Amidst complete political disarray in Maharashtra, the two Marathi senas have again invoked the old battles against Gujaratis, with ambitions to at least temporarily combat the BJP’s surge in the state. Their
attempts to revisit the issue of Marathi nativism, however, are unlikely to gain momentum, as the Samyukta Maharashtra movement becomes a relic of the past and the BJP version of new nationalism successfully supersedes nativist narratives.
The politics of the Shiv Sena always thrived around the imageries of the “other” and the Gujarati settlers of Mumbai were one of its first adversaries. The Samyukta Maharashtra movement itself had opposed Gujarati capitalists as “exploiters” of the Marathi working class.
However, in the aftermath of the reorganisation of Maharashtra and Gujarat, the Shiv Sena avoided the class dimensions of the conflict and instead projected regionalist identities. It emerged as a saviour of Marathi middle- and lower middle-class settlers of Mumbai, as the city transformed into a national and global financial centre. After dominating the political scene in Mumbai during the 1970s and 1980s, the Sena ambitiously spread its wings to the rest of Maharashtra and for over two decades, remained a loyal associate of the BJP in its version of the politics of Hindutva. Through this chequered political journey, the Sena’s exclusionary politics developed many subtexts and
invented new adversaries.
The Gujarati trading communities were subsequently replaced by migrants from south India — whom Bal Thackeray derogatively referred to as “lungiwalas” — as Marathi youth competed with them for public sector jobs. During the Namantar movement of the 1970s, the Shiv Sena became anti-Dalit and supported the politics of conservative Marathas. The symbol of Shivaji was appropriated to carve out a regionalist-nationalist identity that also celebrated Maratha caste pride and helped the Sena develop an anti-Muslim narrative. If the “othering” of Muslims was a prominent aspect of the party’s Hindutva discourse, it also tried to distance itself from the Brahminical practices of Hindutva to bring OBCs under its fold and neutralise the emerging caste politics in the state. With the weakening of the Congress system in Maharashtra, the Sena tried to establish itself as a mainstream political party engaged in routine democratic politics. But at the same time, it maintained a constant provocative tone in its politics of direct action and tried to manage an anti-establishment image. The rise of the Maharashtra Navnirman Sena and its aggressive politics against migrants from the north, in a way forced the Shiv Sena to tepidly move back to its “protector of the Marathi” image and compete for the Marathi vote. But it also provided it with a new adversary in the form of the “bhaiyyas” of the north.
Somewhat ironically, the journey seems to have culminated where it began: on the note of its anti-Gujarati discourse. However, since politics does not move in circles, the Sena’s regionalist-linguistic claims of nativism are likely to stumble in the changed context of Maharashtra politics.
First, the Sena’s anti-migrant regionalist rhetoric was largely limited to Mumbai and, this time too, the issue won’t much help it gain votes outside the city. Second, the competitive rhetorical claims of the two senas over the city of Mumbai and against the Gujarat leadership will not only affect their electoral prospects but also make these claims mostly vacuous. Third, the changed nature of the Marathi middle class and its new politics in favour of the BJP are also likely to weaken the Sena’s anti-Gujarat rhetoric. The Marathi middle class of the pre-liberalisation phase (and the public intellectuals in Mumbai of that time) sympathised with the Sena’s nativist claims when they shared a sense of injustice and exclusion, as the regional political economy unravelled under the nexus of urban (outsiders) and agrarian (insiders) capitalists. This class also treasured Mumbai as a perfect cosmopolitan space where the old and new could survive happily. The new Marathi middle class has not only moved from Mumbai to Madison Square Garden in its economic and cultural ambitions but is also brimming with a sense of empowerment and agency, especially after the 2014 Lok Sabha elections. This class may want to preserve its own cultural space, but would hardly share the Sena’s anti-Gujarat nativist politics under its new political pact.
The new politics of the BJP poses profound ideological and existential challenges to parties like the Shiv Sena. The resurrection of nativist claims may not prove an adequate counter-strategy. So far, its version of politics operated in the framework of estranged Centre-state relations and a resulting plural polity in the context of Congress dominance. It tried to build an ideological opposition to established norms of secularism in collaboration with the BJP. At all these levels, parties like the Sena could maintain their anti-establishment stance. With the BJP’s success in neutralising the federal, oppositional and ideological challenges and its construction of a democratic majority that supersedes regional identities, it is going to be a difficult political journey for parties like the Shiv Sena.
The writer teaches politics at the Savitribai Phule Pune University