The stage is set for Aaditya Thackeray’s win from Worli unless the Nationalist Congress Party’s Suresh Mane, a veteran social activist, pulls off an upset. ( Photo: Hindustan Times)
The stage is set for Aaditya Thackeray’s win from Worli unless the Nationalist Congress Party’s Suresh Mane, a veteran social activist, pulls off an upset. ( Photo: Hindustan Times)

Shiv Sena 3.0: Living on a prayer

  • Aaditya Thackeray is fighting from the trenches to rescript the Shiv Sena in a make-or-break assembly election
  • Aaditya Thackeray, who is contesting elections from Worli, represents Shiv Sena 3.0—a more cosmopolitan, inclusive and expansive version than Bal Thackeray’s Shiv Sena

Mumbai: The Shiv Sena has had a long and volatile link with Worli. The central Mumbai area, part commercial and part residential, is a microcosm of the city with its diverse mix of castes and communities, dizzying inequalities, and stretches of waterfront promenades metres away from densely packed chawls. The lanes and tiny courtyards in these chawls witnessed riots for weeks in early 1974 when the Shiv Sena’s supporters clashed with Dalits of the then nascent Dalit Panthers.

Stones, kerosene bombs, acid, and electric bulbs flew in all directions. Dalit Panther member Bhagwat Jadhav was killed. Six more died and more than a hundred, mostly Dalits, were injured, according to reports. The Shiv Sena’s slogans “Marathi manoos" and “bajao pungi, bhagao lungi" (chase away those who wear lungi, a dog whistle for south Indians) were heard.

Into this cauldron of socioeconomic contradictions steps in Aaditya Thackeray, 29, grandson of Shiv Sena founder Bal Thackeray and a contestant for the Maharashtra assembly election from Worli. The state will go to polls on 21 October, and the results for 288 assembly seats will be declared on 24 October. Aaditya Thackeray has broken his family’s tradition of wielding power without contesting an election.

The Maharashtrian bastion saw hoardings earlier this month in five languages, including Telugu, Gujarati and Urdu, with Aaditya Thackeray waving to ask: “How are you, Worli?" During his campaign earlier this week, he sported the south Indian mundu/veshti—its crisp white with gold border gleaming against the Sena’s saffron—a gift from a clutch of associations in the area.

Cosmopolitan Sena

This may well be the Shiv Sena 3.0—a version more cosmopolitan, inclusive, and expansive than the Thackeray patriarch had imagined. It’s a version necessitated by the demands of a rapidly changing Mumbai and ambitions of its once-trusted friend the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). It’s a version Aaditya Thackeray wants to rescript for the 53-year-old party. Question is, does he have the smarts for the tall task?

Aaditya burst on the scene nearly ten years ago when he led a delegation of students to the then vice chancellor of University of Mumbai to demand that Rohinton Mistry’s Such a Long Journey be banned from the curriculum. The vice chancellor caved in without batting an eyelid. Since then, the alumnus of the elite Bombay Scottish School and St. Xavier’s College has aligned himself with causes such as toilets for women, cleaning Mumbai’s beaches, encouraging open-air gyms, advocating night life in Mumbai and so on.

He has steered clear of the Sena’s controversial subjects such as Marathi pride, sons-of-the-soil theory, and “outsider" or migrants crowding Mumbai. Aaditya has completed a Jan Ashirwad Yatra across Maharashtra this year and has declared his financial worth at 16 crore. He did not respond for an interview for this piece.

Winning from Worli should not be a test for the Thackeray scion. The Shiv Sena’s Sunil Shinde had won the seat five years ago with more than 40% of the vote. His nearest rival, Sachin Ahir, who was Mumbai president of the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP), hopped over to the Sena this year with a sizeable number of supporters. The Maharashtra Navnirman Sena (MNS), founded by Bal Thackeray’s nephew Raj Thackeray in 2006, sent a signal of support by not putting up a candidate. The stage is set for Aaditya’s win from Worli unless the NCP’s Suresh Mane, a veteran social activist, pulls off an upset.

Bigger picture

The assembly election is the least of Aaditya’s challenges. He would hope that the Sena bags more than the 64 seats it won in the 2014 assembly election. He would, of course, lead the Sena’s contingent in the assembly and be available to become Maharashtra’s deputy chief minister if the Devendra Fadnavis-led BJP makes the offer. Shiv Sena chief and Aaditya’s father, Uddhav Thackeray, has reiterated his desire to have a Shiv Sainik—euphemism for his son—as the state’s chief minister, but it is unlikely to happen in this election. The numbers do not add up.

The Sena is contesting only 124 of the 288 seats, and its win percentage tends to be lower than that of the BJP’s. The two parties have been together as allies since 1989 when the BJP did not carry much clout in Maharashtra. Bal Thackeray had said they were ideological siblings with the Sena being the elder or big brother. In 2014, a resurgent BJP and the Narendra Modi “wave" led to a rupture in the alliance. The two parties contested the assembly election independent of each other.

The BJP won 122 seats but could not manage a simple majority. Fadnavis formed the government in October 2014. The Shiv Sena joined the government two months later, but it has been a rocky relationship since. They have since shared power in Mumbai’s municipal corporation and elsewhere too.

Modi at the Centre and Fadnavis in the state allotted politically insignificant portfolios to the Sena or haven’t taken the Sena’s concerns on board. “It’s clear to us that the BJP under Modi-Amit Shah wants to finish us like they have done with some of their other regional allies, but they don’t know how deep Sena’s roots run in Maharashtra," said a senior Shiv Sena leader, on condition of anonymity.

“We have always treated the Sena and the Thackerays with utmost respect," countered BJP spokesperson Keshav Upadhyay. On its part, the Sena played a dual role—in power as the BJP’s ally but taking it on as an opposition party would. Uddhav Thackeray has been castigating the Modi government on economy and repeating in his campaign trail that “losses of jobs and businesses are real issues".

There’s no doubt that the BJP is squeezing out the Sena. The Sena’s vote share in Maharashtra assembly election has hovered between 17% and 19.9% in the last four elections, whereas the BJP’s has zoomed from about 14% to 27.8%. The unease and distrust has built up. Seat-sharing negotiations lingered on for weeks with threats flying from both sides before it was all worked out. The impression is that Uddhav Thackeray got a bad bargain.

End of an era

The era of ‘remote control’ politics is clearly over. Mr Bal Thackeray would make a call and chief ministers, from his own Manohar Joshi to others, would do his bidding," said Sujata Anandan, senior journalist and author of Samrat: How the Shiv Sena Changed Mumbai Forever.

Uddhav Thackeray decided to follow his father’s political methods. While he was able to keep the party united and fairly successful in the elections after Bal Thackeray passed away in November 2012, his grip over the party’s apparatus and its vast network of workers has come under stress. This is a major reason he encouraged his son to contest the election.

Redrawing the equation with an increasingly ruthless BJP is one of Aaditya’s major challenges—the BJP drove a hard bargain on sharing of seats to deny the Sena a large chunk of urban seats in Mumbai, Thane, Pune, and Nashik; it appropriated the Sena’s idol Vinayak Damodar Savarkar; and it offered cheaper meals than the Sena’s 10 thali.

There are other challenges too: redefining the Shiv Sena in its post-nativist avatar, reorienting the party in a rapidly shifting 21st century economy and society, re-establishing the Thackerays’ tight control over the cadre, and etching out his style of leadership. All this shall come to pass if the Shiv Sena, under his leadership, is able to successfully stave off the BJP’s predatory tendencies in the near future.

Of course, Uddhav Thackeray isn’t walking away into the sunset just yet. At 59, with multiple stents in his heart, he is still the party’s lead campaigner criss-crossing the state. He has come a long way from being the enthusiastic wildlife photographer and reluctant politician of the 1990s.

Aaditya, by comparison, is more self-assured, more cosmopolitan but also Maharashtrian, at home with Mumbai’s Page 3 set and with farmers, and willing to articulate issues and engage with non-Marathi press. “This is his first step into politics, it’s just the beginning," said the father. The dynastic principle is in full flow, never mind that Bal Thackeray unfailingly lampooned the Congress and Gandhis for it.

Tricky challenges ahead

Even allowing for the entitlement that dynasty brings, the road ahead is not easy. Aaditya Thackeray’s judgement will be tested—as it was on the Aarey issue. He missed the opportunity to demonstrate leadership. For months, he resisted the Mumbai Metro Rail Corp. Ltd’s (MMRC’s) plan to build the Metro-3 car depot in Mumbai’s lush green Aarey forest and aligned himself with environmentalists and activists battling to save more than 2,700 trees from being felled. When the push came to shove two weeks ago and the MMRC, armed with a Bombay high court order, moved to hack trees overnight, Aaditya Thackeray was absent from the scene.

The Shiv Sena’s workers and local leaders protested with environmentalists, the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) and the NCP’s leaders, Sena deputy leader Priyanka Chaturvedi was detained by the police, but the young Thackeray preferred to sit in the family home at Bandra and tweet his ire. He got mocked on the social media platform. He had missed seizing the moment on the ground. “It’s good that he has spoken out against locating the car shed in Aarey but why then does the Shiv Sena push for the coastal road which has enormous ecological impact on Mumbai," asked the AAP’s Preeti Sharma Menon.

It’s in such dichotomies that his carefully cultivated image begins to unravel. Political strategist Prashant Kishore reportedly has had a great deal of influence on the Thackerays about projecting Aaditya in this image. People familiar with the matter in the Shiv Sena say that his advice and prescription are treated with reverence. But would Kishore be able to advise him on how to redefine the party and reorient it for contemporary times?

How, for example, will the party handle the mistrust among the residents of 15 villages in Nanar, on the Konkan coast, protesting against a large petrochemical plant? The Sena got Fadnavis government to cancel the proposal, but the wily chief minister brought it back into discussion saying it could be reopened. Now protestors in Nanar are not sure if they should vote for the Sena. Similarly, the party has repeatedly spoken up for the state’s farmers and demanded loan waivers, but has had limited agency.

The hope in the party is that Aaditya will take the Shiv Sena to the next level. “What works for Aaditya are some of his natural qualities," said Arvind Sawant, party veteran and member of Parliament from Mumbai South. “He gets to the bottom of things, he won’t leave anything unfinished, he has his own vision which isn’t fed to him from the top," he added.

Behind the words, Sena leaders and analysts are watching how he will reconcile cosmopolitanism with the party’s nativism and preference for strong-arm tactics. “The sons-of-the-soil nativism doesn’t have value in a globalized world. Even Sena leaders have realized this seeing their second and third generations suffer. This reconciliation will be his major challenge," Anandan said. If he manages to redefine the Sena’s Marathi sub-nationalism within the broader framework of nationalism and Hindutva, the party will be similar to his uncle Raj Thackeray’s MNS.

In a state increasingly dominated by the BJP’s Hindu nationalism, there will unlikely be a space for two more variants. Even if he were to renegotiate relations with the MNS, Aaditya would have to face his toughest moments in reworking relationships within his own party. After all, he will be leading men and women who were draping the Sena’s saffron flag years before he was born.

Should the BJP get complete majority and dump the Sena, or the Sena gets fewer seats than it did in 2014, there could be an exodus to either the MNS or the BJP. This will, of course, allow Aaditya to rebuild the party in his vision, expanding on his trusted circle of colleagues and his father’s loyalists.

The assembly election is crucial for the Thackerays and the Shiv Sena. The scion will likely cross the finish line; a good show will consolidate the Sena’s power; and a below par tally will see gloves come off.

Smruti Koppikar, a Mumbai-based senior journalist and chronicler, writes on politics, cities, gender and media.