Even in the unpredictable world of politics, the Shiv Sena’s decision to snap ties with long-standing, yet estranged ally, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), and attempt an understanding with the Congress and Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) to form a government in Maharashtra, has taken many by surprise.
The move, which was unthinkable a few months ago, is born more out of political expediency than any ideological conviction (the Sena is known for a ‘lack of theory’ as communist polymath SA Dange put it). It also marks the wheel turning full circle for the Shiv Sena, though the waters have been muddied after the imposition of President's rule.
Born in 1966, the Sena was seen as a creation of the Congress to undercut the Left which dominated the city’s powerful working class movement.
The Shiv Sena’s attempted alignment with the Congress and NCP, which comes after around five years of wrangling and a political tug-of-war with ally BJP, has multiple layers in its causes and impact, and cannot be analysed through monocausal explanations.
Similarly, the marginalisation of outgoing chief minister Devendra Fadnavis by the BJP’s central and state leadership is another key subtext from the political contest of strength that shaped up over the fortnight.
In 1989, the BJP, which had launched the Ram Temple agitation, allied with the Shiv Sena in Maharashtra. Then, Sena chief late Bal Thackeray was projecting himself as a Hindutva mascot, in an attempt to broad-base his party’s identity beyond its core ‘Marathi manoos’ agenda, which had a resonance only in Mumbai and nearby areas, where politics was and continues to be polarised around linguistic identity. The Shiv Sena itself was no stranger to communal polarisation, as was evident by its alleged involvement in communal flashpoints.
However, a shift to Hindutva meant that the Shiv Sena had to water down its Marathi agenda, and turn a blind eye to assertion by other linguistic groups. In Mumbai, which was fast witnessing a social, economic and cultural disruption, this led to disaffection in its core constituency, which showed it could be swayed by players like Raj Thackeray’s Maharashtra Navnirman Sena (MNS), which espoused an aggressive form of nativism. Despite the MNS being a depleted political force, its existential threat for the Shiv Sena remains potent due to Raj’s charismatic authority. The BJP has also made inroads into the Sena’s electoral catchment.
A break with the BJP may ensure that the Shiv Sena can sharpen its focus on Marathi, and put Hindutva on the back burner, but not abandon it. Unencumbered by the BJP, the Sena can emerge as a pan-Maharashtra regional force by encompassing sections like Muslims and Buddhist Dalits, who feel put off by its deployment of political Hindutva. It must be noted that Maharashtra, which is the womb of the Hindu nationalist ideology, is the only state which has two mainstream parties competing for the Hindutva vote base.
The Sena has undergone a major transition during the Maharashtra assembly elections. For one, Aaditya, the elder son of Shiv Sena president Uddhav Thackeray, became the first from his family to seek public office, indicating that the party's first family would play an active role in electoral politics and governance. The political emergence of the cosmopolitan Aaditya can also help the Sena expand its wings into the upwardly mobile, aspirational Maharashtrian youth for whom the party has little to offer at present.
The Shiv Sena projected Aaditya as its chief ministerial candidate. It claimed the BJP had agreed to cede a two-and-half-year chief ministerial term to it. Fadnavis’s denial of the “pact” set the cat among the pigeons, and the Sena began exploring its options with the NCP and Congress. The efforts were led by Sena Rajya Sabha MP Sanjay Raut, who is also the executive editor of party organ Saamana. Raut’s proximity to NCP chief Sharad Pawar and antipathy towards the BJP is an open secret.
There was a perception that Fadnavis, whose elevation to the chief minister’s post despite being a non-Maratha and a Brahmin to boot, and previous lack of ministerial experience, worked to marginalise ‘Bahujan’ leaders like Eknath Khadse and Pankaja Munde.
The anger in the dominant Maratha-Kunbis, at being elbowed out from their apex position in the power pyramid, and massive agrarian distress, led to a resurgence for the NCP under Sharad Pawar. After wholesale desertions from the opposition ranks, the Enforcement Directorate (ED) notice to Pawar created a perception of him being victimised. The 79-year-old Pawar addressed a rally for his front's candidates in Satara amid heavy rain, thus standing up to the BJP's juggernaut, and helping the NCP rally its forces.
Though Pawar is reputed for being politically unreliable, largely due to his toppling the Vasantdada Patil-led Congress (Reddy)- Congress (I) regime to become the chief minister in 1978, the NCP has occupied the anti-incumbency space. This makes it tough for the Maratha strongman to take a stance that benefits the BJP.
The Congress, which senior leaders admit had given up on its fight early on, too managed to marginally improve its 2014 tally due to the anti-incumbency undercurrent.
The Shiv Sena’s breaking bread with the Congress and NCP marks the wheel turning full circle for it. The two parties have had a role to play in the Sena’s growth. The Shiv Sena and NCP had floated a short-lived alliance plan for the 2009 Lok Sabha elections.
Senior Congress leader Ramrao Adik was present on the dais when the Shiv Sena held its first rally at Shivaji Park in October 1966. Bal Thackeray’s proximity to then chief minister Vasantrao Naik earned it the pejorative of ‘Vasant Sena'.
The Sena’s meandering political course also saw it make and break bridges and alliances with the Muslim League, splinters of the Republican Party of India (RPI), the Congress and its myraid factions like the Indicate and Syndicate, for short-term political gains.
The Shiv Sena capitulated when former Prime Minister Indira Gandhi declared Emergency in 1975. The subsequent success of the Janata Party revealed that the move had backfired. In 1980, the Sena supported Congress chief minister Abdul Rehman Antulay’s election to the assembly from Raigad district after he was appointed the chief minister in 1980.
The decade between 1975 and 1985 saw the Shiv Sena being pushed to the fringes. Though the party’s ties with the Congress had frayed on issues like the non-resolution of the textile mill workers strike, then chief minister Vasantdada Patil, who was not on good terms with then Mumbai Congress boss Murli Deora, gave it a major shot in the arm. Patil alleged that there were moves to sever Mumbai from Maharashtra, and the subsequent upsurge of sentiments in the Marathi speakers saw the Sena gain power in 1985, in the BMC.
It has managed to control the country's richest civic body till date, barring a short spell between 1992 and 1997, and cemented its hold over Mumbai through the use of a ‘reward economy’, using the spoils from the civic body.
But, as some BJP leaders scoff, any Shiv Sena-Congress-NCP understanding will collapse under the weight of its contradictions. Ideological disparities apart, the astute politician that he is, Sharad Pawar knows that the BJP and Shiv Sena have lost ground in Maharashtra, leaving the field open for his party to expand and emerge as a potent regional force. The NCP has also walked away with the anti-incumbency vote.
Moreover, the NCP and Sena are at odds in several sub-regions of Maharashtra and were in a direct fight in 57 assembly seats, and are competing regional forces.
The adjustment with the Shiv Sena may, hence, be a temporary move to keep the BJP out of power.
The Congress too admits that the truck with the Shiv Sena will expose it to allegations of fostering majoritarian politics considering the Sena’s role in the 1992-93 Mumbai riots. This may affect its core vote base in sections of the minorities when new players on the block like Asaduddin Owaisi are snapping at its heels. The Congress fears a backlash in the rest of the country, especially north India, due to the Shiv Sena's association with an anti-migrant, anti-north Indian agenda. Also, the vitriolic attacks on the Gandhi family by Bal Thackeray and Saamana are fresh in public memory.
But again, in a post-ideology age, the sole conviction of politicians and their parties, is gaining power and holding on to it.
(The author is a journalist and author of the book ‘The Cousins Thackeray: Uddhav, Raj and the shadow of their Senas’ published by Penguin Ebury Press. This is the first political biography of Uddhav and Raj Thackeray, and has been translated into Marathi as ‘Thackeray Viruddha Thackeray’. Views are personal)