Torrential rain splattered on the red carpet outside a banquet hall in the eastern Mumbai suburb of Govandi on Monday, but that did not dampen the enthusiasm. As the rain reduced to a drizzle, Shiv Sainiks stepped out to oversee the installation of a banner that had photos of more than two dozen party officials. Ten more banners were mounted along the road. The face of any Shiv Sena member who held some authority in nearby Anushakti Nagar was on them.

“To keep everyone happy,” a Shiv Sainik explained with a smile.

Six days after senior Shiv Sena leader and urban development minister Eknath Shinde rebelled against Uddhav Thackeray on June 20, taking with him more than two-third of the party’s MLAs over the course of a week, the Sena leadership began an aggressive march across its home turf to reinforce its ties with grassroots workers.

The rebellion prompted Thackeray to resign as Maharashtra chief minister on Wednesday night, bringing an end to the government of the three-member Maha Vikas Aghadi coalition that had ruled the state since November 2019.

But even before Thackeray’s decision to quit, it was clear to Sena leaders that the revolt had shaken party workers. As a consequence, they set of out to organise a flurry of meetings with three objectives in mind – to boost the confidence of the bewildered Sena cadre, to demonstrate that the real strength of the Sena comes from its supporters at the bottom of the party structure and to prepare for elections to 21 municipal corporations across Maharashtra scheduled for later this year.

For the Shiv Sena, an important test of its popularity with voters will be the race for the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation, India’s richest civic body, which will be held either in September or October. The corporation has been under Sena control since 1997, but this time leaders from other political parties say the outfit will find it more difficult.

“Therefore, these meetings with Sainiks,” said Shiv Sena leader and a former municipal corporator Trushna Vishwasrao.

Shiv Sena workers prepare for a party meeting in a banquet hall in Govandi on June 27. Photo: Tabassum Barnagarwala

On June 27, education, environment and tourism minister Aaditya Thackeray addressed five rallies in and around Mumbai. He was due to visit Govandi that night, but delays at other rallies forced him to cancel.

Shakha pramukhs, as the heads of neighbourhood Sena units are called, decided to proceed with the Govandi event nonetheless. By then, hundreds of workers had braved the heavy rains to make their way to the banquet hall. About a dozen local party leaders, including Vishwasrao, made fiery speeches. The crowd, which spilled out onto the road outside, chanted slogans criticising rebel leader Eknath Shinde, comparing him to Union minister Narayan Rane, who began his career as a Sena worker in neighbouring Chembur before crossing over to the Congress and then the Bharatiya Janata Party.

“Nobody in Chembur remembers Rane now,” said Nimish Bhosle, who heads Sena’s machinery in the Anushakti Nagar assembly constituency. “This will be Shinde’s fate too. It is the party that people remember, not individuals.”

That is the hope Shiv Sainiks are carrying into the civic elections, that people would remember the party when they vote, not the individual MLAs who rebelled. Vishwasrao, in a provocative address, lashed out at the rebel Sena MLAs for deserting the party and urged workers to have faith in Thackeray.

Anushakti Nagar MLA Tukaram Kate reassured Sainiks that exodus of few rebels would not hurt the party. “You, the party workers, are the real strength, not them,” he told them.

Vishwasrao later told “What we spoke today… we hope it will inspire Shiv Sainiks to campaign harder for the BMC elections.”

A difficult Mumbai election

But even insiders worry about the Shiv Sena’s chances in the Mumbai corporation election. In Mumbai’s eastern suburbs, sexagenarian Ankita Uttekar has been a Sena worker for decades. She has witnessed the rebellions of both Narayan Rane’ in 2005 and Uddhav Thackeray’s cousin Raj Thackeray the same year. “But this time, we are shocked,” Uttekar said. “There was silence from shakha for first few days. Nobody knew what would happen. There is still confusion.”

Several within Shiv Sena said the Shinde-led rebellion has demoralised party workers. A party worker from Antop Hill said the lower cadre is baffled by what seems to be a vertical split in the party. “After so many MLAs left, there were murmurs of corporators leaving too,” the Sena member said.

This, Sena workers say, may hamper the party’s performance in the civic polls. Bhosle, from Anushakti Nagar, admitted that the exodus of MLAs will affect the party to some extent. “It will at the most take our progress five years back.”

Adding to this is the fact that the Bharatiya Janata Party will be a formidable opponent. In the last three elections to the Mumbai municipal corporation, the BJP’s seat share in the 227-member house has risen steadily: it won 25 in 2007, rose to 31 in 2012 and 82 in 2017. The Shiv Sena’s tally was 84 in 2007, 75 in 2012 and 84 again in 2017.

This year, the Sena has some support from the Congress and Nationalist Congress Party on the ground, even though they have not announced a formal alliance for the civic elections. But the seat share of these parties has declined over the past two polls. In 2012, the Congress got 52 seats and that slid to 31 seats in 2017. For the Nationalist Congress Party, its tally declined from 13 to nine seats.

This year, after a ward delimitation exercise, there will be 236 seats up for grabs.

Vinod Mishra, BJP group leader in the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation, said that this party has a good shot at winning the elections because the Sena is “internally weak”.

“Corruption charges and investigation against various Sena leaders shows what work they did in last two-and-a-half years in Maharashtra,” he said. “Now their ministers are also leaving. This election will show people have decided Shiv Sena needs to be replaced.”

Ashraf Azmi, a corporator from the Congress, said the rebellion had put Sena in a difficult spot especially with the defection of three MLAs from Mumbai – Yamini Jadhav (Byculla), Sada Sarvankar (Dadar) and Mangesh Kudalkar (Kurla). But Azmi added that over the past few days Uddhav Thackeray may have gained some public sympathy when he packed his bags and left the chief minister’s official residence Varsha on June 22 to indicate his willingness to give up the post, and finally quit on Wednesday.

“Those videos of him went viral,” said Azmi. “Voters are affected by all this.”

One Shiv Sena corporator said that workers had halted preparations for the civil polls since Shinde left on June 20. “We will resume once things calm down,” said Manish Morajkar, husband of Sena corporator Pravina Morajkar from Kurla, the constituency of rebel MLA Kudalkar .

Suprada Phaterpekar, a Yuva Sena core committee member, said the divide between Shinde and Thackeray will also undermine the Sena’s chances for the civic elections in Thane, Mira-Bhayander and in Palghar, where Shinde has a strong presence. “But for Mumbai, we are fairly certain that we will win,” she said.

A banner put up by a local corporator in Bandra is amongst several lacing the city. Photo: Special arrangement

Damage control

As part of its campaign to reassure workers, the Sena has put up banners across Mumbai. One banner in the western suburb of Bandra reads, “Tumchi Shiv Sena tumchich rehnar.” Your Shiv Sena will remain yours.

“This message is for Sainiks to give them confidence that Shinde faction cannot stake claim to our party name or our symbol,” said Sudesh Dube, a Sena official in Bandra. “It is also for our leader Uddhavji to know that we support him.”

Sudesh Dube (right), a Sena functionary, said they plan ward level meetings to strengthen connection with party workers. Photo: Tabassum Barnagarwala

On June 24, a day after only 13 MLAs turned up at a meeting chaired by Thackeray, he called for a meeting with corporators and members of parliament. The idea was to see who attended and make note of possible rebels. But it also aimed to motivate corporators before the elections. Eighty eight current and former corporators turned up, said corporator Anil Patankar, against an expected number of 98. Patankar said while there were concerns that some corporators could join Shinde, none have left so far.

“In my area, as soon as heard that several rebels had gone to Surat, we called for a meeting with shakha pramukhs and gat pramukhs [who are responsible for organising approximately 1,200 voters] to discuss what was happening and also strategies for the civic elections,” Patankar said. He added that active campaigning will begin a month before elections. The party is yet to choose its candidates, he said.

Patankar and Dube said soon they will conduct ward-level meetings with Sena workers. “We have been instructed to start talking to people in small groups, to tell them how rebels betrayed us and to gain their support,” Dube said. “Our workers are doing that at paan and tea stalls, talking to people in small groups.”

Umesh Karkeria, a shakha pramukh who has 49 polling booths under him, said they are talking to voters to get a sense of what they make of the Shinde-led rebel group. “We also plan to begin aggressive campaigning once the list of candidates for the BMC election is finalised,” Karkeria said.

Shakha Pramukh Umesh Karkeria (in centre) with Sanjay Rathod (his left) and Nimish Bhosle (extreme right) prepare for a party meeting in Govandi. Photo: Tabassum Barnagarwala

Sanjay Rathod, also a shakha pramukh who has 59 booths under him, said they are hoping the work Shiv Sainiks did during Covid-19 will be remembered when voters press the button

“We are like roots of this party, we have deep connect with people in society,” said Bhosle, who heads the Anushakti Nagar Vidhan Sabha machinery for the Shiv Sena. “It won’t matter that so many MLAs left. Corporation elections depend on local work. The majority of the Sena is with Uddhavji.”