There’s a slice of their history that Shiv Sena leaders, the seniors at least, like to offer while discussing their party men’s escapades on the streets of Mumbai, whether they are writing threatening missives to concert organisers or blackening the face of Sudheendra Kulkarni for hosting a former Pakistan minister’s book launch. In the Mumbai of the 1970s, Marmik, the weekly magazine edited by Bal Thackeray, ran a series of lists naming South Indians who owned eateries in Mumbai, and non-Maharashtrians who held government posts. “Vacha ani thanda basa,” the headline said. “Read and sit quiet,” it ridiculed, setting off a string of violence against non-Marathi establishments.
“You see,” says Suryakant Mahadik, 70, “we have always been a party of rebellion.” The response to Marmik’s exhortation, according to leaders who were young Sainiks at the time, was electric, sowing the seeds for the Sena’s long-standing regional chauvinism and for its activists’ readiness to act.
Mahadik, who has spent nearly 50 years as a committed Sainik, is also president of the Kamgaar Sena, an umbrella of Sena trade unions that now has about 3,000 units and an estimated 15 lakh members, forming the backbone of the party. “The Bharatiya Kamgaar Sena is the number one trade union in Maharashtra, and we will stay that way,” says Mahadik. “Narayan Rane tried to oust us from the numero uno position, Raj Thackeray tried, Kiran Pawaskar tried and we sent them all packing,” he continues, referring to trade union expansion by other parties including the Congress, Maharashtra Navnirman Sena and the Nationalist Congress Party. “You know how women leave a stone or an empty can to mark their spot in a long queue for kerosene outside ration shops? Now the BJP is trying to leave its empty can in the kerosene queue, but we will send them home with a lotus.”
That Mahadik sees no contradiction in a keen rivalry with the Shiv Sena’s alliance partner in the state government and in dozens of other local bodies more or less defines the party’s position on the Ghulam Ali and Sudheendra Kulkarni incidents, among others. In electoral math, the Shiv Sena grew tremendously last year, riding on the Modi wave to post its best-ever Lok Sabha presence of 18 MPs, up by 7, and almost matching its post-Babri sprawl of the late 1990s in the Maharashtra Assembly with 63 MLAs. (The Shiv Sena had 73 and 69 MLAs in 1995 and 1999.) But compared to the BJP’s rise in Maharashtra in 2014, the Sena’s success appears limited to Mumbai and the surrounding metropolitan region, the only area where it clearly outran the BJP. It has regained ground lost to Narayan Rane in Konkan, but has also ceded some space in Marathwada to the BJP. Overall, with the BJP nearly trebling its strength from 46 MLAs in 2009 to 122 in 2014, and with the Sena falling well short of its ‘Mission 150’, a cheeky lift from Modi’s Mission 272, the big political contest in Maharashtra now is between the two alliance partners.
In local body elections held across Maharashtra in April, the Sena performed better than the BJP in Aurangabad, Ambarnath and Navi Mumbai. The Aurangabad win was important for the Sena’s bid to win back the larger political space in Marathwada. While it fought these polls in alliance with the BJP, it is going solo into the Kalyan-Dombivali Municipal Corporation poll later this month — Kalyan is a Sena fortress, the BJP has little presence in the suburb, and posting a simple majority on its own will bolster the Sena cadres.
The most crucial political battle though will be elections to the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation in 2017. With public perception tilting against the BJP on contentious issues elsewhere in the country, the Sena has picked an opportune time to up the ante. For both immediate electoral prospects and long-term expansion goals, the Shiv Sena’s strategy is now to occupy the position of opposition within the government, an insider watchdog that is happy to embarrass the senior partner. As Mahadik says, their target was the Communists and the South Indians first, then employment-grabbing outsiders, Valentine’s Day and the eroding of Marathi asmita. Now it’s the militant vegetarians, the beef abolitionists, the protectors of Pakistani artistes, and if need be, even the state government.
For a brief period though, especially after Bal Thackeray passed on the mantle to Uddhav Thackeray in the mid-2000s, the Shiv Sena appeared to be not a patch on the original. The more aggressive leaders abandoned their posts for a stint in the MNS, which broke off from the party in 2006, and Uddhav himself was widely reported to have favoured a less belligerent approach. Not any longer, say Shiv Sainiks, who agree en masse that Uddhav has stamped his authority on the party. It is also a happy coincidence for them that the MNS appears to be on the wane — winning only one seat in the 2014 Assembly elections, down from 13 in 2009.
So, has the new Sena reverted to its old exclusivist, sometimes violent, avatar again?
Those who know what transpired on the morning of former Pakistan minister Khurshid Mehmud Kasuri’s book release function in Mumbai say that the Sainiks who blackened Kulkarni’s face were acting of their own volition. It is unlikely, they say, that they were instructed from the top, or had given any advance notice to the higher-ups. And yet, president Uddhav Thackeray, for all his genteel demeanour, was quite at home felicitating the six foot-soldiers. Son Aditya indicated that he’s not shy of eyeballing senior journalists in what he calls a “season for open letters” on liberalism and free speech.
“At times, Shiv Sena workers in their aggression do something to further the party’s ideology without the top leaders knowing about it. The party has to back them up,” says Thane legislator Pratap Sarnaik, who himself preferred to protest for the party’s ‘Marathi’ agenda using a constitutional method earlier this year, filing a a breach of privilege motion against writer Shobhaa De in the Legislative Assembly for opposing the ‘diktat’ of the state government on screening Marathi movies at primetime in multiplexes. She had added witticisms about cinemagoers’ staple changing from popcorn to dahi missal, causing kilos of missal and vada pav to be dispatched to her residence by Sainiks.
“The majority of the people in the city have no interest in more violent forms of protests unlike two decades ago,” Sarnaik says. “Moreover, today even if our volunteers and party workers are aggressive, the leadership under Uddhav Thackeray prefers softer means of protest.”
It’s a critical nuance: the new Sena is emboldened and angry, but will pick its fights carefully with a view to keep its core voter and persuade the fence-sitter.
Sarnaik says a development agenda is important, but so is striking a chord through emotive issues. “Shiv Sena’s ideology is Marathi first, and Hindutva. Pakistan has been a consistent feature on our ideological agenda, and showing consistency in ideology is important,” he says.
Those who have watched the Shiv Sena closely over the years agree that its current belligerence has a dual purpose: Return to being the party of rebellion and promise supporters an opportunity for action, even if this action is an all-too-simplistic symbolism. This characteristic method has helped the Sena keep its original core voter base intact over decades, says 70-year-old Ashok Khamkar, a Shiv Sena loyalist and resident of Sena bastion Lalbaug in Central Mumbai. “At times, some extreme measures have to be taken to bring attention to an important cause. Why should the government allow Pakistani artists to be called here in the first place knowing that it will polarise people?” On the streets of Lalbaug, Parel, Dadar, Thane, Kalyan, Dombivali and other Sena boroughs, Khamkar’s view is roundly echoed.
Khamkar, who owns a spices mart in Lalbaug, says the Sena’s voters trust the party implicitly, because they are literally the party on the streets, its “shakhas” sometimes modelled like little Maratha fortresses but by far the most visible and accessible political party in every neighbourhood. “At a micro level, the Shiv Sena’s corporators and legislators take care of our civic needs. They are the ones who keep our roads clean,” Khamkar says.
Experts say this may not be enough to woo the fence-sitters, given that the Sena’s booster shot in 2014 was Narendra Modi. “There is a strong apprehension among party leaders and workers that the Shiv Sena is becoming politically irrelevant. It was the Modi wave that was responsible for all its recent electoral success. Also, as the BJP is at the Centre, it will continue to have an upper hand in the state alliance,” says Surendra Jondhale, head of Mumbai University’s department of civics and politics. While the core voter base of the party remains intact, the Shiv Sena is floundering to woo back voters who deserted it for the BJP, Jondhale says, and the current efforts may be futile.
“People are dissatisfied today with the party in power today not because it is any less nationalistic., but because the ‘acche din’ are not being delivered. There is a 200 per cent price rise, a drought. Harping on Pakistan is not going to give Sena a political edge,” he says.
It’s a point that has not escaped insiders, though they maintain that “real issues” are not divorced from emotive ones. “To those who say we’re only agitating on an emotional issue of nationalism are like the seven blind men. Remember we were all in Marathwada the day before all this (the Kulkarni attack) happened, providing drought relief to farmers.,” says Sena MLA Ravindra Waikar. On October 11, Uddhav gladdened many a Sainik’s heart by addressing a villagers’ rally in Beed, Maharashtra, even as Prime Minister Narendra Modi arrived in Mumbai, completing the snub with a flourish, an announcement in the drought-hit region that the Sena is not married to power. The party gave Rs 10,000 each to a large number of drought-hit agriculturists, individual legislators including Waikar also donating heavily for borewells and more. Sena MP Anant Geete agrees. “This debate on nationalism versus aam aadmi issues is needless. The Sena has always stood for issues affecting the common man,” he says.
The difference now is that the Sena will continue to agitate against the government that it is a partner in, helped along by the general feeling among a segment of Maharashtrian voters that the BJP-led government does not have a grip on the Marathi pulse, a non-vegetarian, meat-eating pulse that remains ever suspicious of Gujaratis.
Whether it was Aditya Thackeray proposing that pubs be open 24*7 in Mumbai much to the chagrin of Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis, or whether it was the call for rooftop restaurants, from thumbing the nose of the BJP on an apparent non-issue like the colour of the streetlights along Marine Drive to demanding a relook at a government-approved alignment of the Metro Railway, the new Shiv Sena is playing opposition from the treasury benches.
Pandurang Sakpal, head of Shiv Sena’s branch in Girgaum, Mumbai’s oldest Marathi heartland, led protest rallies and demonstrations against the Mumbai Metro Rail Corporation earlier this year. The cadres were demanding either a total change in alignment, skipping Girgaum, so that the ‘Marathi manus’ of Girgaum don’t need to move out, or on-site rehabilitation of the residents before the corporation lays even a single brick for the Metro. Backed by Uddhav and Aditya, Sakpal convinced the corporation to come up with a comprehensive rehabilitation plan, subject to approval of the residents, putting the Girgaum station of the Metro Rail on hold until then.
“People hold Balasaheb Thackeray, and now Uddhavji and Adityaji in respectful awe. Even a single word from them is enough to get things done. We could successfully pull off a major protest against the proposed Metro rail in Girgaum without having to be aggressive even once,” Sakpal says.
The BJP, of course, doesn’t agree with its partner’s very public ways. Senior state BJP minister Chandrakant Patil says that dissent “should ideally be expressed through discussions within four walls, and not through an open slugfest”. “Shiv Sena ministers attend Cabinet meetings every week. They can voice their objections there,” he adds.
The debate between the sentimental and the practical is old hat for the Sena, which has in the past adroitly picked an everyday item like a vada pav to enmesh itself with voters’ ideological choices. Thanks to the Sena, the vada pav in the 1970s was not just an unhealthy deep-fried snack, it was an answer to the South Indian dosa, an entrepreneurship initiative, a poor man’s political tool as much as it was a poor man’s staple food.
Not everybody agrees, however. As Jondhale predicts, at least one section of next-generation voters and fence-sitters swaying between the BJP and Shiv Sena believe that issues deserving discussion are lost in the shrill melee. Mandar Dixit, a 29-year-old chartered accountant from Thane, a Sena stronghold, was once an ardent Shiv Sena supporter but is now slightly disillusioned. “I was initially attracted to the party due to its ‘sons of the soil’ agenda. But people have changed over time, and the party has not managed to keep up. Voters don’t want to harp on old issues such as language, eating habits, nationalism, and are looking for a development agenda instead,” he says.
But Dixit does find it commendable that even when other parties keep wavering, the Shiv Sena has consistently stuck to its stand on Pakistan. “When it comes to Pakistan, people think more emotionally, and perhaps the party plays on that sentiment. But when I step back and think about what I want my party to address, it is problems such as floods in Mumbai every monsoon and the bad roads. As a Shiv Sena loyalist, I can’t see a clear vision from the party.”
But young Sena leaders vow that it’s “only a matter of time” before voters see the everyday issues that they raise.
Former MLA Abhijit Adsul, says the party’s youth wing, the Yuva Sena, has recently taken up issues such as a Central and a state recruitment exam being held on the same day. “We’re demanding that the state government change its date,” Adsul says. “And this is only one among dozens of issues regarding medical or engineering students, facilities in colleges and others that we are taking up.”. As for youngsters not caring about nationalism, he laughs. “Much more than older people, young people who the Yuva Sena is in touch with feel very strongly about national security, terrorism, and Indian soldiers,” he says.
The BJP may have stamped its senior status for the first time in their 25-year alliance but critically to the Sena’s existence and its growth, the BJP does not have a stranglehold on Mumbai’s politics. Not yet at least, and the former is determined to keep it that way, through a return to its roots of rebellion.