The ongoing Maratha agitation and its own stance against caste-based reservation will present a serious challenge to the Shiv Sena, as chief Uddhav Thackeray addresses party workers and voters at the annual Dussehra rally on Tuesday. At the golden jubilee Dussehra rally at Shivaji Park, Uddhav’s message to the cadre on reservation politics could be a defining moment in the history of Shiv Sena.
Since its inception, the party has never believed in reservation based on caste, community or religion. At several Dussehra rallies in the past, the late Bal Thackeray had maintained, “The Sena does not believe in reservation based on caste, community or religion. It believes there are only two castes — rich and poor.” Since its birth on June 19, 1966, the Sena has strictly adhered to non-reservation politics.
It has always enjoyed strong support of the Other Backward Castes (OBCs). In 1994, Marathas, upset with the Congress’s decision to name Marathawada University after Dr B R Ambedkar, had shifted their loyalty to the Sena. Yet, the party’s OBC base has remained intact for the last five decades.
According to senior political commentator Bharatkumar Raut, “At 50, the Sena finds itself at cross-roads. If the party declares its support to the Maratha reservation demand, it would not only redefine its policies, but also the politics of Maharashtra.” The former Shiv Sena MP said, “If Uddhav Thackeray takes a pro-Maratha stand at the meeting, there is a possibility that the party’s core OBC base will be disturbed. The ability of the Sena to cope with the reservation conflict remains its biggest challenge.”
Maratha leaders within the Sena believe that Uddhav’s silence on the reservation issue will not go down well within the community. A senior Sena leader said, “Post 1994-95, a sizeable section of Maratha youth disenchanted with the Sharad Pawar-led Congress (he was then the Congress CM) had aligned with Balasaheb’s Sena. Now, the Sena cannot disown the aspirations of new-age Maratha youth, fearing the loss of OBC votes.”
While admitting the political dilemma, a cabinet minister said, “Uddhav will find a middle path to keep the sentiments of both Marathas and OBCs intact.” However, he admitted, “A pro-reservation stance will mark a new beginning for Sena politics.”
Apart from the Maratha issue, Uddhav is likely to do some hard talking against ruling alliance partner BJP at the rally, where he is likely to blow the bugle for the BMC polls in 2017. “The Sena would set the pace for the forthcoming crucial BMC elections through this rally,” said an insider. The BMC polls are the biggest challenge to the Sena at present, facing for the first time a tough challenge from the ruling BJP on its home turf Mumbai.The Sena has controlled the cash-rich BMC for the last 15 years.
The 2014 assembly elections saw power equations between the Sena and the BJP change, with the latter winning 15 seats in Mumbai, more than Sena’s 14. In the state, the BJP with 122 seats emerged as the number one party, leaving behind the Sena at 63 seats.
To take on the BJP, Uddhav is likely to rake up emotive topics such as the Marathi manoos (sons of the soil) and the Maharashtra asmita (pride of Maharashtra) issues. The Sena reckons that statehood for Vidarbha could be high on the BJP agenda, and hopes to stir this up to unite the 26 per cent Marathi vote bank, at least in Mumbai.