In his address at the Shiv Sena’s (SS) 50-year celebrations in Mumbai on Sunday, its chief Uddhav Thackeray focused on the BJP. He said the SS was not keen on pulling out of its alliance with the BJP, while insisting on a relationship based on “respect”. He called on cadres to be prepared to fight the 2017 Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) elections in an alliance. The Sena predicament is clear: It needs the BJP to be in office in the BMC but suspects the latter could be its rival for power in Mumbai. Ever since it entered into a coalition with the BJP in Maharashtra, the SS has been walking a tightrope. It is part of the BJP-led governments in Mumbai and in Delhi, but does not miss an opportunity to criticise both. Unsure of the ground even in Mumbai, the SS is facing an existential threat as it crosses the half-century mark. The Maharashtra Navnirman Sena offers stiff competition to its brand of chauvinistic politics while the expansion of the BJP has diminished the returns from pushing a Hindutva agenda. In the 2014 assembly elections, the SS quit the 25-year-old alliance with the BJP and polled over 10 million votes and 63 seats. However, the BJP won 122 seats and emphatically announced that it had replaced the SS as the main party of the Hindu right in Maharashtra.
The politics of the Sena continues to be rooted in the political economy of the 1960s, when Mumbai was a city of the industrial working class that attracted migrants from across India. It served as the lumpen arm of the Congress in its fight against communist trade unions. Riding the inflammatory rhetoric of its founder Bal Thackeray, the SS exploited the social and economic anxieties of the Marathi lower middle classes and expanded across the state. In the ‘90s, it championed Hindu communalism and, in 1995, formed a government with the BJP in Maharashtra. But the Hindu right-wing constituency in the state has changed and a significant section of it relates to the pan-Indian nationalist narrative of the BJP.
Like most regional parties, the SS too has become a family enterprise but unlike them it has failed to grow. Parties like the AIADMK, DMK, Telugu Desam, Trinamool Congress, and even NCP have been careful to keep their regional agenda reasonably inclusive, whereas the SS has not shed its communal-nativist agenda. The use of fear and physical violence to mobilise people has constricted the Sena’s claim to be a party of governance. Unless it addresses these concerns, its relevance will continue to diminish.