As it Celebrates the Past, the Shiv Sena Would do Well to Think About the Future

To ensure its growth, the Shiv Sena must ask itself some big questions.

Uddhav Thackeray standing in front of a poster of Bal and Aditya Thackeray in 2015. Credit: PTI

Uddhav Thackeray standing in front of a poster of his father Bal Thackeray and son Aaditya. Credit: PTI

Five decades after it came into being where does the Shiv Sena stand today? It is in power in the state, but as a junior partner; it controls the country’s richest civic body, the Mumbai municipal corporation, and it has credible strength in smaller towns like Thane, Pune and Nashik.

But, does it compare well with other regional outfits such as the Trinamul Congress, the Telugu Desam and the Dravida parties in Tamil Nadu? More importantly, has the Sena managed to fulfill the main objectives with which it was set up?

On June 19, 1966, a group of people – 18, according to one account – gathered in the home of Bal Thackeray and broke a coconut, and the Sena was born. It began as a movement to promote and protect the rights of ‘sons of the soil’, that is, the Marathi-speaking people of Mumbai, then Bombay; it wanted them to be favoured in jobs in the public and private sectors.

Anyone wanting to be part of the Sena had to take an oath – that they would help each other, not sell their property to non-Marathi speakers, as far as possible buy goods only from Marathi shopkeepers and, most of all, boycott ‘Udupi’, or South Indian, restaurants. The Sena was not just about promoting native interests but also ensuring that others did not prosper. (Two other conditions were that its members resolve to learn good communication skills in English and “cast away laziness”, thus showing a willingness to do any kind of job.)

The rise of the Sena

The state of Maharashtra had come into being in 1960, after a protracted and bloody struggle in which over 100 people died in police firing. Six years later, there was the growing feeling that the native Marathi speakers were still no better-off and ‘outsiders’ were in control of the economy. High finance and petty trade were in the hands of Gujaratis, the restaurant business was almost totally monopolised by South Indians (for whom Thackeray had the choicest epithets) and the private sector was a cosmopolitan mix in which Maharashtrians got only the lowest jobs. Thackeray saw an opportunity in this situation.

Soon, his storm troopers, mainly youth who had gotten attracted to his speeches and proclamations, began beating up ‘lungiwalas’ (South Indians) and bhaiyyas (North Indians) and barging into corporate offices, demanding that Maharashtrians be hired. They also turned their attention to the much reviled Gujaratis, a fault line that has remained to this day.

But the biggest target of the Sena were the communists, who controlled the city’s mill workers. Bombay, at that time, was a working-class city with strong trades unions, which bothered the capitalists. The Sena was nervous that the city would turn into another Calcutta, where conflict between the police, unions and extreme elements had turned the city into a war zone.

Some of the biggest industrial houses of the country clandestinely backed the Sena; the Congress government under V.P. Naik looked the other way. In 1970, a CPI legislator, Krishna Desai, was murdered; 19 people were charged and were defended by Ram Jethmalani. Sixteen of them were convicted of murder. That was the turning point for the Sena, which grew from strength to strength.

Electorally, however, the party had to wait till the mid-1970s to gain control of the city’s rich civic body, when a party man, Manohar Joshi, became Bombay’s mayor. The party remained confined to the city, finding it difficult to move beyond into the hinterland.

Too little to offer

That has been a big failing of the Sena, which has remained a nativist party and not a bonafide regional one. Following the demolition of the Babri Masjid and the riots in Bombay of 1992-93, in which the Sena’s activists participated in large numbers, it shifted from being pro-Marathi to a Hindutva party. Both the Sena and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) jointly benefitted in the aftermath of the riots and won the state elections in 1995.

But the Sena’s influence remains confined to the towns around Mumbai. In rural Maharashtra, it is the Congress, the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) and, now increasingly, the BJP, who dominate. There are many reasons for this, but, put simply, the Shiv Sena has nothing to offer rural Maharashtra – its brand of violent tactics and muscle-bound politics is of little use in places where the core issues are different.

Under Thackeray, the party continued to grow and prosper, but many of his trusted lietunants, such as Chhagan Bhujbal and Manohar Rane, left the Sena because they saw no future for themselves.

After his death, political pundits in the state felt that his son Uddhav, an altogether less fiery personality, would not be able to keep the party intact; there was a real danger that the flock would move over in large numbers to Thackeray’s cousin Raj, who displayed all the aggression of his uncle. But Raj flattered to deceive, and the Sena under Uddhav has held intact. He has shown keen political acumen, even if he had to swallow his pride and work under the BJP, which now dominates the political scene. True to form, the Sena gets its own back by constantly sniping at its ally.

Big questions

But the satisfaction of hurling a barb can only be temporary. The Sena has to ask itself some fundamental questions – are the ‘Marathi manoos‘ of the state better-off than they were 50 years ago? Has the Sena gotten them better deals, in terms of jobs or, indeed, housing? (Some of the Sena’s leaders are now developers of luxury flats). Are more Marathi speakers making it to the Indian Administrative Service? Has the Sena in any way spread Marathi culture? The biggest question that continues to dog the Sena is whether it can reach out to the rest of Maharashtra. Uddhav has been travelling in the state to build the party’s cadre, but it is not going to be easy.

The Sena is likely to do well in the coming civic elections in Mumbai; its grassroots network will ensure that. But organisations must expand, otherwise they wither away. The Sena can neither rest on past glories, nor keep deploying the same methods – roughing up people – as it did years ago. Marathi youngsters, like anyone else, want jobs, not promises. The BJP is making inroads among the Marathi manoos and has been increasing its vote share. Its success can only be at the cost of the Sena.

As it celebrates the past, the Sena would do well to start thinking about the future – does it want to remain a local, Mumbai-based party or turn into a serious, state-wide political player whose voice counts beyond its own backyard.