NEWS ANALYSIS A major problem with the Sena is that it has carried on as a monolithic party since its inception, with Bal Thackeray’s shadow overwhelming all and one concerned.

Last week, an emotive, pre-recorded video address by the 86-year-old patriarch of Maharashtra’s dominant right-wing party at the annual Dussehra rally sparked off speculations about its future. The guesswork, oft-analysed in the past half decade, concerned the existence of a Shiv Sena without its authoritarian embodiment, Bal Thackeray.

Mr. Thackeray, in his address appealed to Sainiks to stand by his son Uddhav and grandson Aditya .

His call to the Marathi manoos to remain united and smash the Congress is being perceived as an appeal to his estranged nephew, Maharashtra Navnirman Sena chief Raj Thackeray, to join forces with the Shiv Sena.

Challenges aplenty

During the 2014 Assembly elections, the Shiv Sena would be out of power for 15 years. The overworked theory of the MNS’ merger with the Sena still seems a remote possibility despite a perceived thaw.

Mr. Raj Thackeray’s visit to his uncle’s residence ‘Matoshree’ (his third in four months) a day after the Dussehra rally and an hour-long closed door meeting assumes significance, while his meeting with Maharashtra Chief Minister Prithviraj Chavan is intriguing.

Mr. Uddhav Thackeray’s health, after an angioplasty, is another concern for the party. “The question of leadership [a choice between Mr. Uddhav Thackeray and Mr. Raj Thackeray] has always remained a sore point that has affected the chances of a merger,” a senior MNS leader told The Hindu.

Shiv Sena leaders point to a strong anti-incumbency in the ruling coalition that completes its third term.

A major problem with the Sena is that it has carried on as a monolithic party since its inception, with Bal Thackeray’s shadow overwhelming all and one concerned. Other faces, except for his son have barely been given any opportunity to showcase themselves, causing a lack of visibility and a serious disconnect at the grass roots level.

String of exits

Dissidence within the Shiv Sena manifested with Chhagan Bhujbal leaving the party in 1991. Since 2005, the party has been crippled by a string of exits. First it was Sanjay Nirupam, MP who controlled the party’s north Indian vote bank followed by Narayan Rane less than three months later and culminating in Mr. Raj Thackeray coming out and launching the MNS.

The Sena leadership’s autocratic style, growing nepotism and corruption within the party were cited as primary reasons for their exit. In Mr. Bhujbal’s case, it was the violent opposition to the Mandal commission report.

In a regional political climate, increasingly marked by shifts towards developmental agendas, the Sena lacks any such alternative. While it has managed to retain its hold over the Municipal Corporation of Greater Mumbai (MCGM) for the fourth time, the victory has been marked by a decline in the number of seats.

Daunting task

Compounding the Sena’s woes is its partner in the ‘Mahayuti,’ the Bharatiya Janata Party. It has whittled down considerably since Pramod Mahajan’s death in 2006. Its other important face, Gopinath Munde, who usually leads the party for the elections in the State has a daunting task, specially with the controversy over BJP president Nitin Gadkari’s companies and financial affairs.

Also, Mr. Uddhav Thackeray’s alliance with Ramdas Athawale’s Republican Party of India (A) in a bid to get a share of the Dalit vote-bank, is unlikely to yield dramatic results, with Mr. Athawale being viewed as a fly-by-night operator by many inside the Sena.

Importantly, despite Mr. Bal Thackeray bequeathing a strong cadre-based party, a rapidly shrinking core urban base of Marathi voters is alarming for the Sena’s prospects that have hinged solely on identity politics for nearly half-a-century since its inception in 1966. These are questions vexing the party as the tiger gradually ceases to roar and his followers become increasingly confused.