In the summer of 1966, when cartoonist and chauvinist-in-making Bal Thackeray inserted an advertisement in his weekly Marmik asking for Maharashtrians to unite against “the outsider” in Bombay, he expected a response but not a resounding one.
Thackeray had to be persuaded to organise the meeting that October in Shivaji Park, the large open ground then known as the nursery of Indian cricket and the city’s barometer of political strength. He had wanted to hold the meeting in a small closed auditorium.
As it happened, Shivaji Park saw a turnout in lakhs. It took Thackeray, and others like Madhav Deshpande wedded to the idea of regional chauvinism, by surprise. The issue of “Marathi asmita” or Marathi identity, which drew lakhs of Marathi speaking Mumbaikars to Shivaji Park that day, became the foundation as well as the core doctrine of the Shiv Sena.
Over the years, this manifested as shrill hate-filled rhetoric, stubbornly chauvinistic agenda, unabashed vigilantism, demagoguery, and disdain for democratic values. In the 1980s, Thackeray added militant Hindutva to the mix. This, he found, was sufficient in the place of standard political tools of party structure, vision, strategy, tactics, and election management. This approach brought the Sena dividends including political power in local bodies and the state, enormous clout on the streets, influence among the power elite, and seats at the high table of politics – the central government.
As the summer of 2016 wears out and the Sena marks the 50th anniversary of its foundation on June 19, amidst all the jubilation and self-congratulation, the limits of the one-leader-one-flag-one-ideology approach are evident. The Sena is not the force it used to be, its core issue remains unresolved as a booming Mumbai edges out the working and middle class Maharashtrian, its political influence is challenged by its one-time friend and now frenemy the Bharatiya Janata Party and its dream of ruling Maharashtra on its own strength remains to be fulfilled.
Uddhav Thackeray, party chief, who inherited the organisation and its clout from his father, has had the unenviable task of keeping the Sena relevant in a fast-changing political landscape and setting it up for the future. If in five decades, its best achievement is that it gave an identity and voice to a section of Maharashtrians in Mumbai and Thane, then on the 50th anniversary, Uddhav might want to look beyond the celebrations and seek answers to some tough questions.
Should the Sena be a party for Maharashtrians or Marathi-speaking people only?
The limits of the founding ideology, the sons-of-the-soil principle, are most stark here. It restricted the party’s expansion in the initial years because the Marathi plank was redundant in rural areas and Maharashtrian-dominated areas. In urban areas, where it brought loyal followers and political power, the Sena has been tested – with poor results. In Mumbai, despite having majority in the civic corporation and sharing power in the state government, the Sena has not been successful in preventing the de-Marathisation of areas such as Parel and Girguam.
If the Sena must be a more inclusive party and appeal to non-Maharashtrians, it can do so only by diluting its core ideology and evolving a broader issues-based approach. This will alienate its cadre and loyal supporters – a risk that Uddhav tentatively took in his early years in the party and then backed off. Uddhav and son Aaditya now nurse pan-India dreams. There is an inherent contradiction in claiming to be a party with a chauvinist agenda and a party with a national footprint. The Sena’s future depends on how the Thackerays resolve this contradiction – if they do.
Does the Sena really speak for Mumbai?
As long as it is the voice of Maharashtrians, it does not because the community forms barely one-third of the city’s population. The Sena always claimed a proprietorial right over the city, in fact over the larger Mumbai Metropolitan Region but has not engaged with large sections of Mumbaikars. The proprietorial right came mainly because the Sena began to occupy the opposition space in Mumbai which till the 1970s was the domain of the Communists, thanks to the Congress. The benevolence and machinations of the Congress through 1970s and '80s, which covertly enabled the Sena to grow, are well documented. The decline and eventual decimation of the Left was exactly what industrialists and the Congress wanted.
But the Sena’s core ideology meant that it did not represent all of Mumbai or even all Maharashtrians in Mumbai. It had little influence in areas dominated by Gujaratis, Marwaris, south Indians, and uttar Bharatiyas (migrants from Uttar Pradesh and Bihar). Its virulent anti-migrant stand alienated even Maharashtrians who flocked to the city from other parts of the state in search of work. Lately, its proprietorial right has been challenged by the BJP.
Can the Sena be a party of governance?
The common perception is that the party prefers agitation and reactive politics, especially vigilantism and violence on the streets, but it cannot hunker down and govern. This perception is strengthened by its poor show in the municipal corporations where it held power – Mumbai is a civic nightmare, Thane and far suburbs are no better. Sena ministers in either the state government or the central government are either non-performers or do not talk about their achievements. Even in the first Sena-BJP government in Maharashtra (1995 to 1999), BJP ministers such as the late Gopinath Munde and Nitin Gadkari were seen as the achievers. While the neighbourhood Shiv Sena shakha pramukh (unit chief) is the go-to man for an ambulance, school admissions, and rescue in torrential Mumbai rain, the party leadership does not exude confidence that it is capable of the serious business of governance.
Does the Sena have a strategy to out-smart the BJP?
In the 2014 Assembly election, contested independently six months after the Lok Sabha election which it fought jointly with the BJP, the Sena managed to bag 19% of the vote across Maharashtra. This translated into 63 seats in the 288-member Assembly. The BJP, which till then was its junior partner, got twice the number. Since then, it is no secret that the BJP, under chief minister Devendra Fadnavis and an aggressive national leadership, wants to grab a larger share of the popular vote and more seats.
The Sena’s response has been to mount criticism on the BJP, take public swipes against the chief minister, openly ridicule Prime Minister Narendra Modi, and generally behave as if the two parties were not allies in government. Its behaviour is that of the principal opposition party. Its invective and insults do not greatly disturb the BJP. This contradiction of sharing power with the BJP but acting as the opposition is not likely to help the Sena to out-wit its ally, yet Uddhav is reluctant to walk out of the government. Also, the Sena plays the obnoxious and dangerous Hindutva card now and then, without realising that it cannot be more Hindutavadi than the BJP.
What is the party’s vision for India and Maharashtra?
The party is still remembered for its belligerence against Valentine’s Day but hosting Michael Jackson’s concert, or for its anti-Pak rhetoric but welcoming Javed Miandad to the Thackeray bungalow. Divorced as it has been from the business of governance and realpolitik, the Sena took extreme positions on issues such as dialogue or cricket tournaments with Pakistan. Its position on minorities is well known, so is its vehemence against carving up Maharashtra into smaller states. This year though, its leaders took up the cause of the drought-affected.
But Aaditya, the party’s next big hope, is heard talking about non-core issues such as open air gyms in Mumbai and the city’s nightlife. And the party is yet to make its voice heard on issues of national significance. Unlike regional leaders who cultivated or acquired national profiles, such as Nitish Kumar in Bihar or Jayalalitha in Tamilnadu or Mamata Banerjee in West Bengal, Uddhav Thackeray does not have a strong national presence. His father did, but it was in a different era and for the wrong reasons. Uddhav’s natural diffidence does not help. Besides, the Sena lost the one man who could have been its face in Delhi – Suresh Prabhu.
What is the Sena’s leadership structure and source of power?
As all one-leader-one-ideology parties do, the Thackerays continue to be the single source of power in the Sena. It worked when Bal Thackeray was the party chief but Uddhav’s authority is already being challenged by sub-regional leaders wanting more say in the party’s affairs. The family card is less likely to work in Aaditya’s time.
The Sena is showing the deficiencies of a party without a strong second rung leadership – lack of intellectual inputs, insufficient strategy-making, ad hocism in its approach and so on. Those who could have filled the second-rung slots quit the party – Narayan Rane, Sanjay Nirupam among others. Veterans like Manohar Joshi have been side-lined. Uddhav’s team is mainly seen as a self-serving coterie around him which keeps out all voices. Unless Uddhav shows the courage to reorganise the party’s top structure to allow ideas and representation to flow freely, the party’s future could be compromised.
Beyond these, lies the credo of violence that so defines the Sena. Uddhav is not seen to be as belligerent and encouraging of strong-arm tactics as his father was. But it does not mean that he – or the Sena – eschews violence. In fact, in the week leading up to the 50th anniversary, Sena’s local leaders were embroiled in violent spats with officials. And Uddhav, speaking to a national newspaper this week, claimed that the violence “…saved the city in the 1993 riots”.
He may be delusional but people in Mumbai – and India – do remember that the Sena was not the saviour of the city but the perpetrator of communal violence in January 1993. The Justice Srikrishna Commission report had this to say: “From January 8, 1993 at least, there is no doubt that the Shiv Sena and Shiv Sainiks took the lead in organising attacks on Muslims and their properties under the guidance of several leaders” and described Bal Thackeray as “the veteran general commanding his loyal Shiv Sainiks to retaliate by organised attacks against Muslims”.
Despite this, in November 2012, when he passed away, Thackeray was cremated with full state honours including the gun salute. A memorial will be built for him. And his son continues to invoke his memory to pull in the votes. At 50, then, the Shiv Sena is still yoked to its founder – and his family. Never a sound strategy, as Congressmen can vouch for.