The Shiv Sena, which has just entered its 50th year, has always been identified with Marathi regionalism, criticised for parochialism and adored for rejuvenating linguistic-regional assertion. But assessments of the party need to move beyond this limited view.
Many states have had politics of regional-linguistic chauvinism at some point — for instance, Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh and Punjab. But what distinguishes the Shiv Sena is that it remained a major force for decades and kept shifting its ideological and programmatic emphases. So, identifying it solely with the politics of regional identity is an inadequate assessment.
The Shiv Sena has survived many obituaries. In the late 1970s, not many would have given it another chance. Again, after the family feud came to the fore and the senior Thackeray was incapacitated by old age, many expected the party to disintegrate. But today, it is the second largest party in Maharashtra, with a 19 per cent vote share and 63 seats in the assembly. For the first time in 25 years, the Shiv Sena contested the assembly elections alone — and in opposition to the BJP. In a sense, this is the third phase of the Shiv Sena.
The first phase of the party (1966-76) was devoted to the Mumbai-Thane region and the rhetoric of Marathi linguistic identity. But, it could not spread beyond the metropolitan region of Mumbai because of its overemphasis on Mumbai-centric middle class anxieties related to jobs and identity, which did not resonate in the hinterlands. Then the Shiv Sena went into hibernation for almost a decade to return with a new agenda in the mid-1980s, the start of its second phase.
During this phase, the Sena managed to get the support of rural youth using militant Hindutva rhetoric. It simultaneously tapped into the anxieties created by the distortions of the state’s political economy; policies that appeared pro-rural only produced and augmented a class
of the rural rich. This contradiction allowed it to enter the hinterlands with the double weapon of Marathi and Hindu identity.
This phase of the Sena was remarkable also because it breached the caste equations in the state. Initially, it attracted non-Maratha youth, but it also became a platform for a new generation of political aspirants from the Maratha community. Indeed, in 2014, it emerged as the party with the largest support from the Marathas. The formation of the coalition ministry in 1995 (with the BJP) was a high point for the Sena, though it was not very successful at running the government and failed to get re-elected.
The third phase of the party could be said to have started around 2004. This was marked by the failing health of Bal Thackeray and his inability to broker peace between his son and nephew, or to return to power in the state. The Sena’s relations with the BJP became strained, the enthusiasm of the cadres, weak, and the internal authority structure, tentative. Yet it has survived this crisis. It hasn’t been able to expand much but its performance in the 2014 assembly polls definitely indicates that the present leadership has stabilised, in spite of its limitations.
If the first phase was marked by isolation, the second was the most theatrical — and also successful — phase of expansion. In the current phase, the party has become “normal” — it keeps its Hindutva and Marathi rhetoric under control. Its emphasis on street mobilisation and vigilante activity has also somewhat declined.
The larger lesson from this normalisation is that permanent agitation is not viable or necessary. Street politics and high-voltage rhetoric help new entrants cross the threshold into competitive politics because other “normal” parties tend to avoid extreme positions. This allows newcomers to tap into the constituency inclined towards excitement and expressive politics and enter the fray. However, once there, they need to consolidate and expand, something that requires adjustment. As the Sena settles down, it runs the risk of being shunned by its core voters for more colourful options.
So, has the Sena finally given up its militant style and penchant for street politics? Before we pass judgement, it would be instructive to remind ourselves that this normalisation could be possible because competitive politics in Maharashtra and, indeed, elsewhere in India has accommodated many a feature of the original Sena. As it moved into its third phase, our democratic politics imbibed some of the features of that tiger called the Shiv Sena, and so it doesn’t seem like such an odd species in the political jungle today. The shrill agenda, exclusionary rhetoric and threat of closure of debate are no more the sole preserve of the Sena — all parties resort to these pyrotechnics when it suits them.
The Sena excelled in replacing argument with pure rhetoric. It sought to shape public reason through demagoguery and converted democratic energies into vigilante politics. Even as we dread these features that once distinguished the Sena, we are left wondering how they have now come to define our democratic imagination across parties.
The writer teaches political science at Savitribai Phule Pune University