Existential Fears Dictate Shiv Sena's Fickle Politics

The Shiv Sena’s tentative positioning of itself as both a pro- and anti-establishment party can be seen as a clever manoeuvre.

Despite the shrill anti-BJP theatrics of the Shiv Sena over the past four-and-a-half years, the pre-poll alliance of the two parties last week did not come as a surprise at all.

Instead, it came as an obvious compromise by a desperate Shiv Sena, which cannot survive in the state’s political landscape on its own. On the other hand, for many, the alliance was a shrewd act of manipulation on part of the BJP and its leadership that forced the Sena to follow their diktat.

Albeit real, Shiv Sena’s political desperation perhaps tells us only one side of the story. The other side contains subtexts of this alliance’s anti-drama, which are rooted in long-term trends of Maharashtra politics. These are subtexts of political frustrations and anxieties.

But they also reveal clever manipulations on part of the Sena as it tried to cash in on its weaknesses to work out strategies of political survival during the difficult times.

The Shiv Sena’s current political anxieties can be linked to three aspects of contemporary Indian politics.

The first is about its own peculiar structuring as a regional political party and the subsequent historical trajectories of its growth.

Secondly, the Sena’s anxieties and frustrations are also rooted in the contemporary patterns of political competition in Maharashtra and the nature of the party system during the post-Congress phase.

Finally, the Shiv Sena shares a common predicament of regional parties which have had their existence marginalised due to the advent of the BJP and the shaping of a new ‘one party dominance system’.

Thriving on the imagery of the ‘other’

Since its establishment in the mid 1960s, the Shiv Sena thrived around imagery of the ‘other’. At first, during the ‘Samyukta Maharashtra’ movement, it was the Gujarati capitalists who the Sena deemed exploiters of the Marathi working class.

These were replaced by the migrants from south India, derogatorily referred to as lungiwalas. During the Namantar movement of the 1970s in the Marathwada region, the party supported the politics of the dominant Marathas against the Dalits.

Also read: Ram Mandir Brings Shiv Sena, BJP Together Again

With the arrival of the politics of neo-Hindutva in the 1990s, Muslims became the main adversaries for the Sena and, at the same time, it also tried to distance itself from the BJP/Brahminical variant of Hindutva.  It was a strategy to bring the OBCs under its fold and to neutralise emerging caste equations.

In recent times, the competitively aggressive politics of the Maharashtra Navnirman Sena against migrants from the north forced the Shiv Sena to tepidly move back to its ‘protector of the Marathi’ image and compete for Marathi votes. But it also provided the Sena with a new adversary in the form of ‘bhaiyyas’ of the north.

In other words, though the enemies changed from time to time, enmity and hatred remained a central, inherent feature of the Shiv Sena brand of politics. Throughout this long and chequered political journey, the Sena kept inventing new adversaries.

The party maintained a constant provocative tone in its politics of direct action and tried to manage an anti-establishment image. The exclusionary politics of the Sena has always remained shrill and crass.

The senior Thackeray’s demagogic leadership amplified the shrillness. It also legitimised the non-democratic aspects of the Sena’s politics. While successfully mobilising his followers and voters within the democratic framework, Thackeray often challenged and ridiculed the idea of democracy and routinised the excesses committed by his party and its followers.

Shiv Sena founder Bal Thackeray. Credit: PTI

Setback after the 2014 elections

This version of the Sena’s politics faced a major setback with the post-2014 consolidation of the BJP at the state and national level. The Sena broke its longtime political alliance with the BJP in the state assembly elections of 2014 and decided to contest the elections independently.

However, the results led to a realisation – not only for the Sena, but for the BJP as well – that they need to share the anti-Congress political space in the state. The Sena had to mend its ways and entered a post-election alliance with the BJP. With this, the Sena’s adversarial politics had to take a back seat as the party became part of the establishment.

Also read: Shiv Sena Cautions Centre Against Using Pulwama Attack for Electoral Gains

At the same time, the BJP, under Narendra Modi’s leadership, developed a new model of politics at the national level that could successfully neutralise the federal, oppositional and ideological challenges. It constructed a democratic majority that superceded the regional (and other ‘parochial’) identities. The new, dominant BJP model of politics did not leave much scope for oppositional politics and thus created difficulties not only for the Congress but also – perhaps more so – for regional parties like the Shiv Sena.

Uddhav Thackeray, when he became the leader of the Sena, initially tried to run it as a mainstream political party engaged in routine democratic politics and to expand its reach beyond Mumbai and other urban centres of the state. However, these moves were not only opposed by the Shiv sainiks but threatened the very existence of the party, forcing it to go back to its provocative, loud and adversarial politics.

This is where the Sena started cashing in on its weaknesses and tried to convert those into effective political strategies of survival. While being a part of the establishment, the Sena resorted to constant attacks on its own government and vehemently criticised the BJP.

These strategies helped the Sena invent a new adversary at a time when oppositional politics sounded impossible. On the other hand, the shrill anti-BJP noises coming from the party also helped it reinforce its still intact anti-establishment image – both for its followers and the prospective voters.

Finally, the new anti-BJP politics of the Sena during the post-2014 phase must also be contextualised vis-a-vis the changing nature of the party system in Maharashtra and the rapidly fragmenting social support bases of all political parties. The party system in Maharashtra is in complete disarray although overtly it may appear to be neatly operating around the two loose coalitions – namely the Congress-NCP and BJP-Shiv Sena alliances.

None of the political parties (and, in fact, Shiv Sena might have some advantage there) have a strong party organisation. Political contestations are reduced to local fights where alliances and compromises across rival political parties is routine.

Naturally, although extremely competitive, the party system in Maharashtra has become ideologically vacant and dilapidated. The Sena’s tentative positioning of itself as both a pro- and anti-establishment party at the current political juncture can be therefore seen as a clever manoeuvre, rather than simply an act of desperation.

Rajeshwari Deshpande teaches politics at the Savitribai Phule Pune University.