Why Shiv Sena Can't Trump BJP Using the 'Hindutva' Card

The Sena is seen oscillating between an anti-BJP and pro-Hindutva agenda. It needs to make up its mind where it wants to go next.

Political parties are often seen to adjust their ideology based on political circumstances. Parties like the Telugu Desam Party, Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, Lok Janshakti Party, Nationalist Congress Party and Janata Dal (United) have all shown flexibility to dump their ideology from time to time to form pre-poll alliances with their erstwhile political foes. On the other side, will the Shiv Sena curb its ‘Hindutva’ ideology and go ahead and dump its long-term ally, the Bharatiya Janata Party, for the 2019 elections?

NCP’s Shared Pawar recently asked Shiv Sena to join the anti-BJP alliance, a suggestion that was rejected by the Congress party outright because of the Sena’s pronounced Hindutva agenda.

It looks unlikely that BJP and the Shiv Sena will have a pre-poll alliance in Maharashtra. The Sena reiterated its stand of fighting elections independently at the party’s June 19 foundation day event. Despite being allies, the Sena has been at loggerheads with the BJP since 2014, but at the same time, while it takes strong exception to most of BJP’s policies, it doesn’t criticise its ‘Hindutva’ plank. If at all, the Sena has asked the BJP to not forget Hindutva after the polls.

The BJP, on the other side, appears to have made up its mind to go all out with its Hindutva agenda for 2019, especially after pulling out of its alliance with the People’s Democratic Party in Jammu & Kashmir. So what happens to the Shiv Sena, which opposes the BJP on one hand, while on the other, seeks votes for itself on the platform of Hindutva? What is it that separates the BJP and Sena inherently?

Ultra Vegetarianism

One answer was visible in the municipal elections in Mira-Bhayandar, north of Mumbai. If Sena and BJP are united by Hindutva, they are separated by their food culture. In order to woo Jains, a sizable constituency in the area, the BJP supported banning the sale of meat during Paryushan, the most important Jain festival. Jains, along with the vegetarian Gujarati and Marwadi population, form the bulk of BJP’s vote base in Mumbai and other parts of the state. A Jain muni too issued a video appeal to vote for BJP ‘if they want to avoid seeing mutton and omelette shops at each nook and corner’.

The Mira-Bhayandar elections proved that Shiv Sena cannot defeat BJP using the Hindutva card. Credit: PTI Files

This infuriated the Shiv Sena, which equated the muni to a terrorist, as Sena’s vote base mainly consists of non-vegetarian Marathi-speaking population. Reports of Gujarati-dominated building societies,  most of whom are BJP supporters, denying permission to non-vegetarian families to buy or rent have been in the news for long, and Sena has been opposing this practice tooth and nail. During the elections, the Sena tried to remind the Jain and Gujarati population of Mira-Bhayandar how it had ‘saved’ them during the 1992-93 riots. But  the appeal fell on deaf ears as the BJP got a landslide victory in the elections. The Sena blamed non-Marathi Hindus for its defeat.

The Mira-Bhayandar elections proved that Shiv Sena cannot defeat BJP using the Hindutva card. Even in the local body elections in the municipal corporation of Mumbai, BJP doubled its seat tally despite fighting alone, almost snatching power from the Sena. A consolidation of non-Marathi speaking population, including North Indians, in favour of the BJP was seen  in Mumbai and its suburbs, which account for a substantial 60 Assembly seats.

The Sena’s persistence with Hindutva can be attributed to its hope of getting non-Marathi votes. However, with BJP firmly in saddle with its divisive Hindutva agenda, the regional party has little chance to make a dent.

Sena leader Uddhav Thackeray needs to look no further than the rise and fall of his cousin Raj Thackeray’s party, the Maharashtra Navanirman Sena (MNS), to understand this phenomena.

The MNS copied the Sena’s agenda of ‘Marathi manoos’ in a more aggressive way, targeting North Indian migrants of Mumbai. As Sena softened it stance against North Indians, an aggressive MNS was successful initially, but the party soon fizzled out and could not stand up to a much better organised Sena. In the last elections, the MNS managed to win just a single seat and that too outside Mumbai. The Marathi-speaking voters who voted for MNS in 2009 in and around Mumbai moved back to the Sena.

A Continuously Changing Ideology

Shiv Sena rose to the limelight in the 1960s on the plank of speaking up for local Marathi-speakers, before donning the Hindutva garb during the Babri Masjid-Ram Mandir agitation in the late 1980s, forming an alliance with the relatively smaller ally, the BJP. In the process, the party toned down its anti-South Indian rhetoric first, followed by softening its anti-North Indian rhetoric. A Mumbai-centric party, the Sena later spread its wings in the Marathwada region in the 1970s by opposing the renaming of Marathwada University after B.R Ambedkar. By the 1990s, by raising farmers’ issues, it managed to enter and establish a base in the Vidarbha region as well.

Late Bal Thackeray with Narendra Modi a year after the 2002 Godhra riots.”‘I have lost a guide,” Modi had said after his death. Credit:

In recent years, despite being in the government with the BJP, the Sena has been a vocal critic of the Narendra Modi government at the Centre, much to the consternation of its ally. Demonetisation, the mandatory linking of Aadhaar, the bullet train, bank scams, farmers issues, all have provided fodder to the Sena to criticise the BJP, but never has it criticised the BJP’s Hindutva plank.

If anything, the Sena had often gone much further in communal politics —whether claiming pride in its workers demolishing the Babri mosque, calling the 2008 Malegaon blast accused Col. Purohit a hero, or even demanding the stripping of voting rights for Muslims.

At present, the Sena is seen oscillating between an anti-BJP and pro-Hindutva agenda, often taking two diametrically opposite positions. Opposing the BJP and pushing for RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat to be made President of India is one such example that shows the party’s ideological confusion.

In today’s scenario, the Marathi manoos agenda coupled with highlighting the failures of the BJP government seem like a better bet for the Sena. Harping about Hindutva will take it nowhere as Hindutva votaries have much a ‘better’ option in a national party, the BJP.

A powerful BJP is not going to relinquish the chief minister’s post for the Sena. So, if Sena wants to install its own chief minister in Maharashtra and defeat the BJP in 2019, it may have to curb its communal ‘Hindutva’ agenda for the time being. If it loses in the process, it will have, at the very least, regained the pride and credibility that it has lost in the last four years by playing second-fiddle to BJP. But can it do this?

The Thackeray family has a history of changing their ideology. Bal Thackeray’s father Prabodhankar Thackery was a rationalist and led a Bahujan-centric non-Brahmin movement in Maharashtra. Uddhav echoed his grandfather’s views when he said in Dussehra rally in 2017 that he doesn’t agree with janeu (sacred thread) and shendi (tuft of hair tied up at the back of Brahmin priests’ head) brand of Hindutva. Now, the party needs to make up its mind where it wants to go next.

Ravikiran Shinde is an independent writer on social and political issues