Arch rivals to allies: Thackeray Sena embraces CPI support for crucial Andheri East bypoll

Arch rivals to allies: Thackeray Sena embraces CPI support for crucial Andheri East bypoll

CPI leaders met Uddhav Thackeray Wednesday & extended support to his candidate. The parties have long history of enmity, with Bal Thackeray famously espousing anti-communist stance.

Uddhav Thackeray with members of his party and the CPI on Wednesday | By special arrangement

Uddhav Thackeray with members of his party and the CPI on Wednesday | By special arrangement

Mumbai: In 1970, Communist Party of India (CPI) MLA Krishna Desai was murdered one rainy night. While Shiv Sena founder Bal Thackeray, who was famously known to espouse an anti-communist agenda, called his death unfortunate, 19 Shiv Sena workers were arrested and 16 convicted for the killing.

More than 50 years later, the Thackerays’ once-upon-a-time arch-rivals have become their allies.

On Wednesday, CPI leaders from Mumbai met Uddhav Thackeray, chief of the Shiv Sena faction now called Shiv Sena — Uddhav Balasaheb Thackeray (UBT), and extended support to the party’s candidate for the crucial Andheri East bypoll, scheduled to be held on 3 November.

Speaking to ThePrint, CPI Mumbai secretary Milind Ranade said, “Our tussle with the Shiv Sena is old, but a lot of it is water under the bridge now. The political circumstances have changed.”

He added: “The entire country is close to destruction the way hatred is being spread and the pillars of democracy are being broken. This is a fascist way of functioning, and so our differences with the Shiv Sena become small in front of all this. Our differences are not over. We agree to disagree, but in this case there are no two ways about it.”

The Andheri East bypoll is a litmus test for the Thackeray-led party as it is the first major election after the rebellion within the erstwhile Shiv Sena earlier this year, and a change of guard in the state.

In June, Shiv Sena MLA Eknath Shinde led a rebellion of Sena MLAs to topple the Thackeray-led Maha Vikas Aghadi (MVA) government — an alliance of the Shiv Sena, the Nationalist Congress Party and the Congress — and come to power in partnership with the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

Shinde, now chief minister of Maharashtra, also went to the Election Commission (EC), claiming his faction to be the real Shiv Sena. It is currently recognised by the EC as the Balasahebanchi Shiv Sena.

With the Congress and NCP also having backed the Shiv Sena (UBT) for the bypoll, it is likely to be a straight fight between the MVA on one side and the BJP-Shinde group on the other.

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Shiv Sena and communists

Within a year of its birth in 1966, the Shiv Sena started to aggressively take on communists. Communist leaders had an immense following in Mumbai’s mill districts, which stretched across the city’s Marathi heartland from Parel and Lalbaug in what was then central Mumbai, to Girgaum in the south. There would be frequent strikes and shutdowns.

Bal Thackeray saw the communists as “anti-nationals“.

The Shiv Sena attempted to break the movement by luring the Marathi-speaking mill workers with its “sons of the soil” ideology and speaking directly to the mill owners. According to a 2004 paper by Suhas Palshikar titled Shiv Sena: A Tiger with Many Faces, the Shiv Sena “effectively destroyed the trade union movement of Mumbai that was under the control of the Left and the socialists”.

There were many instances of Shiv Sena workers clashing with communists on Mumbai’s roads, and Bal Thackeray would regularly take potshots at leftist leaders such as Acharya Atre, S.A. Dange, and George Fernandes in his publication, Marmik.

The ruling Congress in the state at the time preferred to turn a blind eye to the frequent violent clashes between the Shiv Sena and the communists, as weakening the appeal of leftist parties and leaders had political advantages for the party. This prompted leftist leaders to criticise the Shiv Sena as ‘Vasant Sena’, for allegedly pushing Congress CM Vasantrao Naik’s agenda.

The Shiv Sena’s tussle with the communists reached a flashpoint when MLA Desai was killed in 1970, and Sena workers were convicted for his death. Desai’s death also paved the way for the Shiv Sena getting its first MLA elected to the Maharashtra assembly. In the bypoll that followed Desai’s murder, the Shiv Sena’s Wamanrao Mahadik defeated the CPI’s Sarojini Desai to clinch the Lalbaug-Parel constituency, which is now a Sena bastion.

‘The establishment is trying to finish Shiv Sena’

It was in 2018 that the Shiv Sena displayed its first visible thaw towards communists. The Communist Party of India (Marxist) had led a massive rally of farmers, who travelled all the way from Nashik to Mumbai on foot to put their demands, including land rights for tribal farmers, in front of the state government. When they reached Mumbai, Thackeray scion Aaditya Thackeray went to greet them and posted pictures of Shiv Sainiks nursing the blisters on their feet on social media.

“No, I didn’t see the red flags. I saw their red blood, which is the same as ours,” Aaditya Thackeray had tweeted then.

Thackeray camp leader Sunil Prabhu said that in the past, the fight between the Shiv Sena and the communists had been “one of principles”.

“Any party grows by taking on the establishment. At that time, they were the establishment. Now, the situation is such that the establishment is trying to finish all other parties,” said Prabhu, who was present in the meeting between CPI leaders and Uddhav Thackeray.

Prabhu added that in the meeting, the CPI leaders said political parties should keep their ideological differences aside and come together. “Otherwise, the way they (BJP) are trying to finish the Shiv Sena, it will become the norm,” he said.

(Edited by Poulomi Banerjee)

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