The Shiv Sena at the political crossroads

Uddhav Thackeray and his son

Uddhav Thackeray and his son | Photo Credit: PRASHANT NAKWE

Rebellions are not new to the Shiv Sena. However, the scale of defections of the Members of the Legislative Assembly is unprecedented in Maharashtra’s political history and is perhaps only second to N. Chandrababu Naidu’s revolt against N.T. Rama Rao in Andhra Pradesh politics in the mid-1990s. The defecting MLAs are primarily giving three reasons in one voice for their extreme step.

Style of leadership

The first complaint of rebel Shiv Sena MLA Eknath Shinde’s camp is the inaccessibility of Uddhav Thackeray as the Maharashtra Chief Minister. There is much truth in this allegation in part due to Mr. Uddhav’s health issues in the times of COVID-19 and also because of his style of leadership. He believes more in a delegation of responsibilities and some sort of a collective leadership, which is in sharp contrast with Bal Thackeray, his father. In the ministry, as a result, Mr. Eknath Shinde, Aaditya Thackeray (both from the Shiv Sena), Ajit Pawar (Nationalist Congress Party, or the NCP) and Balasaheb Thorat of the Congress have been in control of daily affairs.

At the same time, Devendra Fadnavis, as a leader of the opposition, has adopted a three-pronged strategy. He was always open to meeting all the MLAs, with warmth, extensively toured the State, and was constantly plotting against the Thackeray government. The media trials in the high-profile Sushant Rajput and Aryan Khan cases, allegations of corruption against NCP Ministers Anil Deshmukh and Nawab Malik (both are under arrest now) and the prompting of Maharashtra Navnirman Sena (MNS) leader Raj Thackeray to take up the issue of loudspeakers in masjids were all used by Mr. Fadnavis within and outside the Assembly to try and corner the Shiv Sena.

These issues, more than the unavailability of Uddhav Thackeray, have disturbed many Sena legislators. The fact of the matter is that the Shiv Sena is not a party of governance at the State level. Out of the 56 years of its existence, the Shiv Sena was in power all together for 10 years which includes its present stint. Unlike the Congress and the NCP, its Ministers and MLAs are not conversant with what it means to be on the treasury benches. It really will not matter to the Shiv Sena if it loses power. The real challenge for the party would be to retain the municipal corporations as and when elections there take place.

Electoral strength

The second apprehension of the rebel camp is regarding the NCP’s aggression and the threat it poses to their own existence. Undoubtedly, out of the three alliance partners in the government, i.e. the Maha Vikas Aghadi, the NCP is making the most effective use of power to strengthen its presence and its organisation across the State. Whether it poses a large-scale threat to the Shiv Sena is questionable.

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For example, in regions such as Mumbai and its suburbs as well as in Vidarbha, the NCP has barely an electorally strong presence. In Konkan, Marathwada and western Maharashtra, there are pockets where the NCP and the Shiv Sena have an overlapping presence.

An analysis of election results of the Shiv Sena legislators throws up interesting facts. Out of the 56 seats won by the Shiv Sena in 2019, the Congress had its candidates in 26 seats while the NCP had its candidates in the fray in 28 seats. Out of the 26 seats that the Shiv Sena won against the Congress, the grand old party was a runner-up only in 14 seats. It came distant third, fourth and fifth in nine, two and one Assembly segments, respectively. Out of the 14 seats where the Congress was runner-up vis-à-vis the Shiv Sena, the Sena registered a very impressive victory in eight seats, a comfortable win in five seats and had a narrow margin in one seat. Out of the 28 seats that the Shiv Sena won against the NCP, the NCP was a runner-up in 20 seats. Out of these 20 seats, the Shiv Sena’s victory margin was impressive in eight seats, comfortable in 10 seats and narrow in two seats. In the rest of the eight seats, the NCP came a distant third, fourth and fifth in five, two and one seats, respectively. This data shows that not many Shiv Sena MLAs face an existential threat from the NCP or the Congress provided they had won the election not on the strength of the Bharatiya Janata Party.

The third and most important allegation of the Sena rebels is that Uddhav Thackeray is not true to his father, Balasaheb Thackeray’s Hindutva. The formation of a government with the Congress and the NCP (the Maha Vikas Aghadi) itself is perceived to be a sign of a weakening of the Shiv Sena’s position on Hindutva. However, the Shiv Sena under Mr. Uddhav Thackeray has not taken this position suddenly in 2019.

In terms of ideology

In the aftermath of the 2014 Lok Sabha election, Mr. Thackeray probably realised the emergence of Narendra Modi as the Prime Minister as a major threat to the Shiv Sena’s existence. Prior to the Prime Minister’s emergence, the Shiv Sena was placed right to the BJP as far as Hindutva ideology has been concerned. Balasaheb Thackeray was adored by many activists of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh and the BJP for his uncompromising and fiery positions on Hindutva, while the combination of Atal Bihari Vajpayee-L.K. Advani was considered to be soft on many issues.

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The Prime Minister’s leadership has brought the BJP on a par with the Shiv Sena in terms of a radicalisation of religious identity politics. The choice before Uddhav Thackeray to preserve the Shiv Sena’s own identity was either to project himself as being more Hindutvavadi ‘than thou’ or to cast the Shiv Sena as the party associated with the interests of Maharashtra.

He has chosen the second option without giving up the Hindutva identity. From 2014 until recently, none of the defecting Shiv Sena leaders has shown any (visible) signs of discomfiture with Uddhav Thackeray’s politics. The Shiv Sena leadership has always been cautious about its alliance with the Congress and the NCP, and has been consciously maintaining the Shiv Sena’s Hindutva identity. Mr. Thackeray attempted to create optics of this at the swearing-in ceremony (for example, wearing a saffron kurta). The Shiv Sena has unambiguously supported the Modi government in Parliament on a reading down of Article 370 (before the Maharashtra Assembly election), on the Ram Mandir issue, on the Triple Talaq bill and on the Citizenship (Amendment) Act.

Based on this record, Mr. Thackeray seems to be questioning the rebels on their allegation of a softening of the party’s stand on Hindutva. The Shiv Sena leadership is questioning the rebels’ position that one has to be an ally of the BJP to champion Hindutva. According to it, the BJP has no monopoly on Hindutva ideology. In the past few weeks, Mr. Thackeray has repeatedly stated that unlike the RSS’s brand of Hindutva, the Shiv Sena’s Hindutva stands for defending the interests of Hindus and India without being poisonous.

The Shiv Sena is also raising questions on the RSS’s participation in the freedom movement and the sincerity of the Government (at the Centre) in protecting the lives of the Kashmiri Pandits. This much, however, is not sufficient for Mr. Thackeray to distinguish the Shiv Sena’s Hindutva from the RSS-BJP’s Hindutva. Eventually, he might be required to bring in, partially, the concept of a Bahujanwadi Hindutva as espoused by his grandfather and reformist, Prabodhankar Thackeray. The Shiv Sena has undergone fundamental changes on a few occasions since its inception, demonstrating its resilience every time. Today it is facing its most severe crisis. Its fightback has also begun.

Parimal Maya Sudhakar is affiliated with the MIT School of Government, Pune. The views expressed are personal

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Printable version | Jun 29, 2022 11:12:16 am | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/lead/the-shiv-sena-at-the-political-crossroads/article65576881.ece