As he goes around talking to voters in Maharashtra’s Thane, party worker Mayur Jain is focused on conveying two important bits of information.

One, that the party he represents is not Shiv Sena, but Shiv Sena (Uddhav Balasaheb Thackeray). Two, that the party’s election symbol is now a flaming torch or mashal.

“The candidate is the same,” he says, referring to the legislator from Thane parliamentary constituency, Rajan Vichare. He won the last two general elections from Thane as a candidate of the Shiv Sena.

To reinforce the messages, Jain, a ground-level party worker, has been sharing a video of a fast-paced Marathi campaign song that repeats two key words over and over: “Shiv Sena” and “mashal”. The video has footage of Bal Thackeray, who founded the Shiv Sena in 1966, with a mashal in his hand.

Jain’s sense of urgency is rooted in political developments in Maharashtra from a year and a half ago.

Till June 2022, Jain was part of the Shiv Sena, pro-Maharashtrian party founded by Bal Thackeray in 1966 and led after his death by his son Uddhav Thackeray.

Then, the party split, as Eknath Shinde, a leader from Thane, raised the banner of revolt. Thirteen Shiv Sena members of Parliament and 41 state legislators switched to Shinde’s side, while five MPs and 15 MLAs stayed with Thackeray.

Shinde went on to dislodgie the Uddhav Thackeray-led Maharashtra government, becoming chief minister with the support of Bharatiya Janata Party,

Though the split was legally contested, the Election Commission of India handed over the official name and election symbol – the bow and arrow – of the Shiv Sena to the Shinde faction. The Supreme Court questioned the Maharashtra speaker’s decision to recognise the breakaway faction as the real Shiv Sena but ruled in favour of Shinde nonetheless.

Thane MP Vichare and Jain stayed loyal to Uddhav Thackeray. They now belong to the Shiv Sena (UBT), which has the new election symbol – the mashal.

Although the split occurred more than a year and half ago, several voters, unfamiliar with the twists of this political saga, remain confused over the new symbol.

Party workers like Jain fear that Vichare’s supporters may end up pressing the older bow-and-arrow symbol on the electronic voting machines on polling day on Monday, inadvertently choosing Shinde’s party.

At least 13 seats in the state will see a direct contest between the two Sena factions in this Lok Sabha elections. For instance, in Thane, former mayor Naresh Mhaske from Shiv Sena (Shinde) will take on Vichare.

For voters in Maharashtra, the confusion has been compounded by a split in another major party, the Nationalist Congress Party, founded by Sharad Pawar.

In July 2023, a year after the Sena split, the Nationalist Congress Party splintered. Pawar’s nephew, Ajit Pawar, joined the Shinde-BJP government with eight party MLAs.

In this case, too, the Election Commission awarded the Nationalist Congress Party symbol of a clock and the party name to the breakaway group.

The Sharad Pawar faction chose a new name, Nationalist Congress Party-Sharadchandra Pawar, and was awarded the election symbol of a man with a blowhorn or tutari, a Maharashtrian folk instrument.

The relatively recent split has meant that the Sharad Pawar-led party has not been able to widely popularise its new symbol.

In at least two seats, Baramati and Shirur, the two factions of Nationalist Congress Party are pitted against each other.

Both Shiv Sena (Uddhav Bal Thackeray) and NCP-Sharad Pawar are members of the Opposition INDIA alliance taking on the Bharatiya Janata Party and its allies. The Eknath Shinde faction of the Shiv Sena and the Ajit Pawar group of the Nationalist Congress Party are members of the National Democratic Alliance led by the BJP.

In Maharashtra, the new symbols are working to the disadvantage of the INDIA alliance, say Opposition party workers.

Santosh Sawant, a district level functionary of Thackeray’s Sena in Kalyan, pointed out that the allocation of old symbols to rebel factions has skewed the contest. “The breakaway groups in the NDA will gain from it,” Sawant said. “It takes years to establish a party symbol in people’s memories.”

Workers of the Shiv Sena and Republican Party of India with a flaming torch. Credit: Special arrangement.

A vote by mistake

The confusion over symbols may lead some to vote for the party they did not intend to support. Kedar Gadgil, a Pune-based entrepreneur, flagged such instances on X.

Gadgil said he met two voters, both senior citizens, outside a polling station in Shirur Lok Sabha constituency on May 13.

Here, Amol Kolhe from the Nationalist Congress Party-Sharad Pawar party was pitted against Ajit Pawar-Nationalist Congress Party candidate, Adhalrao Patil.

The two elderly voters told Gadgil that they pressed the button for the clock symbol on the electronic voting machine, assuming they were voting for Sharad Pawar’s party. “It was only later when I told them that the clock is Ajit Pawar-NCP’s symbol did they realise their mistake,” Gadgil told Scroll. “They were disappointed, but there was nothing they could do.”

Said Gadgil, “This is muscle memory. People who have voted for a particular party will tend to vote for the same election symbol. The ruling dispensation must be counting on it too.”

In Baramati, where Sharad Pawar’s daughter Supriya Sule fought against her sister-in-law Sunetra Pawar, Sule’s party took great efforts to make sure voters are aware of the new symbol. For instance, Sule went to rallies with an aide either carrying a placard with the party symbol or a man holding a real tutari alongside her.

But even in Baramati, the Sharad Pawar-Nationalist Congress Party fears that its traditional voters may end up voting for the rival camp’s candidate simply because they are used to pressing the clock symbol on voting machines.

A close aide of Sule told Scroll that after voting ended in Baramati and Shirur, they were told that some voters accidentally had voted for the clock symbol even though they wanted to vote for Sharad Pawar’s party.

To add to the confusion, the Election Commission allotted the symbol of a trumpet, also called a tutari in Marathi, to an independent candidate in Baramati – a decision to which the Sharad Pawar faction has objected. In a complaint to the commission on April 20, Nationalist Congress Party-Sharad Pawar leader Laxmikant Khabiya said it will confuse voters.

“The EC did not cancel the symbol despite our complaint,” Khabiya told Scroll. Baramati voted on May 7.

Sawant, the senior leader of the Thackeray faction in Kalyan, said many senior citizens and uneducated voters are still confused about the symbols.

The Shiv Sena's mashal symbol. Credit: Special arrangement.

An awareness drive

In Mumbai, three constituencies – South Mumbai, Mumbai Northwest and South Central – will see a Sena versus Sena fight.

Both parties are using several media to publicise their election symbol. The Shiv Sena (UBT) has deployed open mini-trucks carrying lit-up flaming torches to get the attention of voters in Mumbai.

Arvind Sawant, senior leader in Shiv Sena (UBT) and a Lok Sabha candidate from South Mumbai, does not expect a voter confusion to make a huge difference in votes. “The world knows what happened to us was unfair,” Sawant said. “In the last year we worked hard to acquaint our people with the new symbol. Most voters know that by now.”

The challenge will arise in rural areas, say political observers. In Maval constituency, a Shiv Sena stronghold, farmers’ rights activist Ulka Mahajan said residents of remote and isolated villages are unlikely to know about the change in symbols. “Most people live in other cities for work, they do not follow the news,” she said.

In Maval, the Uddhav Thackeray Sena candidate, Sanjog Patil, took on incumbent MP Shrirang Barne, who belongs to the Shinde camp.

Mahajan said many people may have inadvertently voted for the wrong party because they only know about the “bow and arrow”.

In Chhatrapati Sambhaji Nagar, formerly known as Aurangabad, Chandrakant Khaire, who is with the Thackeray Shiv Sena, will contest against Sandipanrao Bhumre, representing Eknath Shinde’s faction of Shiv Sena. Khaire has won the seat four times, losing only in 2019 to the All India Majlis-E-Ittehadul Muslimeen’s Imtiaz Jaleel.

Despite this, Thackeray’s Sena faces a tough battle.

Workers of the Shiv Sena's Eknath Shinde faction in Thane. Credit: Tabassum Barnagarwala.

Khaire not only faces Jaleel, who is likely to get a share of the 22% Muslim votes in the constituency, he also faces the risk of losing votes to Bhumre over the confusion about the election symbol.

Santosh Hiremath, a local journalist, said a small percentage of voters do not know that Khaire’s symbol has changed to a flaming torch.

On April 29, Marathi daily Lokmat had run an informal poll – five out of 10 voters said they thought Khaire’s election symbol is the bow-and-arrow. Of the 20 lakh population in Sambhaji Nagar seat, 12 lakh are from rural areas.

“This will benefit the Shinde faction,” said Ganesh Wagh, who is handling social media campaigns for the Thackeray Sena on social platforms. “We estimate about 10%-20% votes in Aurangabad may be diverted to them over this confusion. We are targeting these voters through door-to-door visits.”

He alleged that the rival Shinde camp was spreading more confusion. “They have been telling voters that to vote for Khaire, they should press the bow and arrow,” Wagh said. “We have been telling them that Shinde has stolen our ‘dhanush baan’ and party name.”