Shiv Sena and the loss of relevance

February 13th, 2010

In 1966, when Prabodhankar (a person who spreads the light of knowledge) Keshav Thackeray, who was a leading light of Maharashtra’s social reform movement, announced at a mammoth rally at Mumbai’s historic Shivaji Park, “I am offering my Bal for the cause of Maharashtra,”  Prabodhankar could not have imagined that his son one day would rule the state through his famous remote control, a man who would arouse curiosity, passion and hate across the nation.

The hangover of the Samyukta Maharashtra movement (Movement for United Maharashtra) which created the modern linguistic state of Maharashtra in 1960 had started to subside.

Marathi youth of Mumbai, who courted arrest and zealously participated in the movement to create Samyukta Maharashtra with Mumbai as its capital, were waking up to the rude awaking that though Mumbai was Maharashtra’s capital they were not really in control of it.

Businesses were owned by  Gujaratis, Marwaris and Parsees and white collar jobs were going to South Indians, who were fluent in English and trained in accountancy and short-hand. And the new rulers of Mumbai, chief ministers and ministers were not interested in their plight as their constituencies were in far flung rural Maharashtra.

Bal Thackeray, a cartoonist who had walked out of Free Press Journal in a huff in the late 1950s in protest against the management’s stand that Mumbai should be a centrally governed city state, sensed this void and decided to launch a magazine dedicated to cartoons along with his musician brother Shrikant, the father of Raj. The magazine, which was fashioned on the British magazine Punch, was called Marmik (apt comment) and it started poking fun at Gujrati Seths, South Indian clerks, Udupi Hotel owners  and Congress politicians among others – creating enduring steorotypes.

Down the line it also started to publish lists of new recruits in public sector undertakings like SBI, Reserve Bank of India, Air India and LIC  to drive home how sons of the soil were ignored. This list was titled provocatively “Vacha ani swastha Basa” (read and keep quiet).

Marmik’s runaway success attracted a large number of Marathi youth to Thackeray and finally culminated in launch of Shiv Sena on June 19, 1966.

In the first ever public meeting at which Thackeray  listed out his hate objects, interestingly Communists got top billing.  

Thackeray’s pathological hatred of Communists was a handy tool to Congress rulers who wanted to break the stranglehold of Communist and Socialist trade unions in public sector undertakings as well as the private sector in the country’s financial capital.

In fact, Thackeray and then chief minister of the state, Vasantrao Naik, shared so close a relationship that Thackeray’s party was jokingly called Vasant Sena in the state’s political circle.

Because of this, the investigation of the murder, in broad daylight, of  CPI MLA, Krishna Desai never reached its logical conclusion. Some lower rung Sainiks were arrested and a few got convicted.

But Thackeray’s Shiv Sena never grew beyond Mumbai and neighbouring Thane as Maharashtrians in the rest of Maharashtra did not see outsiders as a threat.

In fact, by the early 1980s Sena had even became marginal political player in Mumbai although its fire power was intact.

But once again, Congress chief minister Vasantdada Patil gave a lease of life to Sena. Patil, who wanted to settle scores with then Congress’s Mumbai unit chief Murali Deora, spoke about a conspiracy being hatched to separate Mumbai from the state.

The result  was obvious. The 1985 Mumbai municipal corporation elections were won by the Sena with a thumping majority – a majority that it was not able to achieve even at the height of its anti-South Indian agitation. Chhagan Bhujbal became the Mayor of Mumbai.

Sena, which had alliances with political parties right from the Praja Socialist Party, the Janata Party and even the Muslim League had an alliance with new born Bharatiya Janta Party (BJP) in the 1984 Lok Sabha elections.

Although the alliance candidate fail to win a single seat, it garnered sizeable votes in Mumbai. But again, in 1985, Sena and BJP parted ways and contested assembly elections independently.

By this time Thackeray, who had started nursing pan Maharashtra ambitions, sensed popular Hindu polarisation in the country in the wake of the Ramjanmabhumi agitation and the infamous Shahbano case and decided to champion the cause of Hindutva.

And the young general secretary of the BJP, Pramod Mahajan, realised if they teamed up with Sena which had a charismatic leader like Thackeray at the helm of affairs, the two parties could break the Congress monopoly over power in the state. Thus after lot of persuasion Thackeray agreed to contest  the 1989 Lok Sabha elections in alliance with the BJP.

The alliance was not without its pitfalls. Mahajan had to use his persuasive skills more with the Sangh and BJP leadership who saw Sena as an organisation of ruffians of little use outside Mumbai. In fact, few know that to this day, BJP leader and former President Dr Murli Manohar Joshi does not share a podium with the Shiv Sena because he feels they are against the Constitution of India.

Apart from the Hindutva plank, the opposition space vacated by Sharad Pawar who had merged his Congress (S) and returned to the Congress fold in 1986 helped Thackeray to spread his party in Marathwada and other regions of the state.

The youth from Marathwada who joined Sena were mostly from upper caste Maratha or Other Backward Classes (OBC)  but not from the elite 96 Kuli (96 families) or Deshmukh Marathas that form the core of Congress politics in the state. These were lumpen youth who were left out or marginalised by Congress’s politics of cooperative institutions.

Chhagan Bhujbal, an important OBC leader from the state, helped Sena bring OBC youth from across the state to Sena’s fold.  However, after the 1990 assembly election, the post of leader of opposition went to Manohar Joshi who went  on to become first non-Congress chief minister of the state and speaker of the Lok Sabha.  Hurt, Bhujbal waited for an opportunity and crossed the floor on the issue of Sena’s opposition to the Mandal commission.

This was a major setback for Sena but the polarised atmosphere which followed the 1992-93 Mumbai riots and blasts, helped Sena to ride to power with its alliance partner in the 1995 Lok Sabha elections.

Aggressive posturing on Hindutva and the active role played by Sena in these riots helped Sena to extend its support base in Mumbai.  Many non-Maharashtrian communities such as Gujaratis, North Indians and Kannadigas helped Sena win 31 assembly seats out of 32 in Mumbai during 1995 election.

Besides taking bold and aggressive positions on the sons of soil issue and Hindutva, its brand of Robin Hood style of politics also helped Sena to gain popularity among the masses.

Shiv Sainik stood between the citizen and corruption, made things work and offered protection in a variety of ways. Nothing is free, so petty criminalisation and extortion lubricated the vast and complex shakha machinery. But by the mid-1980s, the collections of the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) were beginning to swell. At the same time, privatisation of development meant the state had to be bypassed in providing many services, in a practical manner. The Shiv Sena filled this breach. 
 
The rise of the Shiv Sena as a major political force across the state also heralded the rise of the second generation of Thackerays on the political scene.

The 1990s election saw Raj hitting the camping trail and people immediately realized that here was a chip off the old block.

For Swarraj aka Raj Thackeray it was always ‘ like uncle like nephew’, especially because most of his childhood and adolescence years were spent at his uncle’s house at Bandra.

For Raj, Balasaheb’s house was second home as not only were Bal and Shrikant  brothers but his mother Kundatai and Balasaheb’s wife Meenatai were sisters.

Raj was launched in politics by floating the party’s students wing called the Akhil Bhartiya Vidyarthi Sena (ABVS).  By 1995, when the party came to power Raj had established himself as youth leader and crowd puller.

Around the same time Raj’s cousin and Balasaheb’s son Uddhav, Sena’s current working president, was trying to find a foothold in politics. However Uddhav was a reluctant politician, spurred into taking bigger role in the family business by his wife Rashmi.  
How things change. Today the retiring Uddhav is firmly in command of his party, the Shiv Sena’s apparatus, surefooted and calculating, ensuring all future threats – whether it is Narayan Rane, the uncrowned king of the Konkan region in Maharashtra who was thrown out of Shiv Sena; or his cousin Raj who has recently launched the Maharashtra Navnirman Samiti (MNS) – represent no challenge to his leadership of the party.

The rift between once inseparable duo of Dadu (Uddhav) and Sonu (Raj)  began with Sena’s rise to power. Within two years of installing Sena’s chief minister at Mantralya, Balasaheb had lost wife Meenatai and elder son Bindumadha. The family patriarch started depending heavily upon Uddhav.

The organisation succeeded so long as there was Balasaheb Thackeray - larger than life, loved, feared, and revered. But he chose his son Uddhav, rather than his nephew Raj, as his formal successor. In this, Thackeray acted predictably and conventionally. He disappointed a lot of his followers. The most important of them, Narayan Rane quit the Sena and spoke out against the infallible Thackeray himself. Raj Thackeray - acknowledged to be the ‘mason’ of the Sena while Uddhav has always been considered the ‘architect’ - also walked out. Confused, the Shiv Sainiks began questioning their leadership and its ideology. Suddenly everything was negotiable. 

When faced with a setback - electoral or political - the Sena’s answer is violence. When they lost the Lok Sabha elections in 1998, Sainiks stormed the concert of Pakistani ghazal singer Ghulam Ali, they renewed their attacks on painter MF Hussain for painting nude pictures of Hindu gods and goddesses and supported the ransacking of his house by the Bajrang Dal, the youth organisation of the VHP. Sainiks dug up the ground in the Ferozshah Kotla stadium in Delhi prior to a cricket match with Pakistan. They also threatened to attack the newly established bus link between Delhi and Lahore which Prime Minister Vajpayee had just inaugurated. 

But that was all in the past. Uddhav was in charge. Raj, his cousin, couldn’t take it anymore. He left the party and launched his own outfit, the Maharashtra Navnirman Samiti (MNS).

In terms of personality the two are as different as chalk from cheese. Uddhav lacks the charisma, the firebrand oratory and the devil-may-care attitude of his father and cousin Raj. But he overcomes these handicap by being a studious, meticulous planner and hard working politician. 

When Bal Thackeray decided to turn his party from a Maharashtrian to a Hindu outfit, his instincts paid off. He could sense the popular mood in the country and state and exploited it to the hilt to expand the party across the state.  

However, when Uddhav led the party’s popular agitations on issues like  loan waiver, long hours of power cut and crumbling urban infrastructure, it was the result of a well thought out strategy to use popular anti-government sentiment against the government.

The BMC election in 2007 and subsequent victories in municipal elections elsewhere in the state have had the average Shiv Sainik bow their head in deference to Uddhav. But the 2009 Assembly elections saw the Sena lose serious electoral ground to Raj.

This is the key to understand the My Name Is Khan controversy: it is not Shahrukh Khan, and other mishmash of trivial issues. It is the Shiv sena Parivar seeking relevance.
 
 
 

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