The so-called political observers and the excitable media appear more despondent and desperate than Uddhav Thackeray, or even his son Aditya, following the Election Commission’s February 17 decision to allot the name “Shiv Sena” and its election symbol of bow and arrow to the Eknath Shinde faction. Some commentators attribute their stoic approach to their political immaturity or social insensitivity. Yet, the classical description of a “stoic personality” is “temperament that exhibits composure and resilience in the face of any kind adversity or challenge”.
It would be hazardous to predict what the future holds for the Uddhav-led faction, or for the father-son duo. But it is surely too early to write it off as a political entity or even a force. It must first be recognised that the Shiv Sena is not a political party like the CPI or the Congress or the BJP. It is also not a conventional regional party like the DMK, the TDP, the Akali Dal or even the National Conference.
Though media analysts call it a regional party, it does not have the features that characterise a regional party. In sociological terms, such a party must have a solid base in caste or community. It must represent the peasantry with a sound rural base. Such an outfit generally represents a regional bourgeoisie that does not acquire a respectable presence on the national scale but has vested mercantile, industrial and agricultural interests in the region where it operates. The Sena does not have such a class base.
It is not even like the Samajwadi Party of Uttar Pradesh. It is neither like the Trinamool Congress with its frenzied base in West Bengal, nor like the Biju Janata Dal which could come to power repeatedly for over 25 years without any specific linguistic or caste rhetoric. Navin Patnaik is neither a great Odisha orator nor has a media-savvy image, but his quiet charisma has helped him and his party retain power.
These comparisons are necessary in order to understand the nature of regional parties. The Shiv Sena is not a regional phenomenon in that sense. One cannot therefore use conventional ways of thinking to comprehend what is happening to it.
No ideological issues
To understand the imbroglio of the politics in Maharashtra, or rather the vicious skulduggery in the State’s polity, we must note that there are no contentious ideological or policy issues involved. What is the ideological difference between the two factions led by Shinde and Uddhav Thackeray?
Both swear by Hindutva. Both stand for Marathi Asmita. Both wanted Aurangabad and Osmanabad renamed as Sambhaji Nagar and Dharashiv, respectively. Both stridently claim the legacy, name and symbol of Shivaji. Now even the BJP is looking to imitate the style, slogan and societal networking of the Sena..
The BJP and its earlier avatar, the Jana Sangh, were totally opposed to the policy of reservation. Interestingly, both the BJP and the Sena were against the implementation of the Mandal Commission’s recommendations. The Shiv Sena used to boast that its organisation was not based on any caste, community, or creed. Today, however, the BJP is spearheading the OBC reservation cause and demanding reservation for the dominant Maratha caste. Today’s BJP is, in fact, dominated considerably by OBC leaders. The Shiv Sena always had a large OBC following though it did not advocate Mandalisation.
The Congress and the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) are on the same page with both the Senas and the BJP on these matters. Since consistency has ceased to be a virtue, nobody can claim the sanctity of following a set of policies and programmes. All these parties have campaigned on the urban issue of metro train networks or the rural issue of cheap (even free) electricity.
Therefore, the question whether Uddhav (or his Sena) rides over the storm he is in today or gets wiped out by it is not going to be decided by ideology or election manifesto promises. No party in Maharashtra today can boast a stunningly charismatic leadership, nor great oratory. Though the NCP has the veteran Sharad Pawar as its chieftain, he too does not have a credible support base across the State, certainly not in urban centres. He gets much media attention but that has not got translated into electoral base.
There have been some paradoxes in the way the Shiv Sena has evolved. It was seen as a militant, even violent outfit, with rowdy elements running it with its founder leader, Balasaheb Thackray, sporting a fire-spouting persona. Yet he declared his son, seen as a rather wimpish personality, as his political heir and not the more flamboyant Raj (his nephew) known for his wild speeches. Raj had often been seen as the real inheritor of Balasaheb’s legacy.
Over the years, however, Raj was seen as receding in popularity, notwithstanding the crowds at his rallies. Uddhav’s party won most of the seats in the Mumbai Corporation election in 2017. That election marginalised Raj considerably and emboldened Uddhav.
Uddhav’s rebellion against the powerful BJP in 2019, despite winning the election in alliance with it, was perceived as uncharacteristic. His becoming the Chief Minister with active support from Sharad Pawar as well as the Congress was thought of as a political anachronism. Most doubted his ability to lead such a government. But all commentators and critics were surprised that not only he but even the newly inducted Aditya appeared to be in perfect saddle.
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Uddhav was in complete control during the COVID crisis, along with his Health Minister, Rajesh Tope of the NCP. Aditya earned appreciation from the WHO and other international bodies. Indeed, he began to get kudos from the cosmopolitan elite in Mumbai. Uddhav considerably metamorphosed the image of the Sena as an organisation of the middle-class elite from an outfit of lumpens and hooligans. This transformation was not acceptable to a section of the Sena, still not out of the old mould of local dons and extortionists.
Over the years, the Sena was getting used to “normal” political processes. In the early years, for nearly three decades, the Sena was a kind of local terror. Whenever it gave a call for “Mumbai bandh”, the strike would be total. Nobody took the risk of opposing the “bandh”. The business community and the white-collar middle class (which was generally the vote bank of the BJP) resented the Sena’s strong-arm tactics.
An alliance of necessity
The BJP, at the time of its alliance with the Sena in the 1980s, by and large represented the upper castes, the stable urban and rural middle classes — white-collar employees in banks, insurance, government departments, colleges and universities, and professionals like doctors, chartered accountants, real estate agents and architects. This section regarded the Sena and its activists as uncultured and less educated. The self-image of the RSS-Jana Sangh and later the BJP was that of a respectable, educated, tradition-minded middle class. But it could not hope to come to power on the strength of this image. The Shiv Sena, too, did not have enough electoral support to win on its own. They needed each other.
Initially, Balasaheb Thackreay resisted forming an alliance with the BJP. For the Shiv Sena, “Marathi Asmita” was its identity. For the BJP, it was the so-called “Hindu Asmita”. But Thackreay also advocated Hindu identity. The alliance could, it was thought, merge these two complementary identities. The strategy worked. The alliance (“Yuti”) came to power in 1995 against the backdrop of the frenzy and riots triggered by the demolition of the Babri Masjid in December 1992.
“Uddhav changed the image of the Shiv Sena from an outfit of lumpens to an organisation of the middle-class elite.”
But the cultural (and class) gap between the partners could not be bridged. More so because the ideology of Prabodhankar, father of Balasaheb, was of militant atheism, anti-Brahminical domination and strident opposition to superstition. Some of those ideas had been imbibed by the early leaders of the Sena. For the sake of power, the Shiv Sena did not highlight Prabodhankar’s thoughts, which were close to that of Periyar of the Dravidian movement. The conflict was bound to emerge at some point.
With Uddhav sporting a cosmopolitan Mumbaikar approach, tension started building up. Uddhav rebelled when he felt slighted by the BJP’s refusal to honour the commitment of the chief ministership going to the Sena.
It appears now that Uddhav was willing to let Eknath Shinde become Chief Minister, but the NCP and the Congress made their support conditional on Uddhav leading the government. At that point, the Shiv Sena, the NCP and the Congress were keen to isolate the BJP. The Modi-Shah juggernaut needed to be thwarted, it was felt, for it might crush them all in Maharashtra. Out of this political exigency emerged the alliance of the NCP and the Sena under Uddhav’s leadership.
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The so called “old mould” Sena was uncomfortable with this new arrangement. The BJP kept its channel open and organised “Track 2” talks with the disgruntled members. With the deployment of the “army” of the ED, CBI, IT and NIA, the Shiv Sena fort was cracked. As many as 40 Sena MLAs were cornered and lured into the trap. It was nemesis for both factions of the Shiv Sena.
But the last act of the drama is yet to unfold. Uddhav and his Sena, though marginalised in the Assembly and boxed in by the Election Commission and, to an extent, the judiciary, have not lost their social base. In fact, they now have a multi-cultural, even multi-religion, metropolitan support base. Shinde, on the other hand, despite the solid support from the Modi-Shah regime and the local BJP, has not yet received acclaim or political acceptance. That is the main reason why the Shinde-Fadanvis government keeps postponing the local body elections.
With the Shiv Sena split, the Modi government facing flak on Adani and other issues, and the Congress shedding its diffidence and inertia, elections will throw up hung houses in local bodies. The polity of the State is going to remain fractured for a decade or more.
Kumar Ketkar is a veteran Marathi journalist and Rajya Sabha member.
- Uddhav Thackeray may be at a political disadvantage right now, but it is too soon to write him off politically.
- Eknath Shinde has the backing of the top BJP leadership, but he does not yet have the confidence to hold local body elections.
- Under Uddhav Thackeray, there had begun an image makeover of the Shiv Sena as a party of the middle class elite which the old timers did not like.