Shiv Sena | The Maratha tiger in its labyrinth 

With a revolt toppling his government, Uddhav Thackeray faces a legitimacy crisis as he struggles to retain his hold over the party rank and file

Updated - July 03, 2022 06:36 pm IST

Published - July 03, 2022 12:30 am IST

In the fall of 2012, an ailing Bal Thackeray, founder and patriarch of Maharashtra’s then dominant right-wing party — the Shiv Sena (Army of Shivaji) — had appealed to his Shiv Sainiks to stand by his son Uddhav and grandson Aaditya Thackeray.

In what would be his final address to his party workers, Bal Thackeray, in his pre-recorded speech at the party’s annual Dussehra rally in Mumbai’s Shivaji Park, called upon the Marathi manoos (Marathi-speaking sons-of-the soil) to remain united and smash the Congress. The speech, three weeks before the 86-year-old Thackeray’s death in November that year, also had an implied appeal to his estranged nephew, Maharashtra Navnirman Sena (MNS) chief Raj Thackeray, to join forces with the Shiv Sena.

A decade later, while the prospects of the Sena and the MNS uniting have completely evaporated, a bleaker question facing Mr. Uddhav and his son today is whether ordinary Sainiks will stand by them after the recent rebellion of 40 MLAs led by Eknath Shinde has rent the Shiv Sena asunder while toppling Mr. Uddhav from the Chief Minister’s post.

In many ways, Mr. Shinde’s revolt, which saw him installed as Maharashtra Chief Minister, aided and abetted by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), is the culmination of a question that has haunted the Sena leadership since 2012 — the existence of their party without its authoritarian embodiment, Bal Thackeray. That Mr. Shinde, the dour, laconic, erstwhile autorickshaw driver from Thane and a dyed-in-the-wool Shiv Sainik, would be the linchpin of the BJP and its State leader Devendra Fadnavis’s ‘master plan’ to checkmate Mr. Uddhav and his tripartite Maha Vikas Aghadi (MVA) government exposed the chinks in the latter’s armour.

One of the chief complaints of the rebel camp was Mr. Uddhav’s “deference” to the NCP and the Congress. Yet, the Sena’s alliance with the Congress in 2019 was hardly novel, given its past dalliance with the grand old party in the 1970s.

Strange alliances

In fact, the vicissitudes of the Sena — from Bal Thackeray’s rise in the mid-1960s to Mr. Uddhav’s acrimonious break with the BJP and fall from power — follow decades of murky twists and strange alliances. Founded in June 1966 with its avowed aim of safeguarding the welfare of the people of Maharashtra, the Shiv Sena tasted popular success almost immediately with its ‘sons of the soil’ agenda, with Bal Thackeray persuasively highlighting the plight of unemployed Marathi youth through the party’s weekly Marmik.

Since the Sena’s inception, Bal Thackeray skilfully blended the nativist appeal of the Marathi Manoos with Hindu nationalism, anchored in the persona of Chhatrapati Shivaji, the 17th century Maratha warrior king. But it also added a strong dose of social service in the mix, enabling its appeal not only among the urban sections but the slum areas as well.

With its iconic ‘Tiger’ logo and bow and arrow symbol, the Sena’s first meeting in Dadar’s Shivaji Park on June 19, 1966 became steeped in political legend, attracting a reported crowd of no less than 200,000 persons instead of the handful expected.

The first dividends of the Sena’s call to nativism and ‘Marathi identity’ came when no less a personage than Defence Minister V.K. Krishna Menon was trounced from the Mumbai North-East parliamentary constituency in the 1967 general election. The Sena reportedly essayed a major role in branding Mr. Menon a “carpetbagger”.

Soon, rioting against South Indian establishments became a matter of course. But it was in its covert role as a ‘hatchet-man outfit’ for the ruling Congress to crack down on the once-vibrant trade union movement in Mumbai that shot the Shiv Sena to notoriety. The relentless onslaught of the Shiv Sena’s ‘storm troops’ against the Communists and socialists climaxed with the murder of Krishna Desai, a sitting MLA of the Communist Party of India (CPI) from Parel, in 1970. It marked the start of the Sena’s transformation of the city’s political landscape — from ‘Red Bombay’ to ‘Saffron Mumbai’.

Having destroyed the trade unions, the party simultaneously began building a serious base among industrial workers through its own outfits — the Bharatiya Kamgar Sena, the Shramik Sena, Municipal Workers’ Union, the BEST employees’ Union, among others.

From a non-political outfit, the party promptly transitioned to a political one, contesting the civic elections in Mumbai and Thane. In 1971, it fielded three candidates for the Lok Sabha in an alliance with the Congress (O), but failed to win any. Despite hardly being pro-Congress in temper, its support for the party for political gain continued in the form of approving Indira Gandhi’s Emergency while allying with the Congress (I) and fielding candidates in 1978 Maharashtra Assembly election, where it again lost all seats.

It was only in the mid- to late 1980s when Bal Thackeray subtly shifted the party’s stance of ‘Marathi manoos’ to ‘Hindutva’, that the Sena cut its ties with the Congress.

Piggybacking on the BJP’s Ayodhya agitation, the Sena’s credentials as a hammer of ‘Hindutva’ were forged in the crucible of the Bombay riots of 1992-93, where the party was said to have orchestrated much of the violence that followed the demolition of the Babri Mosque in Ayodhya on December 6, 1992.

While the BJP made gains at the national level, in Maharashtra, Bal Thackeray’s Shiv Sena was still the elder ‘Hindutva’ brother to whom BJP leaders like Gopinath Munde and Pramod Mahajan deferred to. When the Sena first formed the government in Maharashtra with the BJP in 1995, Bal Thackeray preferred to remain the ‘remote control’ behind the throne, pushing his partyman Manohar Joshi as the Chief Minister. Out of power by the end of 1999, the turn of the century saw a marked decline in the Sena’s political fortunes, despite Bal Thackeray’s iron hand still firmly controlling Mumbai city. While the party’s resource and financial lifeline remained the cash-rich Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC), Mr. Thackeray’s autocratic style, growing nepotism and corruption within the party brass saw a number of cracks within the party organisation. Dissidence within the Shiv Sena first manifested itself with Chhagan Bhujbal exit in 1991. More jolts followed after 2005, beginning with the exits of Sanjay Nirupam - who controlled the party’s north Indian vote bank; Narayan Rane – the Sena strongman of the Konkan belt and that of Mr. Thackeray’s nephew, Raj Thackeray who broke away to launch the MNS in 2006.

On the other hand, Bal Thackeray’s death in 2012 and the transfer of power within the party to Mr. Uddhav coincided with the ascendancy of Narendra Modi and the BJP at the Centre in 2014. The BJP’s projection of Devendra Fadnavis in the State, a very different political operator than the Sena-deferring BJP leaders like Munde and Mahajan, was to bring momentous changes in relationships between the saffron allies.

Uneasy coalition

The first serious split between the Sena and the BJP came before the Assembly polls, after Mr. Uddhav severed ties with the latter reportedly over seat-sharing arrangements. However, the 2014 election results — which saw the BJP win 122 seats in the Maharashtra Assembly as opposed to the Sena’s 63 — validated the ‘Modi wave’ sweeping the country.

Compulsions of power saw a forced patch-up between the BJP and the Sena under Mr. Fadnavis’ Chief Ministership, but the friction stayed on. While the Sena and the BJP fought both general and Assembly elections in 2019 together, the resentment between the two finally came to a head over the CM’s post, with Mr. Uddhav formally severing all ties with the BJP to go into the arms of Sharad Pawar’s NCP and the Congress. Mr. Pawar, the architect of the MVA, egged Mr. Uddhav to take the CM’s post, while the NCP helped itself with prime portfolios. This stoked the ire of staunch Shiv Sainiks like Mr. Shinde and other Sena MLAs, as the party rank-and-file coped uneasily with Mr. Uddhav’s ‘appeasement’ of the NCP and the Congress.

Mr. Uddhav’s projection of Aaditya as the face of the party and the forming of a Thackeray coterie of confidantes increasingly alienated Sena MLAs on the ground. Mr. Fadnavis, intently plotting the downfall of the Thackeray government, began ‘cultivating’ Mr. Shinde.The BJP also ‘deployed’ the CM’s estranged cousin — MNS chief Raj Thackeray — to conveniently rake up the ‘Hindutva’ issue while accusing the Sena of bending backwards to appease minorities.

It was following the BJP’s gains in the Rajya Sabha by-polls and Maharashtra Legislative Council elections last month (which saw the party have the support of 133 MLAs in the 288-member State Legislature) that the blow came when Mr. Shinde finally revolted.

Following the Shinde-Fadnavis coup, Mr. Uddhav faces a serious legitimacy crisis as he struggles to retain his hold over the party rank and file. The Uddhav camp claims there can be no Sena without the Thackerays. But cold electoral results have shown that Bal Thackeray’s legacy scarcely mattered in the first Assembly election after his death (in 2014), when the Sena failed to secure a majority. With the MVA in tatters and Uddhav burning his bridges with the BJP, the question is, will that legacy matter now?

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