On October 5, two rallies, barely 6 km apart from one another, will test the claims of rival Shiv Sena factions that are in a fierce battle for party founder Bal Thackeray’s legacy. If large crowds are an indicator of political legitimacy, the rallies of the rival groups, led by Uddhav Thackeray and Maharashtra Chief Minister Eknath Shinde, will determine which of them controls the party.
Last month, the Supreme Court let the Election Commission decide which faction is the ‘real’ Shiv Sena and can use the party’s bow and arrow symbol. While the legal battle is not over, party cadre and observers concur that the size of crowds at the Dussehra rallies will settle the issue.
Uddhav Thackeray’s strength has been atrophied by desertions of most of his MLAs (40 of 55 have joined Mr. Shinde) and MPs (12 of 18 have shifted sides). The Sena president’s hold over his cadre, his last pillar, will be determined by the number of Shiv Sainiks who turn up at for his address at the iconic Shivaji Park in Dadar in Mumbai.
Uddhav Thackeray faces a daunting task. After his father’s demise in 2012, the Sena leader has kept up the tradition of ‘guiding’ the party cadre at the October Dussehra rally at Shivaji Park. This was the place from which Bal Thackeray had launched the Shiv Sena in 1966. Though he lacked his father’s political nous and trademark fiery rhetoric, Uddhav Thackeray nonetheless managed to retain hold over his cadre with his barbs and wit. Yet, observers say even at the best of times, Shivaji Park during Uddhav Thackeray’s speeches has never been packed to capacity.
This time, with the Sena split wide open following Mr. Shinde’s revolt, observers say Uddhav Thackeray will have to ensure he gathers a crowd that is large enough to populate the byways and roads all the way from the Sena headquarters, Sena Bhavan, to Shivaji Park. The last time such a massive and spontaneous conglomeration of Shiv Sainiks was seen there was after Bal Thackeray’s death.
With the Thackeray camp being plagued by desertions, Mr. Shinde’s ally, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), has lost no time in creating the perception that Uddhav Thackeray will use the cadre of his Maha Vikas Aghadi allies — the Congress and the Nationalist Congress Party — to pack his rally. Loyalists of the Thackeray camp have hit back saying Mr. Shinde will use the BJP to populate his rally at the sprawling Bandra-Kurla Complex (BKC) grounds. As both factions will need help from their allies to cross the finishing line, analysts say it is all a matter of perception.
When nearly a thousand activists and office-bearers, the majority from the fisherfolk community of Aaditya Thackeray’s Worli constituency, joined the Shinde camp on Sunday, Mr. Shinde was careful to portray it as a major victory. The entrants were deliberately ‘permitted’ to make a beeline outside the Chief Minister’s official residence. The purpose was to signal that even the Sena cadre were now deserting the allegedly sinking Thackeray ship.
Given that crowds are key to the ‘legitimacy’ exercise, both Sena factions are straining sinews to pack their respective rallies with people — be it their loyalists or imported cadre. Sources say the Shinde camp has given its ministers, MLAs and district functionaries a ‘quota’ to gather a crowd of not less than three lakh at the BKC ground, which reportedly has a capacity to hold nearly two lakh people. The Thackeray faction has given its party bearers a ‘target’ of getting more than two lakh people to spill over from Shivaji Park, which is estimated to have a capacity of holding nearly one lakh people at a time.
State transport and private buses have been commandeered on a massive scale. To give just one example, 10,000 vehicles have been requisitioned by the Shinde faction from Aurangabad district, a Shiv Sena stronghold, to ferry more than 25,000 people. The Thackeray camp has apparently been trying to commandeer 3,000 vehicles to ferry 10,000-15,000 ‘loyalists’. Aurangabad is a telling instance of ‘mass requisition’ as the district is now a bastion of both factions. The Sena holds six of the eight Assembly seats there, with the Shinde group holding five and the Thackeray faction holding the Aurangabad Municipal Corporation.
If Uddhav Thackeray manages to get sufficiently large numbers for his rally, it would signal that he still retains a grip over Mumbai and that his faction is likely to pose a stiff challenge to Mr. Shinde and the BJP in the high-stakes Brihanmumbai Corporation polls. Until then, both Sena ‘tigers’ await the roar of crowds.