali in Sindhudurga in the Konkan region, is a loyal cadre of Uddhav’s party and belongs to the second generation of Sena supporters. Despite hailing from a Rane stronghold, Sawant remains committed to the Thackerays. “Everyone knows that Shiv Sainiks cannot be bulldozed by an abuse of power,” said Sawant. “I will leave politics before joining hands with Shinde.” His statement represents the prevailing mood among Thackeray family loyalists.
The changing nature of the Shiv Sena over the past two decades has indeed created a complex web of interests within the party. The current power dynamics in the State have helped the Shinde faction attract more workers from the Shiv Sena (Uddhav Bal Thackeray) into its fold. Rajesh More, the Shinde faction’s Dombivli city chief in Thane district, said: “The political legacy comes with ideological conduct. It is not hereditary. Shinde Saheb is firmly for Hindutva whereas Uddhavji betrayed the ideology by joining hands with the Congress and the NCP. That’s why today the common Shiv Sainik is supporting Shinde.”
Prakash Akolkar, the author of Jai Maharashtra, a book on the Shiv Sena, said: “The word ‘betrayal’ is very emotional when it comes to the Shiv Sena cadre. They have unhinged loyalty for the Thackeray family. Even Raj Thackeray failed to snatch them. So, even after using government agencies and all the money power, Shinde will not get the support of the party workers. In elections, the real strength of the Shiv Sena is these workers, and they will only be with Uddhav Thackeray.”
- The Shiv Sena, a regional and Hindu nationalist party founded by Balasaheb Thackeray, has split into two factions, with rebel leader Eknath Shinde challenging Uddhav Thackeray’s leadership and claiming Balasaheb’s legacy.
- The Shinde faction sees Uddhav’s alliance with the Congress and the NCP as a betrayal of the party’s Hindutva ideology. The Election Commission has allotted the name Shiv Sena and the party symbol to the Shinde faction.
- The division within the Shiv Sena could lead to a significant shift in Maharashtra’s political landscape. The upcoming general election and State election in 2024 will be significant battles for both factions.
Shift in political landscape
Since its rise in 1990, the Shiv Sena has been a strong political force in the Assembly, with its lowest tally being 44 seats in 2009. The division of the party could lead to a major shift in the political landscape of Maharashtra. Various surveys suggest that Uddhav may benefit from a sympathy wave in the next election. If so, a completely new team led by him could emerge, the old guard having deserted him. On the other hand, if Shinde manages to maintain his tally of around 40 seats, it could mean a setback for Uddhav and potentially lead to a political eclipse for him and his family.
The political scientist Suhas Palshikar believes that Uddhav will contest in fewer seats after joining forces with two powerful parties than what he did when he had allied with the BJP. “But I don’t think there will be much decline in his vote share. The outcome of the election will depend on how intact the MVA remains. If the MVA succeeds in adding one or two smaller parties like the Vanchit Bahujan Aaghadi to its fold, they will win hands down.”
One of the significant electoral battles in Maharashtra will be the local body elections. Shiv Sena, being a Mumbai-centric party, has a strong presence in the city and has been in control of the Mumbai Municipal Corporation since 1995. In the 2017 local body elections, the Shiv Sena faced a serious challenge from the BJP. Despite being alliance partners in the State and Central governments, both parties contested separately. In that election, the BJP won 82 seats, a significant increase from its tally of 32 in 2012. The Shiv Sena’s tally decreased to 84 from 93 in 2012. After having lost control of both the party and the State government, winning back Mumbai becomes essential for Uddhav’s political survival.
For the BJP, too, the Mumbai election is important since it will have repercussions in both the Lok Sabha and Assembly elections. If the Shinde-led Shiv Sena secures a victory, it will be seen as a triumph not only over Uddhav but also over the MVA alliance.
Apart from Mumbai, there are 25 municipal corporations, 26 zilla parishads, 240 municipal councils, and 269 panchayat samitis (tehsil bodies) whose elections have been delayed due to litigation over Other Backward Class reservation. These elections are expected to be held in November and they will have a significant impact on the political landscape.
The general election in April 2024 and the State election in October 2024 will be major battles for both factions. The seat-sharing arrangements between parties will play a critical role in determining their prospects.
The birth of the Shiv Sena was driven by the frustrations of jobless urban Marathi youth and the perceived loss of regional identity. These issues have resurfaced in Maharashtra, with a high unemployment rate and a growing feeling of dominance by the Gujarati-Hindi culture over Mumbai and Maharashtra’s cultural identity. The faction that adapts its politics to address these concerns stands a better chance of achieving political dominance in Maharashtra.