The Dussehra speech of the founder and life-long supremo of the Shiv Sena, Bal Thackeray, used to be a major event in Mumbai’s political calendar. Even as a fringe nativist party, the Sena counted for something not just because of its nuisance value, but also its growing clout among Marathi speakers in the 1970s. By the 1980s, it had expanded its influence in the rich Bombay Municipal Corporation, which had a budget bigger than some smaller states. By the mid-1990s, having switched from being an anti-south Indian party to a pro-Hindu one (and thus identified a bigger enemy, the Muslims, to attack), the Sena became a powerful player in the city’s and state’s politics. The annual speech by Thackeray at Shivaji Park therefore assumed critical importance, because it was here that he gave a call to his activists — his style was full of bluster, challenge and not a little abuse. The party men and women loved it.
Vijayadashami is also the day when the sarsanghchalak of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh speaks to his cadre. Sangh bosses tend to be the exact opposite of what Thackeray was. They don’t rage but speak in measured, considered tones. Current chief Mohan Bhagwat is perhaps the most measured of them all — his air is that of the paterfamilias, the family elder whose words are to be treated as pearls of wisdom, as mantras to be followed unquestionably. The RSS gathering in Nagpur was limited to those who attended; now, it reaches the entire country because the government decided last year that Doordarshan would telecast it live. This is astounding on many levels and once again exposes the sheer hypocrisy of calling Doordarshan an independent organisation. But the government couldn’t care less.
Both, the Sena and the RSS (and therefore the Bharatiya Janata Party) are Hindutva-oriented. Yet, the current Sena chief used most of his speech to snipe at the BJP, as he has been doing for the past year or so. It is no secret that the two coalition partners are at loggerheads, but while the Sena believes in going for the jugular by trying to humiliate its partner at every opportunity, the BJP takes a passive-aggressive approach. The BJP does not want to rock the relationship beyond a point, because it wants to preserve the government at any cost; the Sena knows that and continues to mock the bigger party.
Political differences are not the only thing that set the two apart. Culturally too, the Shiv Sena and the RSS-BJP are vastly different. In his speech on Thursday, Uddhav Thackeray made some telling points to describe the BJP, and by extension the RSS. “We don’t believe in the Hindutva of the shendi (tuft of hair), janve (sacred thread) or of the Vedas,” he said, thus invoking the long-standing perception, in Maharashtra, of the RSS-BJP as being organisations of brahmins. “Stop peeping into the homes to see if people are eating beef.”
By no stretch of imagination can the Shiv Sena be called liberal, but it is the only Hindutva-spouting organisation that is outside the sphere of influence of the RSS. The RSS is the fount of all Hindutva philosophy in the country — the Vishwa Hindu Parishads, Bajrang Dals and sundry smaller organisations may appear to be their own thing, but they all bow to the majesty of Nagpur. Every now and then, the RSS may “distance” itself from the activities and utterances of its organisms (the latest, astonishing example was claiming that Panchjanya wasn’t an RSS publication), but that fools nobody. A word from the Sangh’s chief can make a difference.
In 1977, it was over the question of the membership of the RSS that the Jan Sangh leaders left the Janata Party they had helped form; in the Atal Behari Vajpayee-led National Democratic Alliance, the RSS ensured that its candidates for crucial ministries were accommodated and, now, it is an open secret that the RSS-nominated men have been put in key positions in cultural organisations and within the government. Top ministers make no secret of their RSS links. The old coyness has disappeared.
The Sena does not buy into the dour, brahminical and vegetarian worldview of the RSS, like all other Hindutva organisms do. This has political ramifications. If the Marathi manoos of Mumbai and other neighbouring towns sticks with the Sena instead of drifting towards the BJP, it will be a big blow to the ambitions of the latter. At one time, it looked like Narendra Modi had succeeded in prying the Maharashtrian vote away from the Sena. But now disillusionment has set in on several fronts — even at the cultural level, there is disgust about the moralistic agenda of the BJP. Maharashtrian Hindus do not eat beef, but they enjoy their fish and mutton and they don’t like to be told what to eat. They also view brahmins seeking political power with suspicion — the current state chief minister is a brahmin. By slyly focusing on the RSS and its brahminical attitudes, the Shiv Sena is playing on those feelings and prejudices.
At the same time, the Sena is demanding “Hindu rashtra” with a uniform civil code, which it knows is not possible for the BJP to push through at this moment.The Shiv Sena brand of Hindutva is more a political ploy than an article of faith. It also senses the danger of allowing the RSS-BJP to muscle into its territory. Thus it is now fashioning its own political strategy, of appearing even more nationalistic than the BJP — hence its strident “anti-Pakistani” stance — while staying away from the more fundamentalist views of the RSS and the BJP. The irony of the BJP being tripped on Hindutva is too stark to be missed.
This piece originally appeared in Asian Age