The rebellion by Shiv Sena leader Eknath Shinde recently, with 40 Members of the Legislative Assembly, against Shiv Sena chief Uddhav Thackeray and his Maha Vikas Aghadi government, and Mr. Shinde’s success, subsequently, in getting hold of the chief ministerial position in Maharashtra with the help of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is an event that has created a huge storm in Maharashtra’s political landscape. It is clear that the magnitude of the rebellion is the biggest the Shiv Sena has ever seen since its inception in 1966.
The vertical split in the party is much bigger in comparison with what happened when the former party leaders, Chhagan Bhujbal, Narayan Rane and Raj Thackeray, left in the past. This time it does not seem to be the result of mere internal skirmishes. It has raised questions about the strength and the appeal of the Shiv Sena under Uddhav Thackeray, with doubts being raised about his leadership and the party’s style of functioning ever since he took over the party’s reins. Interestingly, it also happened at a time when the Shiv Sena was in power (unlike the previous rebellions), which indicates the gravity of discontent among party leaders.
Any analysis of the Shiv Sena’s successes, failures and challenges needs to start with an understanding of its nature and composition. While the movement to ‘fight for the sons of soil’ culminated in the formation of an electoral party called the Shiv Sena, the Sena has always grown since its inception at both levels — gaining strength from its appeal as a movement and multiplying power through its electoral success. Across Maharashtra, and in the Mumbai-Thane belt in particular, it is the movement aspect of the Sena, with its grass-roots presence through shakhas (branches) that has immensely helped the organisation in garnering support and strengthening it. The rebellion by Mr. Shinde can be seen as an outcome of a threat to the very idea and appeal of the Shiv Sena, which thrives on several material and non-material factors.
A key factor
It can be argued that material factors played a more crucial role in triggering the rebellion. The looming threat of action by central agencies such as the Enforcement Directorate (ED) seems to be a key reason for many within the Sena to jump ship when they got an opportunity. Two of the MLAs to join the Shinde camp the first happen to be Pratap Sarnaik and Yamini Jadhav. While Mr. Sarnaik was embroiled in an investigation by the ED in connection with a ₹175 crore money laundering case, Yashwant Jadhav, Ms. Jadhav’s husband and the four-term standing committee chairperson in the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC), was summoned recently by the ED in a Foreign Exchange Management Act (FEMA) violation case.
Most Sena leaders of today have had similar career trajectories as they became a nobody to a local somebody through the Sena’s organisational network and were gradually elevated within the party. In the process, they were also deeply embedded in the local networks of brokerage and patronage that is institutionalised through its grass-roots organisational structure. Most Sena leaders also saw a higher rent-seeking possibility after the party gained power in 2019 (in an unconventional alliance by parting ways with the BJP and joining hands with the Congress and the Nationalist Congress Party, or the NCP). However, they were disappointed as they had to confront the alliance partners — the NCP held two key portfolios, Finance and Home— at each point.
Similarly, Mr. Uddhav and his son, Aaditya Thackeray’s approach of bringing in centralisation in the decision-making processes of the party for the last few years proved to be a major hurdle before the aspirations of these leaders who thrive on multiplying power through formal and informal networks. The BJP’s growing political strength, its control over financial resources and hold over central agencies seem to have played a crucial reason why many leaders have joined the Sena rebel camp.
On the other hand, the non-material factors behind the Sena’s popularity — such as charisma around the position of the Sena chief and the appeal for its Hindutva — seem to have undergone a significant transformation after the entry of Mr. Uddhav, and, subsequently, Mr. Aaditya. Mr. Uddhav’s mellow personality, the absence of aggression in his demeanour and the resultant softening of the Sena’s ideology, which thrives on street politics, violence and direct action, had already created unrest among traditional Sena leaders and voters.
There were also complaints of him not being an accessible leader unlike his father and Sena founder, Bal Thackeray who often believed in instant justice. The entry of Mr. Aaditya and his inner circle of young, educated, Ivy League consultants further widened this gap between the old and the new Sena, creating a sense of alienation among its ardent followers. Senior leaders felt they were sidelined in the decision-making process within the party and the government. The success of Narendra Modi in 2014 and the BJP’s attempts to make him a Hindutva icon — an appeal that earlier rested with Bal Thackeray, who was the undisputed Hinduhridaysamrat — seems to have been the ultimate nail in the coffin.
While Mr. Uddhav and Mr. Aaditya struggle to retain the original appeal of the Shiv Sena, it cannot be assumed that the biggest vertical split in the party and the resulting questions raised on the new leadership are enough to break up a party whose appeal is way beyond electoral politics. It is important to see how the Thackerays capitalise on the factors that might aid their attempts to revive the movement and the party. The Sena’s shakhas, which are seen as its nervous system, can play a crucial role in ensuring that the party picks up the threads from the crisis and rebuilds itself. At the local level, Sena workers still have their loyalty towards the chair that represents their idol, Bal Thackeray; it is now up to Mr. Uddhav to capitalise on this respect and popularity that the Thackeray brand still commands.
While Uddhav Thackeray’s personality and leadership were under scrutiny after he took over the reins of the Shiv Sena during the 1990s, it is the same style that made him a popular Chief Minister in Maharashtra. His mature approach of handling the COVID-19 pandemic and his efforts to reach out to the people during some of the toughest times of over two years won him a huge fan following across age groups tired of the speeches and promises of politicians. Similarly, Aaditya Thackeray’s approach in handling issues of governance — education, the environment and health to name a few have created a sympathy wave for him even in the liberal-progressive circles which were otherwise critical of the Shiv Sena’s divisive politics.
Mr. Shinde’s rebellion and the resultant dent in the Sena’s clout and popularity in Maharashtra is a major setback to the organisation — as a party and a movement. It also seems like a well-orchestrated attempt by the BJP and the Shinde group to not only topple the government but also raise questions about the Sena’s current appeal, the leadership of the Thackerays and to settle scores with the Sena which was critical of the party’s radical Hindutva and vendetta politics.
How far and long the journey it will take the Sena to revive will be clear in the coming months, especially before the upcoming elections to local bodies including the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation. But what is clear is that if the Sena has to work towards its revival, Mr. Uddhav Thackeray needs to capitalise on the sympathy for its newfound appeal and reinvigorate the grass-root sainik who is the backbone of the idea of the Sena. In most regions of the State (especially in mofussil areas), the party is dependent on its local leaders and their network of patronage for elections. Considering the rebellion now which spans the State, there is an unprecedented challenge to revive the party, especially in these regions. The party would have to use its political prudence and also needs to have a long-term programme to strengthen and restructure its organization to ensure that the rebellion does not trigger more Sainiks to part ways.
Sanjay Patil works at the University of Mumbai and has been chronicling the Shiv Sena’s journey for the last 10 years