New Delhi: The feisty Shiv Sena gave its best performance to date in the Maharashtra assembly election of 2014, winning 63 seats even though it contested on its own, without the benefit of an alliance with its traditional partner, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

But as the party that claims to speak for Maharashtra enters its golden jubilee year on 19 June, its success on the larger stage has been rather more limited than other regional parties such as the Telugu Desam Party (TDP) in Andhra Pradesh, the two Dravidian stalwarts of Tamil Nadu and Trinamool Congress of West Bengal.

What is the future for a party like the Sena that tries to combine its nativist agenda of Marathi pride with a larger Hindutva agenda, which in many ways is a throwback to identity politics—at odds with modernising India?

After last year’s assembly election, Sena sat in the opposition for around a month as it negotiated afresh the terms of joining the government with the BJP. Months on, it seems the party leadership is still unsure it took the right decision in joining the government in Maharashtra, having emerged as a bitter critic of BJP-led governments both at the centre and in the state.

Arguably then, on the cusp of 50, the roar of the Sena tiger is sounding increasingly uncertain—appended by a question mark over whether it wants to be in government or outside it.

Although a part of the National Democratic Alliance that rules at the centre, Shiv Sena has publicly opposed the land acquisition amendment bill and the Jaitapur nuclear power plant project.

And at the state level, it has come out against infrastructure projects such as Mumbai Metro’s corridor III between Colaba and Santacruz, claiming they will displace Marathi-speaking people.

Analyst say the sooner the Sena leadership sorts out this confusion—about remaining in power—the better it will be for the party’s future.

Some of it is about positioning.

“Parties like the TDP, and Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK, of Tamil Nadu) very cleverly projected how Delhi or the central government is doing injustice to their state to gain power and consolidated their base. Even Prime Minister Narendra Modi, when he was Gujarat chief minister, cleverly played on regional sentiments and tried to project how Delhi is doing injustice to Gujarat," said Prakash Akolkar, political editor of Marathi newspaper Sakal and author of a book on the Sena.

Suhas Palshikar, professor of political science at Savitribai Phule Pune University, said the Sena initially was content being a Mumbai-Thane-centric party. “When they started expanding outside Mumbai, there was a formidable competitor in Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) president Sharad Pawar," he said. “Pawar always tried to project himself as a strong regional leader, whether he was in the Congress or outside Congress."

Though the Shiv Sena was born in 1966, it remained confined to the Mumbai-Thane belt till the mid-1980s. After a series of setbacks in the late 1970s and early 1980s, the party realised that in order to remain relevant in Mumbai, it needed to expand beyond Mumbai.

Correctly reading the direction of the political wind, Sena chief, the late Bal Thackeray, started championing the cause of Hindutva and sealed an alliance with another pro-Hindutva party, the BJP, in 1989.

Pawar’s decision in 1986 to return to the Congress fold helped the Sena gain a foothold in the Marathwada region and in the 1990 assembly election, it emerged as the largest opposition party with 52 seats.

Taking advantage of a communally charged atmosphere following the demolition of the Babri Masjid in Ayodhya in 1992 and communal rioting in Mumbai and other places, the Sena-BJP combine came to power for the first time in Maharashtra in 1995.

When the combine lost power in 1999, the Sena plunged into an internal power struggle between the party’s then executive president Uddhav Thackeray—the son of Bal Thackeray—and his cousin Raj Thackeray. The mantle of leadership finally fell upon Uddhav Thackeray, under whose leadership the party won two elections to the Municipal Corporation of Greater Mumbai in 2007 and 2012, and followed it up with its success in the 2014 Lok Sabha and assembly elections.

Manohar Joshi, former Lok Sabha speaker and senior Sena leader, said, “One definitely needs to study the reasons behind Sena’s limited success compared to its other regional players but I feel Maharashtrians don’t get united as easily as people from other states when it comes to issues pertaining to the state’s pride."

Palshikar and Akolkar think the Sena will be better off sitting in the opposition. Akolkar said, “The only party which seems to be in a position to take on the BJP currently is the Sena because the NCP is discredited due to charges of corruption and the Congress seems to be in a permanent state of decline with no plans for revival."

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