New Delhi: Maharashtra’s main opposition party, the Shiv Sena, appears to have risked isolating itself by antagonizing the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), its ally of at least two decades, as it escalates its rhetoric against north Indians and takes on the likes of Shah Rukh Khan and Mukesh Ambani.
The BJP, which is preparing for the forthcoming assembly election in politically crucial Bihar, is considering a break from its state allies in order to protect its support base and maintain its national party character, say analysts.
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The Shiv Sena, founded by Bal Thackeray and currently led by son Uddhav Thackeray, has been forced to take an extreme position because of its frustration with the loss of vote share to breakaway group, Maharashtra Navnirman Sena, which is headed by Raj Thackeray, nephew to the older Thackeray.
Film star and team owner Khan has been targeted for his comments that he regretted the omission of Pakistani cricketers from the Indian Premier League. Others facing the party’s ire include Congress general secretary Rahul Gandhi, Reliance Industries Ltd chairman Mukesh Ambani and Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) chief Mohan Bhagwat for criticising the Shiv Sena’s stance against north Indians.
With the aim of consolidating votes among ethnic Maharashtrians, the Shiv Sena and MNS have been waging a campaign against north Indians, especially those from Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, accusing them of taking away jobs from locals.
In the 13 October assembly election, the MNS won 12 seats, mainly in the Mumbai-Thane region, a traditional Shiv Sena stronghold. The Shiv Sena’s vote share has come down from 19.97% in 2004 to 16.26% in 2009, as the MNS got 5.7% of the votes.
Mumbai-based psephologist and political analyst Jai Mrug says the tirade by the Shiv Sena is a survival tactic.
“They are trying to reinforce their brand. The Shiv Sena and the MNS are competing for the same space—Marathi pride,” Mrug said. “The Shiv Sena needs to reinforce itself as a brand and it has to make value statements very often, reminding the people about it.”
The timing of the campaign is crucial, said B. Venkatesh Kumar, professor of political science at Mumbai University, coming ahead of the golden jubilee of Maharashtra Day on 1 May, marking the anniversary of the state’s creation.
The Shiv Sena came to prominence in the 1960s with its campaign against south Indians, eventually dominating local elections. The party gained wider support in the 1980s after it took on a Hindu nationalist hue and allied with the BJP, coming to power in the state in 1995.
This time, the targets don’t seem to be as willing to bend before the Shiv Sena’s fury.
While Bollywood director Karan Johar chose to apologise to MNS chief Raj Thackeray for using “Bombay” instead of “Mumbai” in his movie, Khan said he would not retract his comments as he did not violate the Indian constitution. Rahul Gandhi also criticized the parties for their anti-north Indian stand, saying Mumbai belonged to all Indians.
The BJP also seems to be determined to stick to its stand, which signals that it may be looking to exit from the alliance. “It is time for the party to rethink its decades-old ties with the Shiv Sena,” BJP general secretary Vinay Katiyar said.
Although a parting of ways may not happen soon, the BJP is preparing the ground for snapping ties with the Shiv Sena, said Mrug. “There are two reasons for that—the current president Nitin Gadkari is not very comfortable with the Shiv Sena and there is a larger thinking in the BJP that it has lost its initiative to grow in many states because of its junior partners,” he added.
Ruhi Tewari also contributed to this story.
Graphic by Ahmed Raza Khan / Mint