The two factions of the Shiv Sena, one headed by former Maharashtra chief minister Uddhav Thackeray and another led by current CM Eknath Shinde, seem to be heading for a major showdown over the party’s Dussehra rally at Dadar’s Shivaji Park in Mumbai, which has been an annual Sena tradition since the party was founded by Bal Thackeray in 1966.
While both factions claim to be the “original Sena” and stake their conflicting claims over Thackeray’s political legacy, the Uddhav-led Sena has made a head start by submitting a formal application to the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) on August 22 to seek permission for holding the party’s rally on Dussehra on October 5.
Following the expiry of the term of the previous Sena-controlled BMC House earlier this year and fresh polls yet to take place, a state government-appointed Administrator has been running the Mumbai civic body for several months now.
The BMC has not taken a decision on the Uddhav Sena’s application so far, even as there are reports that the Shinde Sena is also looking to hold its own Dusssehra rally at Shivaji Park.
Upping the ante, Uddhav has made it clear that there will be no change in his party’s Dussehra rally venue, saying that “come what may, the rally will be held at the Shivaji Park”.
By asserting that he will hold the Dussehra rally at its traditional venue regardless of the BMC’s decision, Uddhav has not only challenged the Shinde-BJP government but has also sought to strike an emotional chord with the party rank and file.
Both Sena factions are fully aware of the immense significance of the party’s traditional Dussehra rally, which has always been one of the most important events on its annual calendar.
The Sena founder and Uddhav’s father, Bal Thackeray, always used the platform of this rally, which was held for the first time in Shivaji Park on October 30, 1966, to set the agenda for party leaders and workers for the entire year. Many a time Thackeray used to deliver impromptu speeches. For Sena workers, who used to come to Shivaji Park for the rally from different parts of the state, his speech used to be their annual action plan. In the 1991 rally, Thackeray opposed cricket matches against Pakistan. A few days later, Sena workers barged into Mumbai’s Wankhede stadium and dug up its pitch to disrupt an India-Pak cricket match. The 2010 rally saw the launch of Uddhav’s son Aaditya Thackeray into the political arena.
Following his father’s demise, Uddhav assumed his mantle and took over the Sena’s reins. He has been holding the Dussehra rally since 2013. The 2015 rally saw Uddhav launching an attack on the BJP to question its Hindutva, which marked the eruption of cracks within the Sena-BJP alliance in Maharashtra.
The Sena has held the Dussehra rally every year since 1966 barring a few years when it could not hold it for various reasons as in 2006 (heavy rains) and in 2009 (Assembly elections). In 2020, it was held virtually due to the Covid pandemic, while in 2021 it was organised in Shanmukhananda Hall in Mumbai’s Kings Circle to ensure social distancing.
In earlier years, the salience of the Sena’s Dussehra rally stemmed from lack of the party’s publicity and coverage in the mainstream media. “In addition, unlike other parties, Shiv Sena had no other means such as study camps and conventions to convey party programmes to its workers. Balasaheb used this as a stage to present general idea about party’s ideology, political and social intentions. Hence it started becoming the most important event for the party,” said Prakash Akolkar, a journalist who has covered the party for over four decades.
Akolkar said in his Dussehra rally speeches Thackeray never used to spell out any specific programmes for the party activists. “Workers devised their own methods to execute the idea that Thackeray used to lay out for them in general terms,” he said.
The tradition of Dussehra and the Sena’s Shivaji Park rally have become so intertwined that the party does not even undertake any publicity campaign with its workers gathering at the event on their own. So much so that after parting ways with the Sena and founding his own outfit Maharashtra Navnirman Sena (MNS), Raj Thackeray has also been holding his party’s annual rally on the same venue on Gudhi Padwa, the Marathi new year.
The Uddhav camp says that by raising a banner of revolt against him the rebel Sena leader Shinde in collaboration with the BJP not only toppled his Maha Vikas Aghadi (MVA) government but has since also been mounting a bid to dislodge him from his position to take over the entire party. The Uddhav Sena sees the BMC’s delay or even a possible denial in granting permission to their Dussehra rally as part of the Shinde camp’s “larger plan to capture the Sena”.
Sources in the Shinde camp say that by holding the Dussehra rally at Shivaji Park, Uddhav would want to “send a message to the Sainiks as well as the Election Commission of India (ECI) that he control the party organisation even today”. Both factions have approached the ECI, staking their respective claims over the Sena.
With the state set to have local body polls in the coming months, both Uddhav and Shinde would not let go the opportunity of addressing a Dussehra rally on a saffron platform with Thackeray’s blow-up forming the backdrop of the stage in Shivaji Park.
When asked about the status of the Uddhav Sena’s application, senior BMC official Prashant Sapkale, assistant commissioner, G-north ward (where the park is located), said, “We received an application from a political party on August 22 seeking to use Shivaji Park on the day of Dussehra. But since Dadar is the heart of everything that is happening now, our first priority is to ensure everything passes smoothly during the Ganesh festival. Rest will be decided later.”
Sources in the Mumbai Police said that its responsibility is to maintain law and order in the city. “We keep our watch as things unfold. Let the issue of permission for the rally be sorted out first. Once we get clarity on that, we will then plan our next moves accordingly,” a senior police officer told The Indian Express.