Back to the bad old days

A STEP BACK: "The inability to get mass support has spurred the Shiv Sena into going back to its violent past." Picture shows Shiv Sena activists protesting in New Delhi, ahead of an anticipated meeting between Kashmiri leaders and the Pakistan High Commissioner at the Pakistan High Commission

A STEP BACK: "The inability to get mass support has spurred the Shiv Sena into going back to its violent past." Picture shows Shiv Sena activists protesting in New Delhi, ahead of an anticipated meeting between Kashmiri leaders and the Pakistan High Commissioner at the Pakistan High Commission

Shiv Sena’s >reprehensible attack on Observer Research Foundation’s Sudheendra Kulkarni yesterday (October 12), for organising former Pakistan Foreign Minister Khurshid Mahmud Kasuri’s book launch in Mumbai, is another step back for a party desperately trying to remain relevant both to its voting constituency as well as in the Bharatiya Janata Party-led coalition government in Maharashtra. Last week, it threatened to violently disrupt noted ghazal singer Ghulam Ali’s concert in Mumbai, scaring the organiser into cancelling the event.

The Sena, after a brief affair with liberalism last year with its demand for nightlife licenses and a perceptible shift towards the youth vote, is clearly returning to the platform it was founded upon: hatred for Pakistan (and migrants from within the country) and extreme Hindutva.

Sachin Kalbag

Targeting the BJP>What the Sena is really worried about is the BJP , and has taken on the mantle of the largest party’s principal opposition. >The Kasuri book launch incident and the >Ghulam Ali concert disruption were targeted more at the BJP than at the victims themselves. It is not surprising, therefore, that Aditya Thackeray, who heads the youth wing of the party, said that the “attack was non-violent”. He knows his statement is a mockery of what happened, but he said it because the eventual target was the BJP. His party wants to send a message to the BJP that it can remain in the media and the public eye by resorting to its old tricks.

The Sena, for all its bravado, knows that its hardline Hindutva stand has been appropriated by the BJP, and there is little it can do on the development plank either. The last time it was in power along with the BJP (1995-1999), the Sena was the senior alliance partner with founder Bal Thackeray’s hand-picked man Manohar Joshi as Chief Minister. But what Mumbai really remembers of that coalition government are the 50-plus flyovers in the city and its neighbourhood, planned and executed by BJP’s Nitin Gadkari, the then State Public Works Minister. Mr. Gadkari is now a Minister in the Modi cabinet.

Take their other recent battle. In early September, the >BJP collaborated with the Jain community in demanding a >meat ban during the penance period of Paryushan. The Shiv Sena, along with its ideological but separated cousin, the Maharashtra Navnirman Sena, sided with the meat eaters. There is a history to this. The Jain community, though not technically Hindu, is identified with the Gujarati community. More than a decade ago, Gujarati Jains and Gujarati Hindus, along with the Marwari community, had teamed up to make the prime South Mumbai localities of Malabar Hill, Marine Drive and Walkeshwar meat-free zones, a move the Sena despised but could do little to reverse. That agitation was led by Mangal Prabhat Lodha, a Marwari real estate tycoon, who is also a BJP MLA and a staunch vegetarian. Those who followed the BJP’s meat-free agenda of the early 2000s will not be surprised about its vegetarian stance now.

The BJP-Sena war has reached such a crescendo that in the Kalyan Dombivali Municipal Corporation (KDMC) elections slated for November 1, the two parties have decided to go to the polls separately, encouraging the Congress and the Nationalist Congress Party to possibly come together, despite their significant differences. The BJP and Sena are now so far divorced that they would rather allow a Congress-NCP alliance to come to power than join hands with each other.

The KDMC elections, though not important in the larger national context, will be a barometer for voters’ perceptions of the two parties. The only thing going for both the Sena and the BJP is the complete indifference of the electorate towards the Congress. On ground, Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi remains someone to be mocked at, and his repeated gaffes in public rallies are not helping his party either. An emaciated opposition will, therefore, most probably help Sena retain power there, but the fracture with the BJP will not be repaired.

More important, while the BJP has appropriated (or is attempting to appropriate) >B.R. Ambedkar’s legacy despite having nothing in common with the father of the Indian Constitution, the Sena is increasingly coming across as a party bereft of ideas. With little manouevring power in the State government, it is left with no option but to go back to its violent roots. This is unfortunate for a party that was being seen as changing its colours in the last year or so.

Issues for the Sena The two biggest issues that the Sena has taken up in the last 12 months are the extension of licences for eateries and entertainment establishments to remain open through the night, and the yellow sodium vapour lamps along Marine Drive instead of the white LED lamps that the BJP government prefers. Both are inconsequential items on a larger political agenda, but the Sena seems to care for them more than for governance issues. In any case, they lost to the BJP on both points. The scars of that battle run deep in the Sena.

For a party that purports to be connected with the sons of the soil, the Sena has done precious little to bring about awareness or raise money for farmers in the drought-affected areas of the State. Meanwhile, farmers continue to commit suicide in Vidarbha and other areas of severe rain shortfall. Private entities and individuals seem to have responded to the crisis far better than political parties. While the Sena has been attacking the BJP for its inaction in the drought-affected areas, it has not done much on its own.

The vote gain and seat gain in last year’s State elections should have spurred the party into attempting a national footprint. It was one of their stated objectives. Uddhav Thackeray’s leadership on that front has left a lot to be desired. In fact, it has been insipid. Meanwhile, the BJP has made gains in even the Sena strongholds of western Maharashtra. This has eroded the Sena’s grassroots credibility, as it is mainly a cadre-based party with strong on-ground presence across the State, with its hierarchies clearly defined.

A sheer inability to get mass support has spurred the Sena into going back to its violent past. It may have worked in the 1970s and the 1980s, when Bal Thackeray’s anti-migrant mantra struck a raw nerve among Maharashtrians reeling under an already collapsing economic infrastructure in Mumbai thanks to cotton mills being shut down in rapid succession. It is unlikely to work in the second decade of the 21st century.

Aditya Thackeray and his father, therefore, need to reinvent the party, which has not only become irrelevant to the Marathi-speaking population, but also to its core voter base. The refrain in Mumbai after the Ghulam Ali concert cancellation and the attack on Mr. Kulkarni was, “No, not again!” This is a refrain to which the Shiv Sena is turning a deaf ear.


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Printable version | May 24, 2022 11:06:50 pm |