(This explainer was first published on 19 June 2017 and has been reposted from The Quint’s archives to mark the death anniversary of Bal Thackeray.)
Over the years, Shiv Sena has made news for digging up cricket pitches ahead of matches against Pakistan, throwing ink on people, vandalising theatres, threatening young couples who celebrate Valentine’s Day, and burning effigies of whoever they pick to “send back to Pakistan” that month.
Hard to believe, but that’s Shiv Sena at its best behaviour.
Yet, the Sena has broad support in Mumbai. It emerged the single largest party in the Mumbai civic elections in February 2017 and also gained ground in rural Maharashtra. If you’ve ever wondered why the party continues to rule over India’s financial capital, here’s the bloody and noisy history of the Shiv Sena.
Who Was Bal Thackeray?
Born on 23 January 1927, the birthday of Subhash Chandra Bose, the founder of Shiv Sena was a rebel since childhood. Educated till the sixth grade, Balasaheb Thackeray did not let the lack of education get in his way and used his command over languages, fiery oratory skills and his uncanny ability to read between the lines. He was never officially elected to power, but he held sway over Mumbai for over four decades as a journalist, cartoonist and Shiv Sena Chief.
He called himself the “remote control” of the Shiv Sena-BJP government that ruled Maharashtra between 1995-99, and for good reason. At one point, he was so influential that if Thackeray showed the slightest displeasure over something, the entire city downed its shutters in a self-imposed curfew.
I want to be the Hitler of not only Mumbai, but all of Maharashtra and India.Bal Thackeray
Thackeray used to work as a cartoonist with Free Press Journal in the early days of his career. It didn’t help him make ends meet so he decided to start his own political satire weekly, Marmik, which culminated in the launch of Shiv Sena. He knew just how to provoke: He printed lists tauntingly titled “Read and Ignore” of recruitments done by industries and even government hospitals to prove that most of the jobs were given to non-Maharashtrian people.
He singlehandedly sparked the anxieties of Marathi people, (unemployment, poverty, territory, class) kindling support for his Sena. It is common knowledge that he thought of Adolf Hitler as an artist and ordered Hindu mobs to riot in 1992-93. Yet, when he died in November 2012, millions thronged the streets of Mumbai for his public funeral with complete state honours.
He is succeeded by his son Uddhav Thackeray, who was a photographer for the first forty years of his life. Aditya Thackeray, his grandson, recently entered politics and is currently earning his tiger stripes as the head of the Yuva Sena. Raj Thackeray, Uddhav’s cousin, left the party in 2006, upset that the supremo chose Uddhav over him to take over Shiv Sena.
How Has Uddhav Thackeray’s Rule Been So Far?
He’s come a long way from when he started. Until the age of 40, he disliked being in the public eye which followed him everywhere thanks to his father. His heart was set on photography and working on Saamna, Shiv Sena’s mouthpiece. Till this date, his photography website only reads ‘Photographer’ against his name in the bio section. He could be anyone, if that surname wasn’t such a giveaway.
In 2002, Bal Thackeray, worried that age would catch up with him sooner or later, decided to pick his quiet, artist son as his successor. He was made responsible for the upcoming BMC polls. The party did well, and Uddhav got the credit. This exposure was enough; he had been seduced by politics.
In 2003, he was made the Executive President and in 2004, his father named him next party chief. Everyone was surprised, including Uddhav and his cousin Raj, who everyone assumed would be next in line.
Bal Thackeray groomed Uddhav, and held the real power in the party until his death in 2012. The party was now looking up to its new chief, Uddhav Thackeray.
In the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, the Shiv Sena emerged a key ally to the BJP. But as everyone celebrated Modi, Uddhav didn’t care. When the now-in-power BJP demanded a bigger share of seats to contest in the Assembly elections, Uddhav said no.
BJP broke their 20-year alliance to fight the 2014 Maharashtra Assembly elections separately. As they did, they heard the shy Uddhav Thackeray taunting the BJP and even Narendra Modi, who was at his peak, in the media. He got to work, campaigning and negotiating with voter groups who had backed the Shiv Sena-BJP alliance for decades. The Shiv Sena emerged the second-largest party in the state with 63 seats, not giving BJP the satisfaction of winning a majority on its own.
Uddhav finally re-entered the alliance with the BJP to form the government, but has made it very clear that Shiv Sena will not be cowed by the BJP, resembling Bal Thackeray more and more. In a recent editorial he wrote in Saamna, he directly criticised Devendra Fadnavis, CM of Maharashtra, for his handling of farmer strikes in the state:
If you have money and power, you can win elections even on the moon. But that doesn’t mean that people are your slaves. If you can spend millions on winning elections and grabbing power, why do you cry when it comes to farmers’ loan waiver?
In 2017, he decided to fight the BMC elections separately from BJP, as well. His gamble paid off as the Sena emerged as the single largest party. But the BJP swept local rural elections in Maharashtra and came second in Mumbai too. Uddhav had to enter into a post-poll alliance with the BJP, insisting the Mayor will be from the Sena.
Why is Shiv Sena Accused of Playing ‘Politics of Convenience’?
The Shiv Sena is known for its flip-flops, which some call the ‘politics of convenience’. At its first meet in in 1966, Thackeray had dismissed politics as a gajkarna (disease) and look at the party now! The Shiv Sena has supported the Congress, the BJP, Dalit groups and even the Muslim League at some point, and then withdrawn it.
It took a while for it to settle down with the BJP as its ally in 1989 for its Hindutva missions which continued until 2014, when the cracks began appearing in that allegiance, as well. However, the stakes are too high for the Shiv Sena to quit the alliance now, with the BJP on an upward swing with PM Narendra Modi at the Centre.
Despite Bal Thackeray being anti-Congress in his early days, the Congress was responsible for Sena’s set up as a response to Communist trade unions popping up in the mills of Bombay. Ramrao Adik of the Congress was on stage when it was launched, just as when Marmik was published on 13 August 1960 in the presence of then Chief Minister Yashwantrao Chavan.
Thackeray publicly supported the Emergency and the Congress in the 1977 polls and praised Rajiv Gandhi’s efforts in Marmik. In the 1977 mayoral polls, Shiv Sena supported the Congress’ Murli Deora over its own candidate Dr Hemchandra Gupta! Understandably, he quit. Meanwhile, the mill workers were not reaching any resolution with the ruling Congress, despite Shiv Sena’s efforts to disrupt their strikes.
In a U-turn, Shiv Sena utilised this very anti-Congress sentiment in the mill areas to increase its base. In 1982, Thackeray along with Sharad Pawar, Congress (S) and socialist leader George Fernandes called for the Congress to be defeated.
Their logic was that Ambedkar, a Buddhist, was anti-Hinduism, and so were his Buddhist-Dalit followers. They incited violence and rape against them, particularly those belonging to the Dalit Panthers, especially during the Worli Riots of 1974. Soon after, Bal Thackeray made peace with Dalit leaders Namdeo Dhasal and Ramdas Athavale of the Republican Party of India.
Shiv Sena got Sudhir Joshi elected as the mayor with support from the Muslim League, even though the party openly criticised Vande Mataram. Shiv Sena also forged a short-lived alliance with the Muslim League in 1979.
What is Shiv Sena’s Central Ideology?
Shiv Sena has no fixed philosophy, though pro-Marathi chauvinism and Hindu nationalism remain constant ideological threads. They began with the “son of the soil” policy against south Indians and when that fizzled out, they moved to Hindutva and then eventually, animosity against north Indians. It is positioned as a pro-working class, “social organisation”, but stories of corruption and rampant extortion based on violent threats and multi-crore tenders abound in Sena’s time in power.
The party has historically altered its agenda from election to election. In the 1960s, it incited hatred and violence against south Indian restaurants and their owners. After gaining popularity from attacking south Indians, it took up an anti-Communist avatar in the 1970s, which ultimately led to the political assassination of Communist leader and MLA from Parel, Krishna Desai.
Shiv Sena came into its own when it became a Hindutva crusader in the 90s. They had always been anti-Muslim and anti-Pakistan, beginning with the first riots in Bhiwandi in 1970 and again in 1984, to protest against Pakistani sportspersons and artists coming to India – something they do even today. In 1986, it formally became a Hindutva party. Not to forget, the party was the force behind the Hindu-Muslim riots in Mumbai in 1992-93. The Srikrishna Enquiry Commission held Sena responsible for the violence against Muslims, who formed the majority of the more than 900 people who died in the riots. Three Shiv Sena members, including senior leader and MLA Madhukar Sapotdar were actually convicted for this charge by two special courts.
Is Aditya Thackeray the Future of Shiv Sena?
The Sena still lacks inner party democracy and its support base is limited to urban areas like Mumbai, Thane, Pune, Aurangabad and Nashik. In the 2017 elections, the BJP strode past Shiv Sena making bigger gains in the local rural elections in Maharashtra, while the latter placed one of its own at Mayor’s position in Mumbai city (even though BJP secured an equal number of seats).
Shiv Sena has national ambitions and has even fought elections independently in several states, but is tethered to regionalism. Maharashtra, and mainly Mumbai, is central to its identity. Unlike Jayalalitha from Tamil Nadu and Nitish Kumar from Bihar, Uddhav Thackeray has failed to create a national presence for himself and his party.
Enter the third generation: Aditya Thackeray, the Future of Shiv Sena. Having made his entry only a few years ago, Aditya is the head of the ‘Yuva Sena’, the youth wing of the party. The suave Aditya is focussing all his energies on appealing to the youth who will eventually become his voters. On 23 January 2018, Aditya was promoted to the Shiv Sena national executive committee or the core committee as a ‘party leader’, second only to the party chief, Uddhav Thackeray. He is the youngest member to have been nominated to this position and now shares the stage with the likes of ministers Subhash Desai, Manohar Joshi, Diwakar Raote and MP Sanjay Raut.
However, he’s also slowly changing the (often ridiculous) image of the party. He has brought several new, young volunteers into the party, opposed early closing timings for restaurants and clubs and even stopped his own party’s anti-Valentine’s Day protests! A law graduate, Aditya has established units of the Yuva Sena across Maharashtra, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Kerala, Bihar and Jammu and Kashmir and launched popular initiatives like BEST (Brihanmumbai Electric Supply & Transport) buses offering free rides to students in uniforms and a new party portal, www.topscorer.com, carrying syllabi n audio-visual format for Marathi students.
In a major political development, on 23 January 2018, the Shiv Sena decided to fly solo in the 2019 Maharashtra Assembly polls and the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, ruling out alliance with its long-term ally BJP.
The move was anticipated as the party has shared a love-hate relationship with the BJP in the state during the past three years, with the two allies constantly being at loggerheads. While this splits the Hindu vote, the one solid bank Sena has, their roots in the state run deep with Shiv Sena shakhas having lakhs of common people volunteering their time for the party for decades now. The party, for better or for worse, has the force of people behind it and will burn many more effigies before it dies out. The question is: Will it ever change for the better?
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