Mumbai: It was around 1988 that Shiv Sena founder Bal Thackeray felt a strong need to have his own daily newspaper. Thackeray was unhappy with the coverage that his party’s activities were getting in existing Marathi dailies, and though he had Marmik, it was a weekly.
And thus, Saamana was born on 23 January 1989, Thackeray’s 63rd birthday, in a grand function at an auditorium near Mumbai’s iconic Shivaji Park.
In the three decades since, Saamana has transitioned from being a medium to publish news about the Shiv Sena, to becoming a newsmaker in itself.
In most newsrooms, there’s a reporter on the ‘Saamana beat’, often the reporter in charge of covering the Shiv Sena’s political activities. This reporter usually scans the acerbic Saamana editorials — penned by its executive editor Sanjay Raut but known to be the voice of the party president — first thing every morning, and reproduces it for his or her publication’s readers, making it a part of the day’s news agenda.
A Mumbai-based political journalist who tracks the Shiv Sena said the culture of the party is such that everything is secretive, and that culture has only become stronger since the Shiv Sena came to power in Maharashtra.
“Sena leaders take a lot of time to trust journalists to start talking off the record. Of course, there are a few exceptions. One thing is certain, if the party does not want to let out what’s happened in the inner circle, it will not come out,” the journalist said.
“The editorials are a window to the direction the party plans to take. Saamana gives an insight into developments within the party on major events,” said the journalist. “Besides, the tone and the language of the editorials still make for good headlines.”
‘The paper tiger’
Author and senior editor Vaibhav Purandare, in his book Bal Thackeray and the Rise of the Shiv Sena, labelled the launch of Saamana as Thackeray gifting himself a “paper tiger”.
“Saamana was born to channelise party appeal into a force potent enough to dislodge the Congress regime. Sena workers had been building up the atmosphere for the paper’s arrival months in advance. Walls in Mumbai had been adorned with banners and colourful hand-drawn ads with the catchline ‘dainik navhe, Sainik’ (Not a daily, but a soldier, as Shiv Sena members are called),” Purandare wrote.
Saamana was launched the year when the Shiv Sena forged an alliance with the Bharatiya Janata Party and expanded its political agenda to a Hindutva ideology, rather than limiting its focus to the native Marathi population. Thackeray was the paper’s chief editor, while Ashok Padbidri took charge as the executive editor.
In 1993, the Shiv Sena also launched the paper’s Hindi version Dopahar ka Saamana, to expand its voter base beyond the Marathi manus. Mumbai’s demography was changing and the Shiv Sena couldn’t politically afford to keep up with its acidic anti-migrant diatribe.
In the early 1990s, Thackeray appointed Raut, now a Rajya Sabha MP, as the paper’s executive editor, after Padbidri’s death. Raut wrote like Thackeray’s alter ego and the paper catapulted to popularity.
Political analyst Hemant Desai said: “The communally heated atmosphere of the 1990s with the riots, bomb blasts, the Srikrishna Commission inquiry, and eventually the Shiv Sena coming to power for the first time, along with the provocative, even repulsive style of writing in Saamana made the paper instantly popular.”
Desai added: “Making revolting, sweeping statements about Pakistan and Muslims, calling people names… helped Saamana make headlines at a time when television channels were picking up.”
Saamana had special nicknames for certain politicians — “maidyacha pota” (sack of flour) for Nationalist Congress Party president Sharad Pawar, and “lakhoba” (a fictional conman character from a Marathi play) for Shiv Sena defector Chhagan Bhujbal, who joined the NCP and remains with the party.
Political analysts say that besides the incendiary writing, what also makes the newspaper much more popular than other mouthpieces, such as Tarun Bharat (of the RSS) or National Herald (Congress), is that it functions like any other newspaper — publishing news about government policies, decisions, and features on sports, art, cinema and theatre.
Saamana under Uddhav Thackeray
Today, while the Shiv Sena itself has softened under the leadership of Chief Minister and party chief Uddhav Thackeray, and his son, Maharashtra cabinet minister Aaditya Thackeray, Saamana’s character hasn’t changed much. Its chief editor is currently Rashmi Thackeray, wife of Uddhav.
“Of course, Uddhav Thackeray’s political stances are different to those that Bal Thackeray used to take, and that gets reflected in Saamana. But, the language is essentially similar,” said Prakash Bal, a political analyst.
The sardonic Saamana editorials also help CM Thackeray manage his party’s two vote banks — he pleases the newer voter, who is more attracted to the Shiv Sena’s recent liberal politics, by personally not making any aggressive statement on sensitive issues, and the older hardcore Right-wing voters by talking to them through Saamana.
A Shiv Sena leader said, “Uddhavsaheb’s style of oratory is different from what Balasaheb’s was, but Raut bridges that gap with his writing and Saamana still makes headlines. The party has expanded now as compared to what is was under Balasaheb, so Raut takes much of the load of managing Saamana.”
The leader, however, added that Bal Thackeray was more of a micro manager with his Sainiks than Uddhav. “Balasaheb would read Saamana as well as other newspapers every morning for news about any civic issues, mark the articles and call the specific corporator or MLA to follow up. We don’t see that happening anymore.”
Orders for party workers
“Shiv Sena is a party that runs on aadesh (orders),” said 75-year-old Suryakant Mahadik, a senior Shiv Sena leader who has been with the party since its inception in 1966. “Balasaheb had said every Sainik must buy Saamana. We couldn’t believe a piece of news to be true till we read it in Saamana. The paper was a source of inspiration and enthusiasm among Sainiks.”
For instance, during the 1993 Mumbai riots, the Shiv Sena galvanised its cadre to hit the streets aggressively against Muslims. The Srikrishna Commission, investigating the riots, also mentioned in its report how communal writings in newspapers such as Saamana and Navakal incited violence.
“The party has grown now and its form has changed. Old Shiv Sainiks like us still have ties to Marmik and Saamana, but the newer lot rely more on WhatsApp,” Mahadik said.
However, Shrikant Shinde, 33-year-old Shiv Sena MP and son of Maharashtra minister Eknath Shinde, insists that Saamana is still as relevant to the party as ever.
“Right from Balasaheb’s time to now Uddhavsaheb, when anything is published in Saamana, it is considered as coming directly from the leader. Even in the age of WhatsApp and Twitter, though Shiv Sainiks have direct access to party functionaries, the interactions have limitations,” he said.
“What is published in Saamana is considered as the final word, especially for the grassroot cadres who have access to just the shakha pramukh or a zila pramukh, but not the senior leadership.”
Shinde added that Saamana’s impact is now national. “When I go to Parliament, I find that other MPs have already read Saamana and are discussing what’s published,” he said. “In a way, Saamana is today the party’s most efficient spokesperson.”