Shiv Sena, MNS

Trouble and strife

Print edition : May 02, 2014

Uddhav Thackeray, Shiv Sena leader, with his son and Yuva Sena chief, Aditya Thackeray, at a rally in Mumbai. Photo: VIVEK BENDRE

Raj Thackeray, Maharashtra Navnirman Sena chief, addressing an election meeting in Pune on April 1. Photo: PTI

THE Shiv Sena has been under severe strain ever since the passing away of its founder and charismatic leader, Bal Thackeray, in 2012. There was a time when the Sena, which was formed in 1966, and Bal Thackeray’s larger-than-life persona were all-pervading in Mumbai. Thackeray’s ceaseless statements made it impossible for the average citizen to escape the man or the party.

The Lok Sabha elections will see the Sena test the strength of Uddhav Thackeray, who has taken over the mantle of “pramukh” from his father, and of its alliance with the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). The future direction of the party will depend on both. The Sena and the BJP have been alliance partners ever since they fought and won the 1995 Assembly elections together and formed the first and only non-Congress government in the State (barring an earlier one led by a breakaway faction of Sharad Pawar). But the alliance has been a troubled one. The BJP has resented the fact that a younger, regional party is the senior partner in the alliance. Although the alliance has been mutually beneficial, the Sena would do well to remember that it has advanced politically because of its association with the BJP. The Sena’s influence was confined to Mumbai, Thane, Pune and Nashik before it aligned itself with the BJP. Today, it has extended its reach to rural Maharashtra. The discontent in the rank and file of the Pawar-led Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) and the Congress is another factor that has helped the Sena find acceptance in rural Maharashtra.

Ever since it became clear last year that the BJP was projecting Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi as its prime ministerial candidate, the Maharashtra unit of the the BJP has become emboldened to speak out against its ally. The Sena has tried to retaliate and hold on to its position. However, as far as the game of brinkmanship goes, the BJP has the upper hand as Uddhav has proved to be a complete novice.

In July 2013, when flash floods caused extensive damage to life and property in Uttarakhand, Modi reportedly sent teams to rescue stranded Gujaratis. An editorial in Saamna, the Marathi language newspaper owned by the Sena, called Modi’s act “parochial” and went on to praise Maharashtra Chief Minister Prithviraj Chavan for expressing his sense of concern for all those affected by sending aid to the region. Subsequently, Uddhav dismissed the comments as “constructive criticism”, probably at the instance of the BJP. The other reason for the discord in the partnership is the BJP’s plan to invite Raj Thackeray’s breakaway Maharashtra Navnirman Sena (MNS) into the saffron alliance.

While the Sena is against the plan, the BJP cites performance as the reason for considering MNS for the alliance. While the MNS has not registered an impressive electoral victory, it has played the spoiler. Even the two BJP rivals in the State, former BJP president Nitin Gadkari and the party’s Deputy Leader of the Lok Sabha Gopinath Munde, agree that Raj Thackeray will help the alliance win in Maharashtra.

The Sena’s performance in the Lok Sabha elections shows that it relies heavily on the BJP’s strength. The Sena fought its first Lok Sabha elections in 1989 and won just one seat. In 1991, the party won four seats, and in 1996 it won 15 seats, which has been its best record until now. It once again managed to reach this figure in 1999, but the bickering between the saffron partners since then has resulted in a gradual slide downhill for the Sena. In 2009, the Sena’s tally was 11. Its largely urban reach has meant that it holds just 45 seats in the 288-member State Assembly. However, the Sena reigns supreme in the Mumbai and Thane municipal corporations.

The other issue that has beset Uddhav is defections. Initially, he faced barbs about his leadership style from senior leader Manohar Joshi. Joshi commented publicly about the lack of spirit in the present leadership and paid the price for it. He has been sidelined for this election.

The announcement of elections witnessed a rush of defections from the Sena. At least six leaders, two of them sitting Members of Parliament, quit the party—four joined the NCP and one each joined the Congress and the MNS. It is interesting to note that the defections took place mostly to the NCP. The reason offered for this is that Sharad Pawar and Bal Thackeray shared a friendship that went back to the days when the Congress helped form the Shiv Sena to break the back of the labour unions in Bombay (now Mumbai).

Despite attacking the Left unions at the behest of the Congress, the Sena was banned and Bal Thackeray faced the brunt of the Congress’ wrath during the Emergency. But he continued to support Indira Gandhi and even called a bandh when she was arrested by the Janata Party government in 1977. However, this did not last long. Now, Pawar’s old association with the Congress as well as the fact that he is seen as a Congress rebel seems to have attracted Sena leaders to the NCP.

Acutely aware that he is his father’s son only in name, Uddhav has made a conscious effort to feel the pulse of his party. Party leaders who grumble that he does not listen to the voice on the street give him credit for the State-wide tour he undertook after his father’s death. His strength lies in back-room work as was proved when he guided the party through the 2012 municipal elections with great success.

Uddhav seems to be aware of the negative impression about the Sena among the public. Eager to change this perception and make the Sena more acceptable as well as capable of responding to the social realities of Mumbai’s demographics, Uddhav initiated the inclusive “Mee Mumbaikar” campaign in 2003. Meant to draw north Indians, whom the party previously shunned, it was popular in its brief lifespan. It was not the first time that the Sena had tried to remodel itself. In the early 1980s, Bal Thackeray realised the limited appeal of Marathi chauvinism and adopted the anti-Muslim, Hindu revivalist stance.

The Sena’s greatest problem is that though it is often in the news it is actually a static party. Despite its brief flirtations with liberal thinking, there does not seem to be any real desire or intention in the party to grow out of its xenophobic attitudes. While Uddhav wants to play down the Sena’s fanatical aspect, his son, Aditya, seems to have inherited Bal Thackeray’s wont to rush headlong into controversy. In 2010, Aditya launched his political career by intimidating the authorities to ban Rohinton Mistry’s Such a long Journey for the remarks in the book about his grandfather, which he found offensive.

Since the Shiv Sena politics has always been a one-man show, its future chapters will depend on Uddhav’s actions.

Playing spoiler

March 2006 witnessed a different sort of function at Mumbai’s Shivaji Park. Trim and techno-savvy youngsters scurried about purposefully holding electronic gadgets, which they used with ease and aplomb. The dais on the grounds had simple decorations. The sound system was the sort professional rock bands would have been proud to use. It did not seem like a political rally. Raj Thackeray was launching the MNS at that rally, promising to be a viable political alternative.

But the confidence exuded by the MNS in its inaugural years has been replaced now by the same ugliness and confused agendas that Raj Thackeray had professed to be throwing off when he left the Shiv Sena. In fact, many people have begun to wonder why he left the Sena at all.

The MNS’ agenda was to fulfil the Sena’s original promise, that is, implement the son-of-the-soil policy. It did attempt this, but like the Sena realised the folly of implementing such an agenda and adopted a more inclusive policy. And like the Sena, the MNS realised that it just did not sit well on its shoulders and so reverted to street politics and raised the Marathi manoos banner. The MNS had the opportunity to play the role of a good opposition. But Raj Thackeray could not measure up to it and soon fell back to arm-chair politics. His idea of constructive criticism was to compare the Congress government in the State with Modi’s government in Gujarat.

In 2008, the party attacked north Indian job aspirants who had come to Mumbai for a Railway Recruitment Board examination. The MNS sought to revive the old campaign of Maharashtra jobs for Maharashtrians. The attack seems to have been based on the simplistic formula of “any publicity is better than no publicity”. But with Samajwadi Party leaders taking up the issue in a big way, Raj Thackeray found that he and the MNS were getting more than what they had bargained for.

Meanwhile, Uddhav, took off on another trajectory that was forced by the Sena’s defeat in the 2004 Lok Sabha elections. The Sena realised that the demography of Mumbai had changed and there were to many north Indian voters. So, it launched the inclusive “Mee Mumbaikar” campaign. It tried to be secular and started building bridges with the Muslim community and, on the social front, took an interest in rural matters such as suicides by destitute farmers and the erratic power supply that was killing the rural economy. All this threw Raj Thackeray into a spin and left him feeling marginalised.

And yet he continued to have some appeal not because of the policies he espoused but because of his image. Raj Thackeray was Bal Thackeray's blue-eyed boy before he quit the Sena. He looked like his uncle, spoke like him, and drew cartoons like him. They shared the same views and generated the same news. Like his uncle, Raj Thackeray believed that dialogue was for sissies. Resorting to violence, holding Mumbai to ransom, and goonda raj were the rules of their game. Shiv Sainiks who quit the Sena say they prefer the MNS because they are comfortable with Raj Thackeray’s style of leadership. The Sena’s experiment with inclusiveness has also not gone down well with hard-line Maharashtrians. Listening to the rumblings on the other side, Raj Thackeray revived the old Sena-style campaign, realising that he would be better off aping Bal Thackeray and pushing the idea that he is his natural political heir.

For those Maharashtrians who had seen hope in Bal Thackeray and the Sena, the greatest disfavour done to them was the disagreement between Uddhav and Raj Thackeray, which led to the split in the Sena. The Sena and the MNS are now not so much about Maharashtrians, their core electorate which they have neglected, but about surviving in politics.

The BJP has used the rift between the two cousins to serve its own end. Nitin Gadkari met Raj Thackeray in March to seek his support for Modi as the prime ministerial nominee. The MNS has fielded only two candidates against the BJP in the ensuing Lok Sabha elections, whereas it is taking on the Sena in seven seats. Clearly, the MNS is seeking to decimate the Sena electorally.

The MNS did creditably well in the 2009 Lok Sabha elections. It contested 12 seats, seven against the Sena and five against the BJP. Although it did not win any seat, it split the votes and allowed the Congress-NCP to upstage the Sena-BJP combine. In 10 seats, the MNS polled more than a lakh votes, and in two seats, the BJP or the Sena candidate came third. But the MNS showed its mettle in the Assembly elections held in the same year when it won 13 seats and spoiled the chances of the combine in about 30 seats.

Lyla Bavadam

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