The political situation in Maharashtra is in a state of flux. One of the seniormost Shiv Sena leaders and Thane strongman, Eknath Shinde, has defied the party leadership, exposing the vulnerabilities of Uddhav Thackeray’s leadership. If Shinde is a Sainik in the old mould of aggressive, street politics, the rebel camp accuses Thackeray of being a weak administrator, inaccessible to his party legislators except through go-betweens, unable to stand up to allies NCP and Congress, biased towards his son Aaditya, and defensive over the party’s core stand of Hindutva.
How then does one understand this situation?
The Shiv Sena has always been an issue-based, reactionary congregation. It adopts issues and works on them till these are used up and moves on to the next. The first instalment of its politics was about the rights of Marathis against Gujaratis and then South Indians. It moved towards Hindu nationalism gradually, thus sustaining its relevance.
The Hindutva brand that Uddhav espouses now is, in a sense, that of his grandfather Keshav Thackeray. Hindutva for the Thackeray patriarch meant self-rule and a strike against Brahmin priesthood. Keshav was known for his staunch anti-Brahmin, lower-caste politics, partly owing to the subordination of his caste group in the varna hierarchy, as a group that worked as scribes or pen smiths and accountants. Uddhav too has lately been calling out the Brahmin in the room, by hinting at the damage caused by the RSS’s Brahminism.
Keshav’s participation in the Satya Shodak movement with roots in the rural base of the Shudras and Dalits also helped Bal Thackeray at the start by giving him a ready base. The core constituency of the Sena was at the time the poor, migrant, working-class population of western Maharashtra in Mumbai. After the Samyukta Maharashtra Movement, it started making inroads among others.
While caste-less politics helped the Sena, it has also been pushed into a corner on the matter. One of its most powerful OBC leaders, Chhagan Bhujbal, left the party over its stand on the Mandal agitation for OBC quota.
The Shiv Sena is also known for its organisational capacity. Its network runs from gullies to the heart of the city. However, this does not translate into an ability to govern the state as a mature party. Girish Kuber, the editor of Loksatta, rightly commented in his column for
The Indian Express that the Sena is more a loose, unorganised social body instead of a responsible, statutory political party.
The cadres do not see themselves as capable of self-governance; this is after being in power twice. More than social action, they are trained in street-level instant justice, building them popularity at the ground level. However, as the leaders go up, they find politics must move beyond.
Then, part of the reason the Shiv Sena was able to spread beyond the Mumbai region was the hope it offered, even if accidentally, to Marathas insecure about the rise of a Dalit rights movement. The firebrand Dalit Panthers is believed to have inspired, in part, the aggressive tactics of the Sena. Even the symbolism of Dalit Panthers was tapped into by the Sena, by choosing tiger as its symbol, against the leaping panther of the Dalit outfit.
If the above have been both a boon and a bane, another drawback has been the gradual transformation of the Sena into the kind of party (read the Congress) that once Bal Thackeray bitterly criticised. While he himself rose to the status of a demi-god, somewhat in the mould of the Gandhis, the reins of the party have moved on to first his son and grandson.
The rest of the Sena leadership too resembles other parties — most of them are Brahmins, alongside Marathas, with some backward caste names. Though the party has a base in the backward castes of the non-Mumbai region, its leaders are mostly of dominant castes from Mumbai.
The difference is more pronounced since Uddhav allowed Aaditya a freer hand as he himself battled several ailments. An important piece of the puzzle is Uddhav’s wife Rashmi. She remains an invisible hand in Thackeray politics.
So will Uddhav’s Hindutva inherited from Keshav survive the onslaught of Modi’s Hindutva drawn from Savarkar?
This column first appeared in the print edition on June 26, 2022, under the title, ‘The caste and politics of Sena’s rise and its crisis’.
Yengde, the author of Caste Matters, curates the fortnightly ‘Dalitality’ column