MUMBAI ~ Every Dussehra, the Shiv Sena organises one of its biggest political events: the Dussehra rally, or melava, at Shivaji Park in Dadar, Mumbai. On this grand annual occasion, party chief Bal Thackeray makes one of his rare public appearances and charts out the future course for the party. It is a major political event for the Shiv Sena, and in the 45 years since the practice began, Bal Thackeray has given it a miss only thrice.
In the recent past, however, Bal Thackeray has had to keep away from many of his customary public appearances on account of his poor health. He did not put in a showing even on his birthday and Guru Purnima.
His diminishing public appearances impact not only the party’s image, but also cash collections and donations from party workers. Although the Sena is now under his son and executive president of the party Uddhav Thackeray, Balasaheb remains its only crowdpuller.
And without him, there are fewer footfalls at these events . This means fewer donations and funds in the Sena’s once-bustling collection boxes.
It’s not just a question of showing up. Even Balasaheb’s speeches seem to be losing their bite. Though dedicated Sainiks continue to attend the Sena’s Shivaji Park ritual, the ageing leader’s voice at these events has lately lacked not just his characteristic punch, but political coherence too. As a result, attendance has been thinning out drastically even at the other Dussehra events that Balasaheb attends, though the Sena continues to claim that the main rally is still steadily drawing more and more supporters.
Serious as they are, the Sena’s internal problems are minor compared to the one afflicting it externally. Raj Thackeray’s Maharashtra Navnirman Sena (MNS) has been gaining supporters and funds at the expense of his uncle’s party. It is an open secret that Uddhav has not been able to hold his partymen under the Sena aegis.
Many Shiv Sena supporters have gravitated to the MNS, as they feel that Raj is better suited to lead them, now that his uncle’s mojo is in terminal decline. Indeed, even the rare public appearances of the Sena chief have been a blessing for his estranged nephew.
But worse, it is Raj whose skills are often compared to the Sena founder’s, instead of his son Uddhav’s. With the Sena heir lacking his father’s charisma and crowd-pulling ability, the political field has been tilting more and more towards Raj.
While this erosion of the Sena’s base has been taking place for some time now, this year’s Dussehra rally is vital for Uddhav, and the Sena, for one more reason. Elections to the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) are due early next year, and this melava is the party’s last major political event before that. So, if Bal Thackeray fails to offer his party a distinct sense of leadership now, his nephew (who will be listening from his house abutting Shivaji Park) will move in to wrest the Sena’s last remaining fans.
The immediate question, however, is not what Balasaheb will say at the rally. It is whether he will attend at all. Those in the know of things in the Sena say that his voice has turned feeble, and he can no longer deliver a long speech. He cannot even sit upright on stage for any length of time, due to his weak bladder.
But Uddhav would be eager to have his father on stage. The party has controlled the BMC for over two decades now, and he will want to muster all resources at the Sena’s disposal to retain control.
With Raj pitching aggressively to steal the BMC away from his uncle and cousin, Thackeray senior will have to make an impact this Dussehra day.
Raj too has been busy marshalling resources. Recently, he undertook a 10-day tour of Gujarat to study Narendra Modi’s ‘development model’. He was also very vocal in endorsing Modi as the BJP’s prime ministerial candidate.
The Sena cannot take the MNS threat lightly. Raj’s party has already edged out the Sena’s labour unions from the service and corporate sectors. Even those who once donated ‘generously’ to Sena coffers (to buy peace) have turned to the MNS.
Else, the party he founded would be consigned to history.