Last week, the second-generation scion of Bal Thackeray’s Shiv Sena, Uddhav Thackeray, addressed his party members at a closed-door event on its 56th anniversary. He repeated what he had said about a year ago about the party overcoming many “storms” to be where it was. But in a cruel twist of fate, clouds of a new storm—unlike what the party had ever seen—were forming just as the Maharashtra chief minister was speaking.
The scale of what hit Uddhav can be gauged from the fact that Shiv Sena leader Ravindra Phatak, who was believed to be a close associate of the chief minister and was flown to Surat as an emissary where rebel MLAs were initially camped, has since switched sides to join the faction led by Eknath Shinde, a Sainik who says Sena’s association with the Maha Vikas Aghadi must come to an end.
From being infamous for their violent vigilantism to beating up migrants on the pretext that they were taking away jobs meant for Marathi people and earning the anti-migrant tag; from protesting the entry of Pakistani artistes to embarking on book burning exercises and rounding up youngsters on Valentine’s Day; from identifying itself with the cause of the Aarey forests to now questioning its core identity as a Hindutva or soft-Hindutva party, the Shiv Sena stands at a defining crossroad today. And that is why it is ThePrint’s Newsmaker of the week.
No ‘storm’ like this one
While Uddhav is right about the party having braved many “storms”, it is the first he is facing in his capacity as the Sena chief. The party has faced three major challenges so far: the first in 1991 when Chhagan Bhujbal quit the Shiv Sena and first joined the Congress and later joined hands with Sharad Pawar; then again in 2005, when Narayan Rane decided to quit the party, and finally when his cousin Raj Thackeray followed him a few months later when firebrand Bal Thackeray was at the helm of affairs. But none of them threatened a vertical split for the Sena.
“You see in all the three rebellions Bal Sahab Thackeray was alive and, at the same time, we were not in power so managing people was easy. This rebellion doesn’t only shake the party but the MVA government too. Uddhav could lose control of the party as well as the government. Many who have left have been lured with high positions,” said a senior Sena leader requesting anonymity.
“In 2005, former chief minister Narayan Rane left the party to join the Congress after he questioned the decision to appoint Uddhav as the party’s executive president. He is now with the Bharatiya Janata Party and a Union minister. The major jolt came when Raj Thackeray, who is considered a strong orator, and for many, the natural successor of Bal Thackeray, quit the Sena and launched his own party—Maharashtra Navnirman Sena in 2006,” the Sena leader said.
Formed in 1966 in Mumbai, the party cadres were mobilised around espousing the cause of the “sons of the soil” (Marathi manoos) but later went on to identify itself as the flag-bearer of Hindutva nationalism. It went on to burn theatres and restaurants, smash buses and taxis, and attack people on a whim over anything that carried even a whiff of the party’s version of anti-Indianness.
Ironically, it is “compromise on Hindutva” that has been propped up as the ostensible cause for the current rebellion led by Eknath Shinde. Shiv Sena has been raked over the coals on the question of Hindutva ever since it formed an alliance with the Nationalist Congress Party and the Congress in 2019, committing itself to secularism as part of the ‘common minimum programme’ of the MVA.
Shinde’s complaints and MVA’s true beneficiary
While there are reports that Shinde felt sidelined with Uddhav’s son Aditya Thackeray attending meetings of the Urban Development and Public Works Department despite the portfolios belonging to the Thane strongman, in all explanations so far about the rebellion, Shinde has harped on the party’s alleged compromise on the Hindutva ideology, claiming to be a true Sainik and a follower of Bal Thackeray.
Shinde claims that the party, under Uddhav, has deviated from its ideology and stresses the need to return to ‘Hindutva’ politics as well as to its former and ‘natural’ ally—the Bharatiya Janata Party.
Many in the party believe it is the Sharad Pawar-led NCP that was the true beneficiary of the alliance. The NCP received the maximum number of cabinet portfolios (12) and four junior ministerial posts. Sena, which led the coalition, got 11 cabinet portfolios and four junior ministerial posts. The Congress got eight cabinet seats and two junior ministerial posts.
Even in terms of the profile of the portfolios, the NCP enjoyed the upper hand. Besides finance and home departments, the NCP has a majority of important portfolios such as rural development, water resources and co-operation.
Apart from NCP being given the status of the ‘big brother’ in the coalition, what riles the average Shiv Sainiks is its “compromise on ideology.”
Though Uddhav’s supporters claim the party has not shifted from its core politics, something which is visible in Aaditya Thackeray’s recent visit to Ayodhya. Interestingly, Eknath Shinde had also accompanied Aaditya to the Uttar Pradesh district. However, a section in the party feels that from being the party of a Hindutva icon, the Shiv Sena receded into being a ‘soft Hindutva’ organisation.
Diminishing passion and identity
Claims of softening its Hindutva ideology is perhaps why Uddhav Thackeray’s emotional appeal to fellow Sainiks, in which he apologised for not being able to dedicate enough time to meet them due to prolonged illness and spoke about his resignation, generated only a lukewarm response. In the evening, Sainiks braved Mumbai rains to give Uddhav a solemn send-off as he moved from Varsha, the chief minister’s official residence in Mumbai, to his family home Matoshree with wife Rashmi and sons Aaditya and Tejas. But it was nothing compared to the response from party cadres in 1991 when, angered by Bhujbal’s rebellion, the party members attacked his house. With more and more Shiv Sena MLAs heading to Guwahati at the first opportunity, ordinary party worker doesn’t seem to have the same passionate support they once had for the outfit under Bal Thackeray.
Shiv Sena workers losing heart could have begun much before Shinde chose to bring it out in the open. After years of being the ‘big brother’ to the BJP in the alliance between the two parties in Maharashtra, the 2019 assembly elections diminished the party’s political stature vis-a-vis its partner BJP.
Even as Shiv Sena shrunk to 56 MLAs, its ally BJP swelled to 106. With Uddhav still deciding to break ranks with the old ally BJP to fulfil what he called ‘a promise he made to his father of having Shiv Sainik as the western state’s chief minister’, many in the party bit the bullet about the decision their late leader’s son had made.
But under Uddhav and in alliance with NCP and Congress, Shiv Sena workers were faced with an identity crisis. Uddhav went in for a more “moderate” image as opposed to his father’s hardliner persona. His son, Aditya Thackeray, who Uddhav began to project as his heir apparent, was also painted as a ‘liberal’, ‘secular’, ‘environment-friendly’ leader in stark contrast to his book-burning days.
Being in power did not serve as a good enough reason to accept this change for many believed the party could have stayed in power with the BJP without compromising on its core ideology.
In the see-saw game between the Shinde faction and the Uddhav group, no guess is a good guess. Facts are changing as quickly as MLAs changing cities, but no matter what the outcome, the big question facing Shiv Sena is which ideology it will ultimately settle for—will it revert to its old Hindutva ideals or reinvent itself in a new 21st-century avatar of a moderate, liberal, secular and environment-friendly party.
Views are personal.
(Edited by Srinjoy Dey)