The Sena that no longer is

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Uddhav Thackeray’s party is back with the BJP, but as a significantly weakened force
About a month-and-a-half ago, they broke a 25-year-old alliance because neither wanted to play the junior partner. They fought Maharashtra’s Assembly polls against each other. Now, after the results have settled the issue of which is the bigger force, and a bout of prolonged wrangling over power-sharing, the Shiv Sena and BJP are in the process of joining hands again. The Sena is set to join the Devendra Fadanvis government of the BJP—largely on the latter’s terms.

This would be their second shot at sharing power in the state government, the first being back in 1995 when the Sena was led by its founder Bal Thackeray. This time, the party is under his son and successor Uddhav, and its diminished stature and clout vis-à-vis the electoral victor, the BJP, has never been quite so glaring.

Yet, reality often takes a while to sink in. Though it was amply clear right from the start that the Sena was keen on joining the government, its chief had tried to create the impression that power sharing was not the party’s ultimate goal. On one hand, its leaders would say that they were willing to be the Assembly’s main opposition party (they even occupied those benches for the November vote-of- confidence), while on the other, the same leaders would deliberate power-sharing equations with the BJP. Eknath Shinde, the Sena’s Leader of the Opposition, was attacking the Fadanvis government for its alleged ‘anti-farmer, anti-poor and pro-rich’ policies even as Uddhav’s emissaries Anil Desai and Subhash Desai (not related) were busy trying to bargain for as many cabinet portfolios as possible. Shinde was apparently in the dark about the negotiations, and gave up his diatribe only after he learnt of it from the press. This is how the Shiv Sena now functions, and party sources say that it will be increasingly difficult for Uddhav to keep his men in check. They have also had to pay a price for the party’s arrogance. The Sena has lost even its pre-poll chance of having a deputy CM.

From the first hour that Fadanvis was anointed Chief Minister, he made it clear he would have no deputy. But the Sena kept demanding that post, apart from that of Speaker and a third of all ministerial berths (including Home). The BJP refused to oblige. Then Uddhav scaled back his demands, asking for a Central Cabinet berth and one-third of all Maharashtra’s ministerial portfolios. Again, the BJP rejected this formula, forcing the Sena to give up on Home. Now, as Open goes to press, Uddhav appears ready to accept anything as long as his humbled party can join the state government. Where this climbdown leaves the Shiv Sena—and his leadership of it—is a good question.

Relations between the two parties remain strained. “For 25 years, the BJP endured the bullying of the Shiv Sena,” says a senior BJP leader, “We were treated terribly and had to run to Matoshree (the Thackeray residence) all the time. No more. We’ll budge no more.”

Many Sena leaders still feel that the party, with its 63 seats to the BJP’s 123, could play a strong opposition—something they reckon the NCP and Congress, having ruled for 15 years, are too discredited to do. This, they say, would revive the Sena as a regional force. But given Uddhav’s lack of confidence—he is said to fear his MLAs would be poached by the BJP—and dismay at the prospect of another five years in opposition, it was an unlikely option. Besides, he does not want to lose power in the cash-rich Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC), which his party has ruled in alliance with the BJP for nearly 17 years. Ruling the local body is crucial to the Sena’s scheme of things.

Uddhav’s pre-poll bravado is all gone, leaving his party in a state of confusion. This is evident at the Sena’s shakhas, baffled by conflicting signals from the top. Sainiks cannot comprehend the power equation with the BJP. “First we fought against the BJP and now we are trying to befriend them,” says Subodh Ahire, a card-bearing party member, “Uddhav saheb should tell us where we stand.” Even after reviving the alliance, Uddhav has been hinting at some kind of sustained oppositional role.

Making matters worse, Anant Geethe, Union Minister for Heavy Industries in the Modi Government at the Centre, does not seem to know what his role is. During a recent session of Parliament, Uddhav’s stand was that his party would vote against raising FDI limits in the insurance sector. Did this mean he had to vote against his own government? “He has to decide whether he will follow the party line or the Government’s pro-foreign line,” retorted a senior Shiv Sena leader.

The political grapevine, meanwhile, is abuzz that Uddhav is uneasy of his assets coming under scrutiny by Central agencies if he angers the BJP. According to Manikrao Thakre, chief of the Maharashtra Pradesh Congress Committee, “Uddhav and Raj have never disclosed any details of the properties they hold. The Centre can initiate investigations and the findings may be shocking.”

The BJP, sources say, has reason enough for anger against the Sena. The former’s partymen have not forgiven Uddhav for calling them ‘Afzal Khan ki fauj’, a snide reference to an enemy of Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj, the region’s 17th century king from whom the Shiv Sena derives its name.

There are many leaders in Uddhav’s own party who want to see him fail, and his political moves suggest that he is playing right into their hands. He has depended more on local emotive issues than any strategy to counter the BJP’s rise in the state. The electorate, it turned out, wants proper development, not vada paav stalls and zhunka bhakar kendras that the Sena has been offering in its name. Narendra Modi has swung the Marathi middle-class away with his talk of vikaas vaad over praant vaad, bhaasha vaad, jaati vaad and other such narrow agendas. The aspirations of the Marathi manoos have shifted and it has caught the Sena unawares.

A party once feared for its violent fringe is now a mere caricature of itself, riddled by divisions and unsure of its future. It is no surprise that yet another faction wants the party to merge with the MNS, a Shiv Sena breakaway led by Uddhav’s cousin Raj Thackeray who has tried hard to appropriate the late Bal Thackeray’s political legacy.

As the inheritor custodian of the aspirations of the Marathi manoos (sons of the soil), Uddhav is also faced with criticism for ignoring the advice of those who had worked with his father on that agenda. “His use-and-throw policy is not acceptable to us,” says a senior Shiv Sena leader, “We are leaders who have built the Shiv Sena along with Balasaheb and now we have no role to play. Had he involved us in his plans, the Shiv Sena would not have lost self respect in this manner.”

All this heightens the party’s identity crisis. Playing a regional party requires that it retain its distinct voice, which is difficult now that it is a junior ally. Simply tagging along with the BJP, some Sainiks fear, would reduce the Sena to irrelevance. “If they are back to their alliance, then in the next elections the BJP will take 175 seats, leaving the Shiv Sena with 100 or lesser seats,” forecasts Abhay Deshpande, political commentator.

Already, the BJP has moved aggressively into the Sena’s political space. The national party, for example, has adopted as its own the latter’s icon, Shivaji. Fadnavis’ decision to expedite a memorial for the Maratha king in the Arabian Sea has also not gone down too well with Uddhav, who was keen to keep it a Shiv Sena affair.

Bharatkumar Raut, a former Rajya Sabha MP of the Shiv Sena, is also worried about the party playing second fiddle to the BJP. Through numerous Facebook posts, he has been consistent in his stance that the party must not compromise its self respect at any cost.

The BJP, on its part, is in the process of setting up shakhas on the lines of the Shiv Sena’s, all over the state. Though the BJP has ward offices, these contact points are meant for mass engagement. According to sources, the BJP also plans to replicate the Sena’s network of reading centres that have Marathi periodicals and books available at street corners.

As a move to reclaim space lost to the BJP over the years, Uddhav has lately tried to revive the party’s Hindutva slogans, which had been left aside since he took over as its chief and sent inclusivist signals at odds with the party’s record under his father. But this attempt impresses nobody.

Dr Kumar Saptarishi, a political commentator and the founder of the erstwhile Yuva Kranti Dal, has closely followed the Shiv Sena over the years. Uddhav, he believes, can do little for his party. “There is no gameplan; Uddhav is not a man who has tactics up his sleeve,” says Dr Saptarishi, “The Shiv Sena has always been in search of a partner. First it joined hands with the Socialists then tried to get onto the Janata Party [bandwagon], but that did not happen. Then they went to the BJP, which was a small party and stayed with them for 25 years.”

And the BJP it is again, on current indications. Observers of the Shiv Sena, however, have been watching political developments in Maharashtra with dismay. Amar Khamkar, 40, a Mumbai businessman who has seen the Sena transform from an aggressively unruly party to its present moderate avatar, has lost his conviction that Uddhav was doing the party a good turn. “Uddhav should have been firm and stable in his stand on the BJP. Had he decided to sit in opposition from day one, he would have been much stronger and more respected,” Khamkar says, “He’s just a caricature now.”

Public perceptions of honour matter to every leader, and Uddhav, though back with the BJP, may not prove as easy a partner to deal with than Fadnavis would like. How smoothly Maharashtra’s government functions is now under watch.