Last Tuesday night, Uday Samant, the rebel Shiv Sena MLA and Maharashtra cabinet minister of industries, exhorted a packed banquet hall in the north-eastern Mumbai neighbourhood of Govandi to ensure a “record-breaking turnout” at the Dussehra rally that Chief Minister Eknath Shinde will address on Wednesday at the Bandra-Kurla Complex .

“All of you must get people for the rally,” Samant urged the crowd. “We must show the clout Shinde saheb holds in Mumbai. Nobody should say he has no following in Mumbai.”

Similar scenes have been playing out in other parts of the city over the past few weeks as loyalists of the Uddhav Thackeray faction of the fractured Shiv Sena have attempted to galvanise members to attend the rally they are organising on the same day in Dadar’s Shivaji Park, 6 km away.

Mahesh Sawant, Dadar division head for the Thackeray group, said that party workers from across the country had been instructed to present themselves at the event as a show of strength.

The intense mobilisation efforts for the competing Dussehra rallies are the latest sign of how the rival factions of the splintered Shiv Sena party are attempting to use religious festivals to coax workers into their corner and demonstrate the extent of their support.

This strategy first became evident in the run-up to Janmashtami in August and picked up steam during the Ganesh festival in September, when the groups led by Uddhav Thackeray and Eknath Shinde group each organised events across Mumbai. This has become especially important with elections to the Mumbai municipal corporation, the richest civic body in India, expected later this year or early next year.

Battle for election symbol

The Dussehra event, though, has special significance for the Shiv Sena. Since 1966, the year in which the party was established, founder Bal Thackeray addressed an annual rally on Dussehra at Shivaji Park. The ground in central Mumbai holds many memories for the Shiv Sena: it was where the party was founded, where its first chief minister took oath in 1995 and where Bal Thackeray was cremated in 2012.

After the party splintered dramatically in June, when Eknath Shinde and a bunch of MLAs walked out of a coalition government headed by Sena leader Uddhav Thackeray, the son of founder Bal Thackeray, the Sena has been convulsed by a battle to establish which faction has the right to the party’s bow and arrow election symbol.

Each group describes itself as “the real Shiv Sena”.

On June 30, Shinde oath as chief minister, with the Bharatiya Janata Party’s Devendra Fadnavis as his deputy.

Over the past week, each side has released videos featuring Bal Thackeray at rallies in Shivaji Park attempting to show that they are the true inheritors of his legacy.

“A sea of commitment will rise,” declared the video by the Uddhav Thackeray faction.

The video by the Eknath Shinde group says, “One focus, one master, one commitment.”

Across Maharashtra, 40 MLAs of the Sena’s total strength of 55 in the assembly have expressed their support for Shinde. So too have 12 of the 18 Shiv Sena MPs in the Lok Sabha.

But the battle is still playing out on the ground, as each faction attempts to woo the party rank-and-file to their side. The iconic Shivaji Park became the focus of protracted bureaucratic and legal conflict as both Thackery and Shinde staked their claim to holding rallies there on Dussehra.

On September 23, the Mumbai High Court granted the Thackeray faction permission to hold its event at the Dadar ground. A week before, the Mumbai Metropolitan Region Development Authority allowed the Shinde group to use a ground in the Bandra-Kurla Complex for its event.

It is not surprising that religious festivals have become a tug-of-war game between the Sena factions attempting to claim the party’s legacy. The party has long used religious and cultural events to consolidate its appeal. As Uddhav Thackeray group spokesperson Harshal Pradhan put it, “Balasaheb [Bal Thackeray] told us to do 80% social work and 20% politics to win over the people.”

Rashmi Thackeray visits the Tembhi Naka Navratri Mandal in Thane district on September 29. Credit: PTI.

Preparing for the Dussehra rally

With an eye on upcoming civic polls, Chief Minister Eknath Shinde has been on a spree to appoint new party officials in an attempt to recreate an organisational structure and a ground-level cadre exactly on lines of Bal Thackeray’s version of the Shiv Sena. In August end and early September, vibhag pramukhs or divisional heads were appointed. Now the lower-rung officials are being appointed.

A newly appointed shakha pramukh, requesting anonymity, told that each MLA has been asked to ensure the attendance of 5,000 people. Vibhag pramukhs and shakha pramukhs (branch heads) under each MLA have also been given targets.

“Each booth level worker has about 800 voters to take care of,” the shakha pramukh said. “ Our aim is to draw as many people for the rally as possible.”

On Wednesday, vibhag pramukhs from the Shinde faction held a meeting in Garware hall in South Mumbai to discuss preparations. “We had to discuss about parking and seating arrangements for people,” said Avinash Sane, a vibhag pramukh from Sion-Koliwada and Chembur region in north eastern Mumbai. “We plan to hold a gathering of 2 lakh to 2.5 lakh people.” He switched sides to join Shinde in August.

Legislator and cabinet minister Uday Samant of the Eknath Shinde faction addresses party members in Govandi on Tuesday. Credit: Tabassum Barnagarwala.

However, several Shinde supporters admit that it will be a big challenge to draw the crowds away from Dadar to the MMRDA ground. Because Shivaji Park is the traditional venue for the Dussehra rally, both factions had applied to the municipal corporation for permission to hold their rallies there.

The Thackeray-led Sena made its application on August 22, while the Shinde faction did so on August 30. Under pressure, the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation denied permission to both factions until the court gave directions.

Mahesh Sawant, vibhag pramukh in Dadar for Thackeray’s faction of the Sena, is overseeing the rally at Shivaji Park. “We will require two days to make all arrangements,” he said. “We do it every year” A Durga Puja pandal has been erected by the Bengal Club at the park currently and will be taken down after Navratri.

“Every year more than a lakh Sainiks come from across India,” Sawant said. “This time, we will have 100-150 flags of Shiv Sena covering the perimeter of the park and banners across the city.”

Like each year, an effigy of Ravana will be burnt and political speeches will be made by select leaders, with Uddhav Thackeray to make the final remarks..

Eknath Shinde at a garba event in Mumbai on October 1. Credit: PTI.

Festivals now a flashpoint

Sena spokesperson Pradhan said the party has always celebrated festivals by holding cultural events and the rebel group has been playing “dirty politics by competing to hold gatherings at the same venue”. The Shinde faction has argued that since they are the “real Sena”, it is incumbent on them to carry forward the party’s traditions.

It started with Janmashtami celebrations in August. Shinde announced that the traditional dahi-handi human pyramids would be categorised as an adventure sport. Pro Handi league competitions would be instituted, he said. In addition, participants in the pyramids – who are known as govindas – would get a life insurance cover of Rs 10 lakh.

Taking forward a tradition started by his mentor Anand Dighe, Shinde organised a large dahi-handi event on Dighe’s home turf of Thane.

To compete with Shinde, Thackeray’s group organised a nishta (loyalty) dahi handi event outside the party’s Sena Bhavan headquarters in Dadar after their usual venue, Worli’s Jamboree Maidan, was booked by the BJP.

Shivaji Park in Dadar. Credit: Tabassum Barnagarwala.

In September, Chief Minister Shinde visited several Ganesh pandals in areas in Mumbai considered to be Thackeray strongholds.

The Sena vs Sena tension even led to scuffles. In Dadar on September 9, a fight broke out between workers over the counters at the beach each faction had set up to help devotees immerse Ganesh idols. When the workers landed up in Dadar police station, rebel MLA Sada Sarvankar fired a shot from his licensed gun. A first information report was filed against both sides by the Mumbai Police.

In Kalyan, the police forced the organisers of a Ganesh pandal to alter a display that depicted the split in Sena showing rebels reaping fruit from a tree planted by Thackeray. The police deemed this provocative. The patron of the group that mounted the display is Vijay Salvi, president of Sena’s Kalyan unit that owes its allegiance to Thackeray.

The fight for venues has continued in Navratri. On September 21, the Shinde faction managed to get Thane Municipal Corporation’s permission to hold Navratri festivities in Durgadi fort while the Thackeray group’s application was rejected.

Preparing ground for civic elections

All this jockeying, workers say, will influences their chances in the Mumbai civic elections due to be held the end of this year or early next year.

Mumbai remains a tough battle for the Shinde group but it has begun making inroads. The split that was initially limited to leaders of legislative assembly has now deepened, with workers even at the lower level switching sides.

Nimish Bhosle, a Thackeray supporter and vibhag pramukh, said only those who do not get tickets or positions will join Shinde. Already, several disgruntled Sena workers have switched sides, hoping to find a role in Shinde’s new hierarchy.

Among them is Prashant M Patel from Chembur, who has been a Shiv Sena member for 27 years. He recently joined Shinde and has been appointed as a shakha pramukh. “I joined to serve Hindutva,” he said. “Since Shinde saheb holds the same vision, I decided to join him,” Patel said.

Party workers listen to the announcements of new functionaries of the Eknath Shinde-led faction. Credit: Tabassum Barnagarwala.

Jonathan Charles Arun from Anushakti Nagar, who worked for Thackeray for 18 years, switched sides in August. He has his eye on a deputy shakha pramukh post.

Avinash Sane, a newly appointed vibhag pramukh, says that while some Sena workers may have joined Shinde for political growth, “a large section” truly believes in the rebel leader’s cause. “The change is rapid,” said Sane. “In the coming months support for him will grow.”

For voters, the shifting political sands has created some confusion. Banners of both factions carry Bal Thackeray’s photo and the party symbol. Dipshali Sharma, aged 20, is going to vote for the first time in civic elections from Anushakti Nagar in north east Mumbai. She has been attending political meetings of both factions to understand their vision.

“Both sides claim to be the real Shiv Sena,” she said. “It is confusing for us. I will wait until the party symbol is allotted to one before I decide who to vote for.” She added: “Shinde saheb has a good connect with people I hear.”

Octogenarian Meena Manjrekar lives in Govandi. She is an ardent follower of Bal Thackeray and later Uddhav Thackeray. But she attended a meeting held by Shinde’s groupon the insistence of her neighbour Manisha Gaikwad. Gaikwad has been newly appointed as shakha pramukh.

“If she [Gaikwad] gets my work done, I may vote for them [Shinde],” said Manjrekar.