Mumbai: In December 2019, Maharashtra Chief Minister Uddhav Thackeray, then less than a month old in office, expressed regret that his party, the Shiv Sena, had mixed politics with religion and partnered the BJP for 25 years.
This admission from Thackeray, a Hindutva proponent whose father Bal Thackeray was known as “Hindu Hridaysamrat”, has come back to haunt the Shiv Sena as the BJP readies for the Ram temple bhoomi pujan at Ayodhya Wednesday.
Even though the guest list (restricted on account of the Covid crisis) for the event includes representatives of outfits associated with the struggle for the temple, no one from the Shiv Sena — which makes no bones about its role in the Babri Masjid demolition — has been invited.
Within the party, there are grumbles about what is perceived as the Shiv Sena leadership’s silence about the event. While the Shiv Sena has been publicly reiterating its role in the Ram temple campaign, party leaders complain there has been no word from the brass on how they should approach the bhoomi pujan.
There are fears that, with this event, the BJP may steal the march on the Shiv Sena with respect to the Hindutva mandate, and the latter’s voters may get the wrong message.
To opponents and political analysts, this chaos within the party is seen as the result of its alliance with the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) and the Congress, which they claim has forced the Shiv Sena to abandon its hard Hindutva stance.
‘The wrong message’
Thackeray was the first Shiv Sena leader to have visited Ayodhya after the 9 November 2019 Supreme Court verdict giving the go-ahead for the construction of the Ram temple. At his swearing-in ceremony the same month, he was dressed in saffron, the colour associated with the Hindutva movement.
In March, as his government completed 100 days in office, Thackeray visited Ayodhya and announced a donation of Rs 1 crore towards temple construction on behalf of the Shiv Sena.
His father, the late Shiv Sena founder Bal Thackeray, was among the accused in the case pertaining to the Babri Masjid demolition, which was carried out by Hindu fundamentalists in 1992 to pave the way for a temple at the site, believed to be the birthplace of Hindu deity Ram.
However, since it forged the Maha Vikas Aghadi (MVA) coalition with the NCP and the Congress, the Shiv Sena has been stalked by allegations that its Hindutva stance is waning.
During his March visit to Ayodhya, Uddhav carried with him soil from the Raigad Fort (the capital of the Maratha ruler Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj), an act that is believed to have left his allies displeased. In the last week of July, in an interview to Saamana, the Shiv Sena mouthpiece, Thackeray said the bhoomi pujan should be conducted via video-conferencing on account of the Covid-19 pandemic.
There were reports last month that Uddhav will be invited to the event, but he hasn’t been. The Shiv Sena has played down the fact, dismissing the grand bhoomi pujan scheduled for Wednesday as a showcase of political might.
“If the chief minister is not invited, there is no question of him going for it,” Shiv Sena MP Arvind Sawant told ThePrint. “We do not want to make an event of everything. In this corona pandemic, what is happening in Ayodhya is showmanship. It is not bhakti, but shakti which is happening there,” he said. “Ram Mandir is not a political issue for us as others are doing.”
Many senior leaders of the Shiv Sena, however, are not happy with the “confused” state of the party’s ideological movement. “It is completely directionless. Balasaheb was known as the Hindu Hridaysamrat, a strong voice of Hindutva,” said a senior Shiv Sena leader. “Today, the party he founded is not even invited to the Ram Janmabhoomi, a party whose kar sevaks brought down the Babri Masjid.”
Sawant noted that many Shiv Sainiks have gone to Ayodhya, taking with them the soil from the site of the Balasaheb Thackeray memorial. “Uddhav Thackeray will definitely go to Ayodhya when this pandemic is over,” he said.
‘Moving away from Hindutva’
Opponents and analysts say the Shiv Sainiks are not wrong to fear the party is moving away from Hindutva.
“That is exactly what the Shiv Sena is doing,” said Sandeep Deshpande, a senior leader of the Maharashtra Navnirman Sena (MNS). “Now, their voters are different as they have formed a government with the NCP and Congress. Maybe this is the reason for the silence,” he added.
Political analyst Abhay Mandwekar offered a similar argument. “Before the Lok Sabha elections, the slogan of the Shiv Sena was ‘Pehle mandir, baad mein sarkar (first temple, then government)’. Now that they are in the ‘sarkar’ with parties who cringe at Hindutva, it is not easy for the Shiv Sena to keep their promise,” he added.
“Had Uddhav been invited for the event, he would have been in a fix over whether to go or not. His previous visits were different, now, as the head of a coalition government, he is also answerable to the Congress and the NCP,” said Mandwekar.
The Shiv Sena’s lack of ideological conviction regarding Hindutva is the reason for their present predicament, added journalist Dhaval Kulkarni, who authored the book Cousins Thackeray: Uddhav, Raj And The Shadow Of Their Senas.
“On the one hand, Uddhav has to keep his government intact. On the other hand, he cannot afford to shed Hindutva. The Shiv Sena’s commitment to Hindutva is yet to run its full course,” he added. “He cannot be seen as diluting Hindutva. In the days ahead, Uddhav will have to manage this contradiction.”
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