Mumbai: Five years since the death of its charismatic and polarizing leader Balasaheb Thackeray, Shiv Sena, Maharashtra’s nativist party that he founded and led for half a century is a changed outfit.
When Thackeray died on 17 November 2012 at age 86, many observers worried about its future, even speculating cadres might drift to a breakaway faction. But that’s not how it turned out.
The political landscape in India and in Maharashtra has changed remarkably since the death of the maverick politician. In 2012, Shiv Sena was in the opposition with just 45 seats in the 288-member Maharashtra assembly. Though the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) had one more seat, it was still considered the Shiv Sena’s junior ally in Maharashtra. And Thackeray was like a father figure to the saffron siblings.
Now, on his fifth death anniversary, Thackeray’s party is in power in Maharashtra and at the centre, though the reins are wielded by one-time junior partner BJP. A senior party leader who also worked with the elder Thackeray summed up the state of the Shiv Sena as “a party and not a movement any longer".
“It is not a bad thing to be a political party, but the Shiv Sena under Balasaheb had the character and firepower of a movement. We were unlike a mainstream political party in many ways. Now, we practise politics much like other parties," the Sena leader said on condition of anonymity. This leader pointed out that the Sena’s parliamentary and legislative strength had in fact risen under Balasaheb’s son Uddhav Thackeray, who now heads the party.
He is right.
The Shiv Sena now has 63 MLAs in Maharashtra, won entirely under Uddhav’s leadership in the October 2014 elections, and 18 members of the Lok Sabha, some of whom may have benefitted from the 2014 Modi wave, as the two parties fought in alliance. The party also has three Rajya Sabha members.
In the February 2012 civic elections in Mumbai, the Shiv Sena won 75 seats and could reach the halfway mark in the 227-member Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) only with the support of BJP’s 32 members and some independents. Then, Balasaheb was around though he did not actively lead the campaign. Also, the Sena-BJP alliance was intact. Yet, the Sena won only 75 seats in its bastion of Mumbai.
Five years later in February 2017, it won 84 seats, just two more than the BJP, but nine more under Uddhav’s leadership over its 2012 tally. More importantly, the Sena won 84 seats after Uddhav decided to fight the battle for BMC on its own.
Suhas Palshikar, veteran political commentator and former head of the department of political science at Pune’s Savitribai Phule University, says Uddhav has given “credible" leadership to the Shiv Sena, but adds that Balasaheb had prepared the ground already. “Bal Thackeray had begun the process for his son to take over since the 2002 BMC elections. In fact, this process resulted in the exit of Raj Thackeray (Uddhav’s cousin who quit the Shiv Sena in 2006 and formed the Maharashtra Navnirman Sena). While Uddhav does not have his father’s charisma, he seems to have developed decent control over the party organization and has even led the party well in difficult times after the split with the BJP," Palshikar says.
The Shiv Sena under Uddhav often sulks over perceived slights by the BJP, currently the big brother in the alliance by virtue of its greater parliamentary and political power. The BJP has bested Shiv Sena in virtually every election in the state since 2014.
“Earlier, even senior BJP leaders like Atal Bihari Vajpayee and L.K. Advani used to call on Balasaheb whenever they were in Mumbai. In fact, Balasaheb was the only leader who stood by Modi in 2002... But now, the same Modi and the likes of (BJP president) Amit Shah try to dictate terms to us," said a Sena MP, who did not want to be named.
A Mumbai BJP leader, who requested anonymity, said Uddhav simply did not inspire the kind of “respect, awe, and command" like Balasaheb did. But he conceded that Uddhav has made Shiv Sena his own despite several serious challenges including the ascent of the BJP. “It is not Balasaheb’s Shiv Sena any longer, but that is not a negative point. Uddhav has led Sena much better than many including some of us in the BJP thought. Many political pundits had commented that after Balasaheb’s death, half the Sena cadres would shift to Raj Thackeray but that has not happened. In fact Raj seems to be struggling more," said this BJP leader.
About this comparison between Balasaheb and Uddhav, Palshikar thinks any party dependent on a single leader faces “the issue of comparison with the original charismatic leader". But he does not see Shiv Sena as an insignificant player in Maharashtra. “On the contrary, in view of the decline of the Congress and NCP in state, Shiv Sena is a major political force in Maharashtra. In national affairs though, it has become insignificant due to the clear majority the BJP has and the rise of Modi," Palshikar says.
Palshikar also feels that the transformation of the Shiv Sena started during Bal Thackeray’s time itself since 1998-1999. About the Shiv Sena’s journey here on, Palshikar thinks that the politics of language and regional interests would continue to be the core themes of the party, especially during times when it is in trouble. “Elsewhere, it will use Hindutva to counter the BJP," Palshikar feels.