While the nation waits to find out if the voters in Bihar will re-affirm their 2015 rejection of Narendra Modi’s pretensions of pan-Indian political overlordship, the BJP’s over-asserted claim to speak for all Hindus has been vigorously contested over on the west coast – not by the familiar secular platforms but the original, avowedly Hindu party, the Shiv Sena.
Uddhav Thackeray’s Dussehra speech last Sunday – the first time a Thackeray was orating as the chief minister of Maharashtra – made a telling contrast to Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh chief Mohan Bhagwat’s much more vaunted Vijay Dashami address.
The two Dussehra speeches, one in Nagpur and the other in Mumbai, offer two alternative approaches to how and who will appropriate the slogan of Hindutva in pursuit of political power and electoral success.
Mohan Bhagwat was predictably un-exciting, as he pretended to assume the role of the authoritative custodian of ‘Hindu nationalism’. Predictably, he ended up coming across as a boring apologist for the BJP government at the Centre and in Uttar Pradesh. He did not seem troubled at all by the fact that the Chinese army has managed to deprive India of very large chunks of its own territory; instead, like a defence ministry spokesperson, he dressed up the Modi government’s feeble and inadequate response to the Chinese encroachments in meaningless verbiage.
Clearly, the Nagpur sanghchalaks are losing faith in their own moral upper hand and are all too content to defer to the wisdom of the failed ‘Chanakyas’ prancing atop Raisina Hill. The RSS is beginning to savour the “realities” of administering this difficult country.
By contrast, Uddhav Thackeray was full of fire and brimstone, as he took on the BJP and its patrons in Nagpur. To begin with, the Maharashtra CM has no reason to concede the Modi-Shah claim to an ethically superior politics. After last November’s shabby power grab when the BJP leadership forced an unscrupulous governor to hurriedly and dishonourably swear-in Devendra Fadnavis and Ajit Pawar in the wee hours of the morning, the Shiv Sena cannot possibly allow Modi and his Mumbai political operatives to go on pretending that they practitioners of an ethical politics. He dared Modi, Shah and Company to do their best to topple his government. It was perhaps for the first time the Delhi bosses were talked back to with such belligerence, and in such colourful language.
Even more convincingly, the Shiv Sena chief pointedly laid political claim to the tradition of uncompromising historical opposition to the “Mughals”. And, for good measure, he reminded the pretenders on the imperial throne in Delhi that it was Maharashtra that once ‘buried’ Aurangzeb and Afzal Khan.
As Uddhav Thackeray sees it, the BJP and the RSS have no business, and certainly no credentials, to be going around handing out certificates of Hindutvaness. The Shiv Sena is the original party of unremitting hostility to the Muslims – and Pakistan, which it used as a stand-in. No one has forgotten how Bal Thackeray would not allow Pakistani singers or comic artistes to perform in Mumbai; how there would no cricket for the Pakistani team in Maharashtra.
At the same time, the chief minister gently reminded the BJP bosses that power had not led to the wussification of the Shiv Sena. He hinted that the Shiv Sainiks are still around, and that they have not lost their appetite for a spot of violence. So, please, go and bully some other outfit.
Uddhav Thackeray has every reason to look Modi in the eye. Any chief minister can take considerable satisfaction from the manner in which the COVID-19 pandemic in Dharavi was contained and finally rolled back. Thackeray could not possibly forget that in the early days the BJP was maliciously whispering about an administrative collapse and was suggesting that perhaps only a spell of Central rule could help the state deal with the pandemic. This was from a party whose leader had promised to lick the virus in 21 days.
Perhaps it was this success in Dharavi that emboldened Thackeray to unmask the BJP’s obscurantism, dating back to its Jan Sangh days. Neither ringing bells nor clanging thalis defined Hindutava or deshbhakti, he told them. The RSS chief or the Raksha Mantri were welcome to demonstratively perform an arms puja, but the Chinese Liberation Army wasn’t really impressed.
Unlike his father, Uddhav conducts himself as a modern man, very much in tune with a Mumbai that has dynamically changed in ethos and character from the days of Bal Thackeray. Those were the years when the Shiv Sena institutionalised its strategic reliance on violence and the threat of violence. Over the years, the Sena itself has moved beyond its organised lumpenisation, and is now trying to adjust itself to the demands of its new political respectability. Uddhav Thackeray has impressed one and all with his sobriety. He has been unflappable as Mumbai and Maharashtra cope with a series of destabilising knocks, instigated, first, by demonetisation and its after-effects, then a faltering, palpitating economy, and now the coronavirus. He gives an indication of having internalised Mario Cuomo’s famous dictum: “You campaign in poetry but you govern in prose.”
Even when things went well for it in the state, the BJP’s social dominance in Maharashtra remained precarious; the Shiv Sena’s defection has definitely left its social basis vulnerable and fragile. Modi’s ‘bold’ experiment in foisting Devendra Fadnavis on Maharashtra has recoiled. The Hindutva sentiment will be increasingly beyond BJP/RSS political manipulation.
Uddhav Thackeray not only questions Modi’s claim to administrative competence but also contests the BJP’s monopolistic ownership of Islamophobia, Pakistan-bashing and nationalism. So effective was Thackeray’s assault on the BJP’s conceits that this otherwise garrulous party just lost its tongue; it had to rely on a film actress to fire some kind of a riposte.
In effect, the Maharashtra chief minister was asserting that Prime Minister Modi was neither the nation’s moral tutor nor its political headmaster. Most significantly, he punctured the BJP/RSS claim to be the only authorised voice and interpreter of Hindutva’s dogma and orthodoxy. A moment not without its significance as non-BJP forces try to regroup and reclaim the republic.
Harish Khare is a journalist who lives and works in Delhi. He has been editor-in-chief of The Tribune.