Friday, June 19, 2015

Saffron Politics: 50-Years After Shiv Sena In Maharashtra - Can Aditya Thackeray Make It To 'Roar' Again?

By Nishad Arora in Mumbai
The chauvinistic Maharashtrian party is struggling with a midlife crisis due to the sheer political competition and leadership, motivationand inspirational issues.

Bal Thackeray, the founder of the Shiv Sena, and Rohinton Mistry lived in the same city until the novelist migrated to Canada in 1975. In Mistry’s novel Such A Long Journey, the 50-year-old Parsi protagonist Gustad Nobel looks back on the life he has lived. In one such reflection, he wonders about his friend Sohrab: “What kind of life was Sohrab going to look forward to? No future for minorities, with all these fascist Shiv Sena politics and Marathi language nonsense."

Ironically, it was that musing by Mistry’s fictional hero’s thought that launched the third-generation of the Thackeray family into political life – a life during which Aditya Thackeray will, no doubt, have numerous occasions to reflect on the city that has in many ways come to be associated with the Shiv Sena. In 2010, the young Aditya deployed his grandfather’s trademark strategy of ominous threats laced with physical intimidation to achieve a political end when he stormed into the office of the vice-chancellor of Mumbai University to have Mistry’s novel taken off the reading list for Bachelor of Arts students.

As Shiv Sena celebrates 50 years of its existence on Friday, 25-year-old Aditya represents the future of the party that is gripped by a mid-life crisis. The hope it held out for Marathi-speaking people when it was launched in 1966 has acquired sepia tones but has not been fulfilled. The contentious mix of regional and language chauvinism that it pioneered has since been replicated in other states, and, often with greater success. 

What's more, the Sena's brand of fiery Hindutva has been dragged to the courts, where its leaders, including Thackeray, have been disbarred from voting. Finally, after 25 years of playing elder brother in an alliance with the then-fledgling Bharatiya Janata Party, the national party unbalanced off the relationship last year and established an equation in which the Sena is uncomfortably playing second fiddle.

Out of step
Most of all, as it completes five decades, its muscle-flexing, extortion-driven, chauvinistic politics is increasingly at odds with the global power that Indians, including Maharashtrians, aspire to be. The Sena's leadership has not been able to offer its cadres a sustaining vision beyond a progamme of hate that has constantly created new enemies over the decades to suit the prevailing political climate – South Indians (all lumped together as Madrasis), Communists, Gujaratis, Sikhs, Muslims and, more recently, North Indians. The moments in its history in which it takes pride – the murder of communist leader Krishna Desai, the horrific post-Babri riots of 1992-'93, the moral policing when it was in government from 1995 to 1999 – are the ones it has been roundly and justly condemned for.

It is Uddhav Thackeray's task to untangle these and more threads. Uddhav, 55, Bal Thackeray’s son, Aditya’s fathe, and working president of the party, has been caricatured for most of his political life. Some of his father’s sound political advisors are not with him – some he manoeuvred out of the party, others left, calling the mild-mannered man unflattering names. 

In September and October last year, raw from the hurt heaped by the BJP when the allies parted ways, Uddhav Thackeray toured across Maharashtra with seven stents in his heart to ensure that the Sena won the largest number of assembly seats (63) it had ever gained on its own. Despite this, the Shiv Sena seems a diminished party in its influence and impact, its tiger roar has perceptibly muted.

Perhaps, this has to do with Uddhav Thackeray’s prevarication about where the Sena ought to be: he cannot seem to decide whether the party should be a part of the BJP-led government with a reduced standing or out of the government as a fierce opposition party. That dilemma began to weigh in last May as Prime Minister Narendra Modi went about cheerily welcoming Pakistan’s leaders at his swearing-in ceremony. Uddhav Thackeray winced in discomfort, given the Sena’s virulent hostility to that country. The conundrums have only grown over the last few months.

What the Shiv Sena has in its favour is stupendous organisational strength, a network of cadres that rises to any emergency as swiftly as it does to every call for (often dubious) action, and a cult-like loyalty to Bal Thackeray that Uddhav frequently taps into. In many parts of rural Maharashtra, it continues to be the main opposition to the Congress.

Rural campaign
The Shiv Sena began its rural forays in the mid-1980 and by the assembly election in 1990, it had emerged as the opposition party to watch out for. In the Marathi-dominated hinterland, it could not play the Marathi identity card. As a result, it had to frame cogent critiques of the ruling governments to mop up the non-Congress votes.

Urban Maharashtra has been a greater challenge, one that Bal Thackeray attempted to sort out through the sheer power of his personality and dramatic appearances and speeches. Even as the Sena has kept harping on Marathi asmita (identity) and has retained power in the Mumbai municipal corporation for more than two decades, Mumbai became a less Marathi city in many ways. 

The working-class Maharashtrian, the mainstay of the party, has been displaced from many neighbourhoods as the city's economy was transformed from being formal, driven on manufacturing and its port, to becoming informal, based on services and knowledge.

Uddhav Thackeray has had to grapple with the changing dynamic of the city. He and the party have been found wanting. That one of Uddhav’s lieutenants, editor and Rajya Sabha member Sanjay Raut, told INNLIVE on the eve of its 50th foundation day that “Shiv Sena has accepted the challenge to become numero uno again” gives away a great deal about where the party sees itself today.

To many across the country, the Shiv Sena has come to characterise Maharashtra and Maharashtrians. Nothing could be farther from reality. Maharashtra used to be noted for its progressive and liberal thought, its rich literary tradition, its cultural tapestry, reformist leaders such as Mahatma Jotiba Phule and Shahu Maharaj, socio-political rebels such as BR Ambedkar. 

These and other more inspiring aspects of the state have been sidelined or subsumed into the Sena’s violent chauvinism. Even its hero, Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj, has been reduced to a king who fought against so-called Muslim invaders, ignoring all other aspects of his personality and reign.

As the noted political scientist Suhas Palshikar observed in an essay, "The rise of regionalism and of Shiv Sena was a development shaped by both the history of the formation of the Marathi-speaking state and the politics of Mumbai city after 1960." The later fused this with Hindutva. 

But at 50, the Shiv Sena finds itself locked into a dilemma: the diminishing resonance of its core ideology but unable to fully reinvent itself to keep step with the changing times. Aditya Thakeray is often seen as the new hope but will he measure up to the challenge?

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