The Shiv Sena's moment of truth

The Thackeray family, once a vibrant political force in Maharashtra, has become a minor player but is refusing to acknowledge it. Its party, the Shiv Sena, is again pretending to play hardball with the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), though it has no long-term options and is facing the most competent political party in recent history. An alliance that keeps looking iffy will eventually happen and the Sena will fold as it has always done. The BJP’s patience and restraint and its long game have produced high returns.

The remarkable thing here is that in all the three decades of the alliance between 1990 and 2019, the BJP was the junior partner in Maharashtra. The BJP managed Bal Thackeray through Pramod Mahajan, before he was murdered by his brother in 2006. Mahajan was calm and willing to brush off Thackeray’s regular tantrums and misbehaviour through long periods of negotiation. The Sena newspaper Saamna frequently abused then, as it still does today, the BJP through front page interviews of its party chief while still being in an alliance. 

The partnership was forged in the cauldron of the Babri movement and consolidated after the vandalism in which Thackeray proudly claimed his Sainiks had participated. In 1990, the tally was 52 seats won for the Sena and 42 for the BJP. This was not because of inherent asymmetry but merely that Sena had insisted on and secured more seats to contest. In 1995, the tally was 73 and 65, giving the alliance a narrow victory in a Bombay that was torn apart by communal violence and the subsequent revenge bombing attacks. The saffron alliance (as journalists named it) formed their first government with Sena’s Manohar Joshi becoming chief minister. This was an unremarkable government.

In 1999, the Sena took 73 and the BJP 56 but fell just short of a majority. The Congress in the state split at this point on the issue of Sonia Gandhi’s foreignness and Sharad Pawar formed the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP). In 2004, the saffron alliance again came close but couldn’t form the government with the Sena at 62 and the BJP at 54. As always the Sena had contested more seats (163 this time as opposed to the BJP’s 111). Pawar commented at this time that Maharashtra was a “Congress-minded state” not attracted to the BJP’s agenda.

Illustration: Ajay Mohanty
In 2009, the BJP contested fewer seats but won one seat more than the Sena with a far better strike rate. The ailing Bal Thackeray was inactive and would pass away a couple of years later. This marked the end of the BJP’s patience with the Sena.
In 2014, the BJP rightly and logically asked to contest more seats but the Sena was obstinate and the alliance faltered. The Sena went alone and was predictably marginalised in the Assembly, winning only half the BJP’s 122. 

This year, the BJP for the first time secured officially the position of senior partner, contesting two and a half dozen more seats and winning 50 more than the Sena. The trend is irreversible and the data is clear. The BJP has eaten the Shiv Sena’s lunch in Maharashtra. The market share for the Sena’s produce — resentment and anger against South Indians, Muslims and then North Indians — has reduced sharply. The consistent majoritarian focus of the BJP’s Hindutva has swallowed it.

It is not fully appreciated why the Thackerays are compelled to make a nuisance of themselves every so often. Unlike other political parties, Shiv Sena has a physical presence in Mumbai neighbourhoods. This space is named the shakha, like the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh’s outreach unit, but the activity is, of course, very different.

These offices, run by local toughs, are self-funded, meaning that they approach businesses, shops and residents for “donations”. This activity can run smooth only so long as the Shiv Sena brand radiates menace. The party is not effective if it isn’t feared, and the grassroots constantly reminds the leadership of this.

This will explain why the Sena leadership is forever in the business of obstruction: Block this and don’t allow that and so on. Bal Thackeray quickly understood this reality and made it the centrepiece of the Sena’s activity. The party made no positive contribution even after taking power. It was unable to attract many from the educated middle class or technocrats (Suresh Prabhu joined but immediately fled). 

The Sena realised this and gave up any ambition of becoming a party of governance, focussing its energy on renaming Bombay, renaming Victoria Terminus, renaming the airport and so on. It has no ideology other than resentment and mischief and so has been unable to resist the powerful advance of the real Hindutva party. The Sena has always missed the discipline and determination to build an organisation, with the party being a family enterprise and merely Bal Thackeray’s id writ large.
Thackeray was a unique figure. He was akin to a stand-up comic: A speaker with no interest or talent in institution building but able to draw people towards him through rhetoric alone. 

He made an annual speech on Dussehra at Shivaji Park, a brilliant, rambling discourse, part angry and part humorous which drew tens of thousands. He chose Dussehra not because of the Hindu tradition but the Marathi one. It was the day Shivaji, after whom the Shiv Sena is named, began his annual raids — 30,000 horse riding north to extort money from the Mughals and Rajputs — crossing the Narmada into Hindustan at the end of the monsoon.

As many noted on his succession, Uddhav Thackeray is a poor public speaker and lacks charisma. Cousin Raj Thackeray is better but lacks material and width in his rhetoric. Neither has the firepower that the old man had decades ago and it is now a different era and a different audience. The Sena has desperately been trying to figure out a way to be relevant and this has been difficult. 

The Thackeray family did not contest elections because that was beneath it. When Joshi was made chief minister 25 years ago he proudly acknowledged his actions were being remote-controlled from Matoshri (the Thackeray residence). But competent Sena leaders with their own base, like Chhagan Bhujbal and Narayan Rane, usually leave because the party is unable to accommodate their ambition.

None of the Thackerays ever became a minister and certainly being subordinate to a BJP chief minister would dent their style. With Uddhav’s son entering the field for the first time, this will change. And about time too: The Sena must figure out a new pathway to relevance before the BJP swallows it whole.


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