In 2005, over a 30-minute speech at Shanmukhananda Hall, Shiv Sena chief Balasaheb Thackeray held forth on how he handled media houses that were critical of his party. “I take them on. We have our own network of cable operators. All that I do is call them up and ask them to pull the wires. They do so and their telecast gets stopped. The next day, I get grovelling phone calls. These are the weapons that we have, which we use and they are more effective than carrying weapons or stones,” Balasaheb had said in the speech that is uploaded on YouTube.
Last week, Shiv Cable Sena, which was formed last October, threatened to pull the plug on a media channel that has been attacking Sena over actor the Sushant Singh Rajput death case.
But in a sign of how Sena is being forced to find a new political vocabulary with Uddhav Thackeray as the chief minister, the Sena-affiliated cable operators have not carried out their threat.
“Since the party asked us to show restraint in dealing with criticism of the party and its leadership, we are following instructions by keeping quiet but are also exploring legal options available to take on those people,” said Vinay Patil, general secretary of Shiv Cable Sena.
Shiv Cable Sena is headed by Sena legislator Sunil Raut, brother of Saamana editor and MP Sanjay Raut, and has a membership of around 2,500 cable operators statewide. It is different from the Cable Operators and Distributors Association (CODA) that Balasaheb referred to in his speech. While not affiliated to any political party, CODA is headed by Sena leader Anil Parab.
It stayed out this time. Meanwhile, it was the BMC that demolished purported illegal constructions at the home of actor Kangana Ranaut following the Sena’s war of words with her, while the party itself sought to distance itself from the action. And six Sena workers, who beat up a retired Navy man, were arrested.
Its two-decade-long control of BMC has also taught Sena some skills it did not have previously.
Sena controlled unions such as the 50-year-old BEST Kamgar Sena, headed by Suhas Samant with a membership of around 10,000; 25-year-old Municipal Karmachari Kamgar Sena, headed by Baba Kadam with around 13,500 members and Mumbai Agnishaman Dal Ladhau Kamgar Sena, representing the interests of firemen since 1967 with over 1,000 members and headed by Suryakant Mahadik, have been dormant for many years.
“We have held very few protests as the Sena has been ruling the BMC for more than 20 years. But we get our issues resolved through our leaders and the administration,” said Baba Kadam.
But Sena could still paralyse Mumbai if it so desires. Apart from the numerous branches or shakhas that have helped it grow, the party has also created a number of front organisations with a foothold in almost every sphere of Mumbai’s life – economic, social and cultural.
From the Sthaniya Lokadhikar Samiti, with a presence among corporate houses and industries in the city, to its Cine Workers Union or Chitrapat Sena that helped regulate the functioning of Bollywood, these organisations hold sway over Mumbai and can bring the city to a grinding halt whenever the Sena wanted.
The Bhartiya Kamgar Sena (BKS) headed by Suryakant Mahadik has a membership five lakh across the state, with members drawn from those working with airlines, airport, hospitals, five-star hotels as well as banking and manufacturing sectors among others.
The BKS is Sena’s eyes and ears. It played an important role in helping the party trump the BJP in the race to form a government in Maharashtra after the 2019 Assembly elections.
However, with Uddhav and his son Aaditya trying to give Sena’s image a makeover from its brutish past, these unions, which once acted as stormtroopers of the party, are now grappling with the political skills of compromise and patience.
Being in a three-party coalition has made the learning curve steeper. The criticism from NCP chief Sharad Pawar, and the under the radar complaints by Congress against Sena for “handing it on a platter” to BJP during the row with Ranaut appeared to have played their part in Sena keeping its “hurt sentiments” in check.
Mahadik, BKS president and a deputy leader of the Sena, said they take orders and guidance from the Sena chief. “We have not held any protests in the last few months. We just follow the orders of the party chief,” he added.