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Fifty five years on: The incredible transformation of Shiv Sena

The Shiva Sena under Uddhav Thackeray has been softening its anti-minority and anti-migrant stance. With the population of individuals from other regions consistently increasing in Mumbai over the years, the change in strategy makes political sense. (Photo: Hindustan Times)Premium
The Shiva Sena under Uddhav Thackeray has been softening its anti-minority and anti-migrant stance. With the population of individuals from other regions consistently increasing in Mumbai over the years, the change in strategy makes political sense. (Photo: Hindustan Times)

  • The party most closely associated with India’s financial capital just turned 55. Has it changed irrevocably?
  • Aaditya Thackeray has often claimed that he is inspired by the ‘New Labour’ movement that briefly restored the political fortunes of the UK’s Labour party through an ideological makeover

MUMBAI : In a column written in the 1990s, the Marathi playwright Vijay Tendulkar, commenting on his former Free Press Journal colleague and Shiv Sena Supremo Bal Thackeray’s brand of politics, observed: “Whatever Thackeray may say about Hindutva and whatever language he may share with the Bharatiya Janata Party, in practical terms, Thackeray does not have an ideology at all. So, I wouldn’t be surprised if, in the future, he dumps the BJP. Thackeray can hold the country to ransom because of his lack of (any) ideological convention. As a result, he can move in any direction—he does not have a friend and he does not have an enemy. That is a very enviable position."

Most chroniclers and close observers of Bal Thackeray and the Shiv Sena would agree with Tendulkar’s assessment. The Sena tiger was known to be the quintessential flip-flop man—showering love on enemies on some occasions and hating friends and allies on some days.

The genesis of the Shiv Sena lies in the Samyukta Maharashtra movement of the 1950s, which demanded statehood for Maharashtra, with Mumbai as its capital. Ironically, the man who went on to become one of Mumbai’s most divisive and feared figures actually comes from a legacy of tolerance. Thackeray’s father, Prabodhankar Thackeray, a feisty social reformer, played a vital role in strengthening the Samyukta Maharashtra movement by bringing together disparate and often fractious groups of the socialist movement of that era. While he was still alive, Thackeray reiterated in multiple interviews that he did not believe in any ‘isms’. Without a twinge of conscience, Thackeray’s Shiv Sena could ally with anybody.

The party, which turned 55 on 19 June, has had dalliances with political outfits of all hues—Congress, BJP, Madhu Dandavate’s Praja Socialist Party, and the Muslim League. It was often said that because Thackeray believed in nothing, he believed in everything. Yet, despite Thackeray’s political somersaults, his inconsistencies and the many contradictions in his politics, his flock of ‘Shiv Sainiks’ swore unflinching loyalty to him. The explanation for the party’s successes despite its flawed ideology, or rather, the lack of any ideology, can be linked to its founder’s personality-driven politics. The Sena supremo, with his personality cult, built the party from scratch. While he never cared about clearly defining the Sena’s ideological framework, he made up for it by investing heavily in the creation of a rock-solid bond between him and his sainiks. Such a strong emotional and psychological connection has been central to the fortunes of a monolithic outfit like the Sena. Simply put, so closely was the Shiv Sena woven around Thackeray and his rabble-rousing personality that the party became synonymous with him.

Not surprisingly, Bal Thackeray’s death in 2012 was described by many as the beginning of the Shiv Sena’s end. The shy, soft-spoken and urbane Uddhav Thackeray was, in many ways, the antithesis of the brute, bellicose, and rustic ‘Shiv Sainiks’ he was leading. Dismissed as a leader far removed from his father’s personal charisma—a force that had kept the party going despite its ideological deficit—the overwhelming consensus among the commentariat and party members was that the Shiv Sena would wither away under Uddhav.

The Uddhav touch

Nine years on, Uddhav Thackeray, now the accidental chief minister of an unlikely three-party alliance, has managed to silence the doomsday theorists. By maintaining a firm grip on the party and holding it together, Uddhav has demonstrated that he means business and that he and his party are in for the long haul. But his bigger success lies in his bold attempts to give Shiv Sena a much needed moderate makeover, ridding it of its ideological dogmas—to make it a more inclusive, acceptable modern political entity.

“Knowing his limitations in indulging in demagoguery, Uddhav Thackeray has sought to steer the Sena to a more routine party-like organization," said Suhas Palshikar, a political analyst and chief editor of Studies in Indian Politics. “This was useful for the party since a party cannot remain continuously engaged in street politics and emotive politics," he added.

When hundreds of migrant workers gathered near Bandra railway station in April last year, instead of conveniently blaming the migrants for endangering the entire city and the health of the Marathi manoos, the chief minister in his address to the state chose to switch from Marathi to Hindi to reassure the workers: “Please do not panic. There is no reason to be scared. You are in our state and the state government will ensure that all your needs are taken care of." Contrast this with Bal Thackeray who had in an editorial titled ‘Ek Bihari Sau Bimari’ in the party mouthpiece Saamna blamed the unhygienic lifestyle of migrants for the spread of diseases in the city. The Muslim community has been on the party’s hit list for many years. But when the Tablighi Jamaatis were being bashed left, right and centre for being super-spreaders of covid-19, the junior Thackeray remarked that alongside the coronavirus, the virus of fake news was endangering the state’s social harmony. He sent out a strong message by promising action against rumours and fake news that could flare up communal tensions.

In October 2020, when governor Bhagat Singh Koshyari had in a letter mockingly asked the chief minister if he had turned “secular", Thackeray’s reply was that the word “secular" is in the Indian constitution, which he had sworn to protect when he took his oath of office in the Raj Bhavan.

The Sena’s modified and sophisticated avatar has brought praise from unexpected quarters including columnist Sudheendra Kulkarni, journalist Nikhil Wagle and filmmaker Hansal Mehta—all those who had been at the receiving end of its thokshahi. Its friend-turned-foe BJP, however, has not let go of an opportunity to dismiss such acts as a classic case of political compulsion. Recently, the Shiv Sena was derided as the ‘Sonia Sena’ and has been accused of “sacrificing Hindutva and (the) Balasaheb’s vision" for ensuring the longevity of the Maharashtra Vikas Aghadi (MVA). But the party had begun reaching out to Muslims and softening its anti-minority stand even before the MVA was formed.

Sena 2.0

In the 2017 Mumbai municipal elections, the Shiv Sena fielded five Muslim candidates; out of them, two emerged victorious. Behrampada in Bandra, which houses poor and lower-middle class Muslims, had seen one of the worst incidents of violence and bloodshed during the 1992-93 riots. The Srikrishna committee had highlighted the involvement of the Shiv Sena’s cadre in the riots and also indicted Bal Thackeray for inciting communal violence. Putting the past behind, the Shiv Sena fielded Haji Mohammed Alim Khan from Behrampada. Khan emerged victorious, polling over 4,000 votes, in a seat where the Shiv Sena’s tally had never crossed 200 in the past.

A 2017 Hindustan Times report quoted Maulana Mehmood Dariyabadi, general secretary of the All India Ulema Council, a body of Muslim scholars, as saying: “This time, everyone knew the fight was between the BJP and the Shiv Sena. Between these two parties, not just the Muslims, but all communities with a more secular ideology prefer the Shiv Sena over (the) BJP. The BJP espouses the ideology of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), which we think has a very fascist doctrine."

In 2018, Sunil Prabhu, the Shiv Sena’s chief whip in the Maharashtra assembly, had batted for and voiced his party’s support for the implementation of a quota for Muslims in the state. Justifying the party’s stand, Prabhu had said: “Muslims are a part of this country. They have been demanding reservations for the betterment of the community. If Shiv Sena is lending a voice to their demand so that the poor and the oppressed get better opportunities, there is nothing wrong in that." Since 2012, the party helmed by Uddhav has not only been trying to whittle down its anti-minority stance but has also made efforts to water down its rabid anti-migrant stand. Uddhav’s first attempts to broaden the base of the party can be traced back to 2003-04. As the newly appointed working president of the party, he launched a campaign termed Mee Mumbaikar, through which the Sena declared that anyone who was settled in Mumbai for two decades or more was a Mumbaikar. The Mee Mumbaikar project never took off and had to be given a silent burial after the campaign was sabotaged by Uddhav’s critics within the party.

Ahead of next year’s municipal polls, the Shiv Sena has launched a campaign titled ‘Mumbai ma Jalebi na Fafda, Uddhav Thackeray aapda’, aimed at wooing the city’s Gujarati voters. The move to reach out to people across linguistic categories makes a lot of political sense as the non-Maharashtrian population in Mumbai (and Maharashtra) has been consistently increasing over the years. The non-Maharashtrian population in Mumbai was reported to be as high as 60% in 2018. The Sena has no choice but to adapt to the changing times and trends.

“When a party aspires to come to power in a state, it has to necessarily broaden its appeal beyond its traditional support base. This is a compulsion imposed by the social and cultural diversity of India. This is what is happening to the Shiv Sena," said Sudheendra Kulkarni, an aide to the former prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee.

The new labour model

In the late 2000s, following Bal Thackeray’s diktat, the ‘Shiv Sainiks’ had wreaked havoc on couples who were seen together during Valentine’s Day, celebrated on 14 February each year. But over the years, the party has silently discarded its anti-Valentine’s Day campaign.

In 2018, when a group of men in Uttar Pradesh, claiming to be associated with the Shiv Sena, announced their plan to take to the streets to oppose Valentine’s Day, the Sena scion Aaditya Thackeray took to Twitter to distance the party from it. Since his political debut, Aaditya has been batting for the city’s nightlife. As the tourism minister in the MVA government, he granted permission to pubs, eateries, shops and malls to remain open 24×7 in non-residential areas.

The rise of Aaditya in recent years has also accelerated the pace of Shiv Sena’s makeover. Interestingly, Aaditya has often claimed in interviews that he is inspired by Tony Blair and his ‘New Labour’ movement. The former British prime minister is credited with briefly restoring the political fortunes of the UK’s Labour party by giving it a much-needed ideological makeover. While the suave, sophisticated English-speaking younger Thackeray claims to draw inspiration from the politics and policies of Tony Blair, Uddhav, who is often described as an open-minded and inclusive leader in party circles, looks to be more inspired by the political legacy of his grandfather, Prabodhankar Thackeray, rather than Bal Thackeray—his father. A fiery social reformer who was inspired by the troika of Ambedkar-Shahu-Phule, Prabodhankar is often referred to as the pioneer of Bahujan Wadi Hindutva or Hindutva sans Brahminical hegemony. So, when the Maharashtra chief minister claims that his Hindutva is poles apart from the BJP’s, he is probably taking a leaf out of his grandfather’s book. Distinguishing between Prabodhankar and Bal Thackeray’s Hindutva, the political scientist Palshikar remarks: “Prabodhankar’s Hindutva (Hinduism, in fact) was more inward-looking—i.e., focused on building an identity based on non-Brahmanical reformism. His son’s Hindutva was more other-oriented, driven by (the) targeting of Muslims."

With Uddhav and Aaditya occupying the upper-most echelons of power, the Shiv Sena, at 55, looks all set to redefine and reorient itself as a more cosmopolitan, inclusive, regional, right-of-centre force.

But gentrifying a party that has hoodlumism and violence in its original DNA is no easy task. There have been several instances of thokshahi even in recent months. For instance, party workers roughed up a retired navy official for sharing cartoons that lampooned Uddhav and Aaditya and even more recently, party MLA Dilip Lande assaulted a contractor of the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC).

To reaffirm its commitment to Hindutva, which is repeatedly questioned by the BJP, there is also a frequent dial back to Hindutva. Earlier this year, Uddhav sparred with the Congress over the issue of renaming Aurangabad. Most crucially, the ‘New Labour’ style makeover of the party could upset the hardcore ‘Shiv Sainik’. As an initiative fuelled partly by the personal beliefs of the new leadership and partly by conventional political wisdom and arithmetic, one can expect Uddhav and Aaditya to persist as long as the Sena adds more to its base than it loses. The BMC polls of 2022 will, therefore, be a make or break moment for the party. For now, it can be said that contrary to the old adage, the tiger is indeed changing its stripes.

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