Pramod Muthalik is out to settle an old score with the Bharatiya Janata Party. The leader of the Hindu vigilante group Sriram Sene who shot to infamy after his followers attacked a pub in Mangalore in 2009 was taken into the Karnataka BJP in March 2014, apparently with the aim of fielding him in that year’s Lok Sabha election, only to be expelled a few hours later at the instance of the party’s central leadership.
“It all took five hours,” Muthalik recalled. “At 11 am on March 24, I was inducted and at 4 pm I was expelled.”
It was an insult that he has not been able to forget, Muthalik said. Now, he has found an opportunity to get back at the BJP – by establishing the Shiv Sena in Karnataka.
The BJP and the Sena run a coalition government in Maharashtra but their relationship is strained. Elsewhere, they often contest against each other, and because they both appeal largely to the Hindu majoritarian impulse, the Sena generally eats into the BJP’s votes. In the Bihar Assembly election in 2015, for instance, the Sena cost the BJP at least two seats.
In Karnataka, which goes to polls in a few month, the Shiv Sena has little electoral presence. That is expected to change after Muthalik launched the party’s state unit on January 12. It could prove detrimental to the BJP, especially in the region bordering Maharashtra which has a substantial Marathi population and in coastal Karnataka where Sriram Sene has a strong network.
Muthalik is confident. “We will contest around 50 seats,” he said. “Sriram Sene will remain an independent cultural organisation but our cadres will work for Shiv Sena candidates in Karnataka.” The state has 224 Assembly seats.
Asked about the campaign strategy of his party, which he will formally join at a convention in early February, Muthalik said, “The BJP employs Hindutva to promote its politics, but we practise Hindutva as a matter of principle and our politics is based on Hindutva. This is what we will tell people.”
There is also his personal story. “I will tell people how I was back-stabbed by them [BJP] in 2014,” he said. “As the leader of the Shiv Sena, I will show them which is the real party of Hindutva.”
This is Muthalik’s second stint in the Shiv Sena. In 2005, soon after leaving the Bajrang Dal, a sister organisation of the BJP in the Sangh Parivar, he met Shiv Sena leader Bal Thackeray and was tasked to organise the party in Karnataka. He set out to work from Belgaum, where he lived and which has a sizeable Marathi population. But before he could make substantial progress, the Marathi and Kannada communities started clashing in what came to be known as the “linguistic riots”. The Marathi community has long sought to merge Belgaum with Maharashtra, which claims the region as its “cultural zone”.
“Kannada linguistic groups started disrupting Shiv Sena’s meetings and working for the party in Karnataka became almost impossible,” Muthalik said. “It was all orchestrated by the Sangh Parivar, which did not want to let a second Hindu party develop roots in Karnataka.”
A year or so later, Muthalik launched the Sriram Sene.
Now that the Shiv Sena has returned to the Karnataka politics, will the old linguistic dispute resurface? “I suspect the Sangh Parivar will do it again,” he claimed. “But I will not run away in panic this time. I will face them and expose the real politics behind the tussle if they try to refuel it.”