Marathi nationalism to Hindutva: Shiv Sena’s sphere of influence shrinks

Sena, which transformed from a party of son of the soil to that of Hindutva, is now at the crossroads

Thackerays
Balasaheb Thackeray decided to form the Shiv Sena, a non-political outfit, in 1966 | Photo: PTI File

Shiv Sena — the words carry different meanings for different audiences; not only for those from outside Maharashtra or India, but also for those from various districts of the state. Shiv Sena has now existed for over half a century and has undergone a transformation at the cost of its very essence and ethos. Today, its supremo is the chief minister.

In 1966, Balasaheb Thackeray formed a militant outfit which was essentially meant to raise the voice of the ‘Marathi Manus’, or the son of the soil, who he felt were being oppressed by the outsiders — the traders and non-Marathi speaking south Indians who used to call the locals ‘Ghaati’.

The charge was that neither the grocery shop owners nor any clerk in any government offices used to treat ‘Marathi Manus’ with respect. Instead, the locals were insulted, which was noticed by cartoonist Balasaheb Thackeray, who was then working with an English newspaper. He soon started his own weekly satirical cartoon magazine titled Marmik.

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After giving a befitting reply to every insult of the ‘Marathi Manus’ through his cartoons, Thackeray decided to form the Shiv Sena, a non-political outfit, in 1966. He then made it clear that the Shiv Sena won’t be a political outfit, but would mainly focus on its fight against the oppression of the ‘Marathi Manus’.

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One has to take into account the then prevailing political situation in the newly formed state of Maharashtra to understand rise of Shiv Sena. After Maharashtra and Gujarat were carved out of the then Bombay Presidency, the Gujaratis, who had well-established businesses in Mumbai, opted to stay back in what was then called Bombay. Another chunk of outsiders from south India, who were in largely in central government services including the IAS lobby, too stayed back.

To start with, late Balasaheb Thackeray harnessed this feeling of oppression of the ‘Marathi Manus’ in every sphere of life, which is why his public rally in 1966, where he announced the foundation of Shiv Sena, had gathered a crowd of lakhs and ignited a flame of hope in the minds of locals.

Eventually, Thackeray’s lieutenant Sudhir Joshi spearheaded the Sthaniya Lokadhikar Samiti, or the committee for the rights of natives. This helped the Marathi youth grab opportunities in government services, and Thackeray famously mouthed the derogatory slogan of “lungi hatao“, seeking the ouster of south Indians.

One of the reasons for the Shiv Sena’s emergence as a formidable force right from the word go was its participation in the local elections in Bombay. During 1960s and 1970s, Shiv Sena, using the ‘Marathi Manus’ slogan, penetrated the masses.

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But it wasn’t the Sena’s result-oriented approach to get jobs for the locals that made it famous, or its violent and aggressive ways; it was the manipulation of Congress rulers, especially late Vasantrao Naik. He had intelligently put to use the Sena’s nuisance value to neutralise the mighty trade union movement in Bombay, which was dominated by the Left.

Bombay was the economic capital of the country and had a huge network of textile mills. Parel and adjoining areas of the present-day Mumbai were referred to as Giran Gaon or Mill-Area. The city of Bombay, before the underworld gang-wars of 1980s, had witnessed bloodshed due to clashes between trade unions affiliated to the Left parties and Shiv Sena.

After this phase of 1970s and early 1980s, the country witnessed the assassination of former Prime Minister Indira Gandhi. Thackeray, who believed in ‘thokshahi‘ (muscle power) instead of ‘lokshahi‘ (democracy), was an ardent admirer of Indira Gandhi as she too exhibited autocracy in the later part of her career. Thackeray had time and again backed her decision of imposing Emergency in the nation.

After Mrs. Gandhi’s demise and the subsequent first term office of her son Rajiv, the violent fallout of the Mandal Commission report paved way for unrest in parts of northern India. As a reaction, Hindutva politics too began to rise. At this juncture, Thackeray swiftly changed gears and hitched on to the Hindutva bandwagon, abandoning the cause of ‘Marathi Manus’.

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After the demolition of the controversial structure in Ayodhya, the BJP displayed hesitancy in accepting responsibility. But Thackeray had said, “If Shiv Sainiks brought the structure down, I am proud of them.” It was Thackeray who gave the slogan, “Garv Se Kaho Hum Hindu Hai (proudly say I am a Hindu).” He used to refer to Muslims as “hirve saap” or green snakes, and right-wing extremists liked this language.

This led to an increase in his popularity as the sole champion of the Hindu cause. The BJP, being a national party at that time, could not take a hardcore Hindutva stance, at least in public.

This Hindutva turn helped Thackeray take Shiv Sena to the villages of Maharashtra, and the unemployed youth there found it easy to form Shiv Sena branches and raise unauthorised structures. Soon, they expanded their role and began flexing muscles and settling local disputes.

Eventually, the Shiv Sena went on to form a political alliance with the BJP in 1989. By then, it was established in Mumbai local bodies, thanks to a helping hand from the Congress. At the same time, India saw the proliferation of regional parties, and Sena too benefitted from it.

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In 1978, Sharad Pawar broke away from the Congress to become the chief minister of the state. He launched the ‘Purogami Lokshahi Dal’ or the Progressive Democratic Alliance. Eventually, he re-joined the Congress in 1986, after the demise of Mrs. Gandhi, who had dethroned him even though he enjoyed a majority.

Late 1980s saw an alliance era at the national level with the formation of the Jan Morcha, or the seven-party alliance. It provided Thackeray adequate space to grow in the state. By the end of 1980s, when the country got polarised on communal lines due to the Ayodhya agitations, Thackeray took its advantage. In the 1990 general elections, the Sena tasted success along with the BJP, and managed to topple the Congress government in 1995.

Balasaheb Thackeray held the remote control of the state government as his confidante Manohar Joshi became the Sena’s first chief minister. After their first term in office, the BJP and Sena lost the elections in 1999, and were in the opposition for the next 15 years.

It was in 2014 when the Narendra Modi wave swept the general elections, and the Shiv Sena too benefitted from it. But on the eve of 2014 assembly elections, BJP snapped ties with Sena by claiming more assembly seats to which Sena did not agree. After 25 years, the right-wing alliance partners fought against each other in a quadrangular contest but still won 185 seats jointly out of the total 288 seats. The BJP staked claim being the single largest party, and Shiv Sena joined the government. From 1995 to 2014, the Sena that played the role of a big brother in the alliance, had now turned a younger brother as Balasaheb Thackeray had died.

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The five-year period in Devendra Fadnavis government was a difficult time for the Sena ministers. The chief minister prevailed over his alliance partner. His age, intellect, oratory, grasp and political acumen surprised even the mighty Sharad Pawar at times. That’s why Sena mouthpiece Saamana used to criticise the Fadnavis government on a daily basis despite being a part of the government.

The 2019 election results proved that the BJP cannot form a government on its own or with the help of independents. Meanwhile, Uddhav Thackeray surprised the BJP by joining hands with the NCP and the Congress. It was a masterstroke by Sharad Pawar that brought the Shiv Sena, NCP and Congress into an alliance.

Though Shiv Sena has grabbed power and Uddhav Thackeray became chief minister, the goings may be tough for the party during the 2022 Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation elections. The Sena has been ruling the richest local body for years, but BJP too has increased its strength in Mumbai by many folds after 2014. While NCP does not enjoy much clout in the Mumbai local body, Congress is suffering without a leader. This could give the Sena a big jolt in the 2022 municipal elections.

Failure in controlling the spread of coronavirus and overall, a subdued or non-aggressive image of Uddhav Thackeray coupled with the ever-complaining Congress and untrustworthy politics of Pawar, could pose dangers to Sena’s prospects.

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Shiv Sena, which transformed itself from a party of the son of the soil to that of Hindutva, is now at the crossroads. The 2022 municipal polls would prove whether Sena triggered its own downfall by coming to power “greedily” after the 2019 assembly elections or has taken the right step by cutting short the ambitions of the BJP.

The Sena has grown steadily over the last 50 years. Whether it continues to grow in the coming years or has sounded its downfall is a million dollar question that everybody is waiting to get an answer to.

I have had interacted with late Balasaheb Thackeray and observed his style of functioning. I have also interacted with his son Uddhav Thackeray on a few occasions before he became the chief minister. And what I understood from these interactions is that the Shiv Sena is definitely on a decline.

(The writer is a senior journalist and columnist with 30 years of experience in print and television, and has worked in various newspapers and television channels)

(The Federal seeks to present views and opinions from all sides of the spectrum. The information, ideas or opinions in the articles are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Federal)

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