Essential Crisis

Shiv Sena: Limits of Political Opportunism

Paranjoy Guha Thakurta

[The Shiv Sena has gone through an unprecedented existential crisis. If, how and till when the party will survive the crisis remains to be seen. Barely two and half years after Uddhav Thackeray became Chief Minister of Maharashtra, thanks to Sharad Pawar’s manoeuvring, he had to resign. After propagating a parochial and anti-Muslim agenda for decades under its founder Balasaheb Thackeray, the Shiv Sena is today at a crossroads. Having reached the limits of its political opportunism the party will find it difficult to move forward from here as the Bharatiya Janata Party has lasciviously grabbed the spoils of power in India’s most industrialised state.]

After coming into existence in June 1966, the Shiv Sena, set up by cartoonist Balasaheb Thackeray, experienced electoral success for the first time when its candidates won a majority of seats in the Bombay (now Mumbai) Municipal Corporation, the wealthiest civic body of its kind in the country. The party’s victory was aided by factionalism within the Congress on the issue of the creation of the new state of Maharashtra from the erstwhile Bombay Presidency province. It played an active role in the movement to include the Dharwar and Belgaum districts in Maharashtra and consolidated its base in Mumbai and adjoining industrial areas like Thane.

Through the late-1960s and the 1970s, the Shiv Sena was used by owners of textile mills to counter the influence of Left unions among workers. The Sena’s strident rhetoric against non-Maharashtrian “outsiders,” notably migrants from Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, and Tamil Nadu, and in favour of “sons of the soil” or Marathimanoos, divided textile industry workers and helped the party build a strong political base, especially in and around Greater Mumbai.

From the 1980s onwards, the public persona of the Sena became increasingly anti-Muslim. Balasaheb proudly took credit for the fact that his Sainiks were active participants in the demolition of the Babri Masjid in December 1992. He spewed venom on so-called Bangladeshi immigrants and was one of the few politicians on the planet who unabashedly expressed his great admiration for German dictator Adolf Hitler. For around six years between December 1995 and December 2001, Balasaheb was disenfranchised (that is, barred from voting) after he was held guilty of delivering hateful speeches and writing articles considered communally incendiary. But the snarling tiger–the party’s symbol–was not tamed.

After forming the state government in 1994 in alliance with the Bharatiya Janata Party, the Shiv Sena spared no effort in preventing the smooth functioning of the B N Srikrishna commission of inquiry into the communal violence in Mumbai in December 1992 and January 1993 that was targeted largely at the Muslims. The presentation of the commission’s report was sought to be delayed and, predictably, the Maharashtra government then headed by Manohar Joshi rejected its findings and recommendations calling for punitive legal action against Shiv Sainiks.

When the Congress government led by Vilasrao Deshmukh threatened to arrest Balasaheb, the Shiv Sena ministers in the Atal Bihari Vajpayee government in Delhi, including Suresh Prabhu and BalasahebVikhe Patil, resigned. Balasaheb was eventually not arrested, and the Sena continued to vie with the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in presenting itself as the more radical exponent of Hindutva among the alliance partners.

The then Shiv Sena chief not only wanted India to send its forces to occupy Pakistan Occupied Kashmir, Balasaheb also wanted cricket matches between the two countries to be stopped. His supporters opposed a performance by popular ghazal singer Mehdi Hasan and attacked actor Dilip Kumar’s residence when he received the highest civilian award from the government of Pakistan. The Sena’s cultural policing also included imposing a “ban” on Mira Nair’s film “Fire” for depicting a lesbian relationship.

Even as the Sena vied with the BJP to expand its political support base across Maharashtra, the party faced internal dissensions that led to the departure of leaders like Sanjay Nirupam, Narayan Rane and Chhagan Bhujbal. The party was able to cut its losses after Balasaheb anointed his son Uddhav, and not his nephew Raj, as his successor. Raj Thackeray went on to form his own political outfit the Maharashtra Navnirman Sena.

These instances of factionalism have paled into insignificance when compared with the revolt in the party led by Eknath Shinde, who is the current Chief Minister. Former Chief Minister Devendra Phadnavis–who was never reconciled to the way Sharad Pawar outsmarted him and his supporters by forming a coalition government with the Sena, the Nationalist Congress Party and the Indian National Congress–has been forced by the BJP “high command” to play second fiddle and become Shinde’s deputy.

After becoming Chief Minister Uddhav Thackeray had made all the right noises. He said that politics and religion should be kept apart. He emphasised that not a single tree would be cut in the Aarey forest to build a railway shed. He said that what Mumbai needed was an improvement in its suburban railway system, not the bullet train to Ahmedabad. He portrayed an image of himself that was distinct from his father. Not surprisingly, these are the very first decisions that have been overturned by Shinde after he was sworn in Chief Minister. As for Uddhav, he has already buckled and announced his support for the BJP’s candidate for the post of President of India, Droupadi Murmu.

The right-wing, communal, and parochial ideological glue that bound many Shiv Sainiks did not come unstuck easily. Given the history of the Sena, Shinde and the erstwhile rebels are now portraying themselves as the “true” legatees of Balasheb, and not his son Uddhav. Opportunistic politics reached its limits. The BJP had waited for this time. With no dearth of resources, the ruling regime in New Delhi decided to move in for the kill with Shinde as its willing collaborator. The fight against the Modi government has weakened considerably with the BJP returning to power in a state that sends the largest number of MPs to the Lok Sabha after Uttar Pradesh.

[A different version of this article was published by the News Click portal on 27 June 2022 when Uddhav Thackeray was still the Chief Minister of Maharashtra:]

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Vol 55, No. 14-17, Oct 2 - 29, 2022