Mumbai: In September, when the three contentious farm laws, then bills, were being discussed in the Lok Sabha, Shiv Sena MP Arvind Sawant welcomed them, but sought some clarifications.
However, the party is now verbosely supporting the farmers agitating against the very same laws. Sanjay Raut, the Shiv Sena’s Rajya Sabha MP, even denied that the party had ever supported the farm laws in the Lok Sabha.
This is not new for the Shiv Sena, which has always had a strong urban image and has been trying to strengthen its base in rural Maharashtra. The party has backed almost every farmers’ protest in the state and the country over the past few years.
“The Shiv Sena accelerated its attempts to expand its presence in rural areas over the last 15 years. They have got electoral success too, in places such as Marathwada and Western Maharashtra, going beyond their bastions of Mumbai, Thane and Konkan,” Hemant Desai, political commentator, said.
“But, even today, the party still has a very Mumbai-centric urban image. The perception is that the Shiv Sena isn’t thinking beyond Mumbai, even politically. The party can blame the pandemic, but the Uddhav Thackeray-led government hasn’t announced any major projects for the hinterlands. And there haven’t even been many tours outside Mumbai,” he added.
Shiv Sena’s early rural connect
The Shiv Sena was launched in 1966 on the plank that migrants were stealing jobs and opportunities in Maharashtra’s cities. However, the agenda did not cut much ice with voters outside Mumbai. It had resonance to a certain extent with voters in Thane and Konkan due to their proximity to Mumbai.
These regions have always had a sizeable population of Marathi youth migrating to the state capital for work, and were back then drawn to the Shiv Sena’s ‘sons of the soil’ agenda.
The party held its first formal session (adhiveshan) in 1984 in Mumbai when it decided that it needs to work for the entire state, beyond Mumbai and Thane. The following year, the party held its annual adhiveshan at Mahad in the Konkan region where it reiterated its agenda to spread across Maharashtra and decided to adopt a wider Hindutva agenda for the same.
“The same year (1985) we established our first shakha (administrative unit) in Marathwada. In 1988, we contested our first civic election there and got huge success. The rural citizens of Marathwada looked at Aurangabad as their capital, so gradually we opened more shakhas and established our base in places such as Beed, Latur, Parbhani, Osmanabad,” Sanjay Shirsat, Shiv Sena MLA from Aurangabad West constituency, said.
“It was a Congress-dominated area, but the younger population that wanted a choice opted for the Shiv Sena. Most of them were children of farmers. Initially, our critics slammed us as ‘makad sena’ and ‘vanar sena’ (the monkey gang), but then started looking up at us as we got success,” he added.
In Marathwada, the Shiv Sena gained some of the space that Sharad Pawar, now NCP chief, vacated by merging his Congress (S) and returning to the Congress fold in 1986. In other regions, such as Western Maharashtra, North Maharashtra and Vidarbha, the Shiv Sena was not as quick to reap electoral benefits.
“Every region has a mindset of its own, and we have come a long way in every region. We have legislators today from across Maharashtra and have our administrative network of shakhas. In future, the party will see more electoral gains in these areas too,” said a senior Shiv Sena leader, who didn’t want to be named.
Currently, of the party’s 56 MLAs, 20 are from the Mumbai Metropolitan Region, eight are from Konkan, 12 from Marathwada, six each are from North Maharashtra and Western Maharashtra, while four are from Vidarbha.
Party leaders as well as political watchers said that Shiv Sena founder Bal Thackeray tried to tap rural areas with emotive issues, while current president Uddhav Thackeray, now the Maharashtra chief minister, tried to change this approach in the 2000s by backing issues such as electricity shortage and payments of sugarcane farmers.
“There have been several farmer-centric agitations over the last 15 years, where Uddhav saheb has time and again strived for a complete loan waiver. The farmer is a central tenet of Uddhav Thackeray’s Shiv Sena. The farmer provides for the whole nation, but always meets with grief and problems that often drive him to take his own life. It is Uddhav saheb’s dhyas (yearning) to constantly find ways to keep the farmer happy and content,” said Ravindra Mirlekar, a Shiv Sena functionary.
Politically imminent to expand rural base
Till 2009, the Congress and the NCP held sway over most parts of rural Maharashtra. However, their hold weakened towards the end of their 15-year government — from 1999 to 2014.
After 2014, when relations between the BJP and Shiv Sena grew terse, the two parties were in direct competition with each other in Maharashtra’s urban centres, eyeing the Hindu vote bank.
Meanwhile, the BJP also started aggressively expanding in Maharashtra, eyeing the space created by the weakening of the Congress and NCP, making it imminent for the Shiv Sena to focus on rural areas and shed its urban image.
Looking at contesting the 2019 elections independently, the Shiv Sena in 2018 tried to set its house in order in rural Maharashtra by appointing old-time Shiv Sainiks as “samanvayaks” (coordinators) to oversee the party’s grassroots strength right from the taluka level, down to the shakha level and further down to its pool of foot soldiers.
The political leaders that the Shiv Sena imported from other parties in 2019 were also those with weight in rural Maharashtra such as Jaidutt Kshirsagar from Beed, Vaibhav Pichad from Akole in Ahmednagar district, Pandurang Barora from Shahpur in Thane district and Abdul Sattar from Sillod in Aurangabad district.
Last year, the Shiv Sena hired political strategist Prashant Kishor, who was then associated with the Janata Dal (United), to help the Sena design its campaign for the Maharashtra assembly election.
Kishor had advised that the Shiv Sena should change its narrative of being an urban party with an urban leadership, and accordingly suggested that Thackeray scion Aaditya Thackeray, now a state minister, should tour rural Maharashtra and perhaps even contest from a rural constituency, a party source said.
Thirty-year-old Thackeray ultimately contested and won from Mumbai’s Worli constituency. However, Aaditya did undertake that tour.
Farmers’ issues at the forefront over the last few years
In July 2019, Aaditya traveled across Maharashtra’s hinterlands, visiting temples and holding rallies, focusing on farmers and youngsters. The rally was to popularise him as a mass leader capable of leading the rural areas too.
Meanwhile, the Shiv Sena also launched a vociferous campaign on how farmers aren’t getting crop insurance.
In July last year, the Shiv Sena put up a protest march with Uddhav Thackeray in the lead against crop insurance firms at Mumbai’s Bandra Kurla Complex. Representatives of these firms met Thackeray to explain their predicament that the state government wasn’t paying them their share.
The same month, the state government, of which Shiv Sena was a constituent, disbursed Rs 271.54 crore to three crop insurance companies as the state’s share. At the ground level, Shiv Sena members were helping farmers file crop insurance claims.
In March 2018, the Shiv Sena extended its support to the tribal farmers’ long march on foot from the hinterlands of Nashik district to Mumbai. The protest march was organised by a communist forum, Akhil Bharatiya Kisan Sabha, raising eyebrows in political circles about the Shiv Sena extending support to a communist platform.
The party, however, clarified that its support was to the protesting farmers and not to the organisers.
When the protest march reached Mumbai, Aaditya personally met the farmers.
In May 2017, the Shiv Sena launched a ‘Sampark Yatra’ after opposition parties (Congress, NCP and others) launched a similar Sangharsh Yatra.
In the Shiv Sena’s yatra, party MLAs were asked to tour all electoral wards in drought-prone Marathwada and speak to farmers. Uddhav Thackeray and his son, Aaditya, too met and addressed farmers.
The same year, despite being a constituent of the BJP-led state government, the Shiv Sena joined protests by farmers demanding a loan waiver, and pushed a reluctant Devendra Fadnavis, then chief minister, to announce a loan waiver scheme.
The party this year rolled out its own loan waiver scheme after coming to power as part of the Maha Vikas Aghadi government, claiming that the previous one was not a complete loan waiver and did not benefit farmers.
In 2017, the Shiv Sena supported farmers protesting against land acquisition for Fadnavis’ pet Mumbai-Nagpur highway project, though the project was being implemented by the Shiv Sena-led PWD (undertaking) department.
The party had also opposed the controversial Land Acquisition Bill in 2015 in Parliament tooth and nail, even as it was part of the ruling National Democratic Alliance at the time.
Sena functionary Mirlekar said: “Uddhav saheb has always said that his commitment is to the farmers even if the Shiv Sena is part of the government. If the government is not able to sort their issues, then we will do it through andolans (protests).”
Political analyst Desai, however, said Uddhav Thackeray’s approach sometimes comes across as the party wavering on ideological stands.
“Uddhav Thackeray always says we are with people’s emotions. But, a political party should lead and tell people what is appropriate,” he said. “But, this stand of going with people’s emotions seems like going where the wind blows,” Desai added.