“Balasaheb Thackeray had taken up the cause of Hindutva. I told him: a Hindu votes as a Maratha, Mali, Dalit, Marwari and as a Brahmin, but never as a Hindu. How will our politics be successful? Without hesitation, he replied: ‘When I started the Shiv Sena, people said the same thing - that the Marathi manoos doesn’t vote as a Marathi, but I proved this wrong. You see, I will make Hindus vote as Hindus.’”*
This is an excerpt from an article in Shiv Sena mouthpiece Saamna written by the late BJP leader Pramod Mahajan on how the BJP-Shiv Sena alliance came about in 1984.
Mahajan’s wish and Thackeray’s reply are both important in understanding the Hindutva of the two parties. For the BJP and RSS, Hindutva – of which making Hindus vote as Hindus is an important part – has always been the main mission. But for Thackeray and the Sena, Hindutva has always been secondary to its aim of establishing control over the Marathi manoos and making them vote as Marathis first.
This might seem like a minor ideological difference. But it is crucial to understanding why the BJP and Sena which united in the name of Hindutva – fell apart at a time when Hindutva forces are at the strongest ever position in Independent India.
There are several reasons why even Hindutva couldn’t save the alliance between the two parties.
For Sena, Party Comes Before Hindutva
Much before Mahajan met Thackeray and stitched together the alliance, there had been several attempts to get the Sena to ally with BJP’s precursor Jan Sangh.
In 1970, the Jan Sangh supported the Shiv Sena in the bypoll to the Parel Assembly constituency that was necessitated by the killing of Communist Party MLA Krishna Desai, allegedly by pro-Sena goons. When Sena won the seat – its first electoral victory in the Assembly – Bal Thackeray specifically thanked the Jan Sangh and RSS for their support.
Soon after the win, Bal Thackeray addressed a joint rally with Jan Sangh leader Balraj Madhok in which he proposed the idea of a united front of Hindutva parties.
Both parties began negotiating for an alliance in the Lok Sabha elections later that year but the talks broke down with the Jan Sangh refusing to give the Mumbai North West seat to the Sena.
According to Vaibhav Purandare in Bal Thackeray & the Rise of the Shiv Sena, Thackeray said about the breakdown, “We wish to have an electoral understanding with the Sangh in the national interest, but we don’t accept the fact that while we consider national interest, others play political games keeping an eye on seats.”
Sena went ahead and supported General KM Cariappa, who contested as an Independent from the seat.
In the next few years, relations between the Jan Sangh and Sena worsened. The Jan Sangh opposed the Sena in the Mumbai mayoral elections. In the run-up to the bypoll for the Mumbai Central constituency in 1974, the Jan Sangh made it clear that it would oppose Sena at all costs.
Sena ended up joining forces with Indira Gandhi’s Congress, whose candidate Ramrao Adik was a friend of Thackeray’s.
This alignment indicated that while Sena stood for Hindutva, Thackeray would choose any arrangement that increases his own influence, even if it meant compromising on ideology.
Sena and Jan Sangh were on opposing sides throughout the Emergency as well. Jan Sangh vehemently opposed it while Sena supported it. The idea of a strong, authoritarian government that cracks down on dissent and acts decisively, appealed to Thackeray.
Sena backed the Congress in the 1977 elections. In the 1978 Assembly polls, it negotiated with Janata Party – which included the erstwhile Jan Sangh – but talks failed and Sena once again shifted to the Congress.
Cooperation with the Congress and differences with the BJP intensified between 1980 and 1982 when AR Antulay, a close friend of Thackeray, became chief minister of Maharashtra. Despite his pro-Hindutva views, Thackeray’s best equation among all Congress CMs of Maharashtra was with the state’s only Muslim CM – Antulay.
Thackeray broke his alliance with Congress soon after Antulay’s exit in 1982.
It was the prospect of losing the support of Mumbai’s Marathi-speaking working class after Datta Samant’s mill strike of 1982-83 and the rising communal atmosphere in rest of the country at the time, that compelled Sena to take a decisive shift towards Hindutva as its main political plank and also towards an alliance with the BJP.
Throughout mid and late 1980s and 1990s, Sena and BJP found a number of issues to make a common cause: the Shah Bano verdict, Ram Janmabhoomi agitation and rise of militancy in Kashmir. And the common theme in all of these was a clear anti-Muslim narrative that the two parties shared. The alliance led to their success in the 1995 Assembly elections in Maharashtra as well as the 1998 and 1999 Lok Sabha elections.
Who is the Real Hindu Hriday Samrat?
The BJP-Sena alliance worked nearly perfectly as long as the BJP was headed by Atal Bihari Vajpayee and Lal Krishna Advani and when Bal Thackeray was alive. Thackeray stood for a more strident version of Hindutva, much more vocally anti-Muslim, while Vajpayee projected a more moderate image. No one from the BJP, not even Advani, tried to challenge Thackeray’s image as the Hindu Hriday Samrat.
But one BJP leader emerged as a claimant to this title: Narendra Modi, after the 2002 anti-Muslim pogrom in Gujarat. Core Hindutva supporters often compared the two, saying that in 2002, Modi taught Muslims a lesson the way Thackeray had ten years earlier.
Bal Thackeray on his part never quite took a liking for Modi, partly due to the latter being a Gujarati. On one occasion the Sena supremo is known to have snubbed Modi for trying to present himself as Chhatrapati Shivaji.
Thackeray’s death in November 2012 left a vacuum for the Sena. The soft-spoken Uddhav Thackeray lacked the charisma and oratorical skills of his father. His more articulate cousin Raj Thackeray inherited Bal Thackeray’s oratory but left the party to form the MNS in 2006. Raj also diluted the Sena’s Hindutva thrust and instead focussed on Marathi ethno-nationalism.
Barely a month after Thackeray’s death, another major event took place: Modi won a third term as the chief minister of Gujarat. This made him the front runner to become the BJP’s prime ministerial candidate against an increasingly unpopular UPA government. After Thackeray’s death, Modi also became the undisputed Hindu Hriday Samrat.
This is when the seeds of discord were sown between the BJP and the Sena.
When the BJP was still trying to finalise a PM candidate in 2013, the Sena, particularly party MP Sanjay Raut, repeatedly said that Balasaheb Thackeray would have preferred Sushma Swaraj as the NDA’s face. This was a clear indication of the party’s discomfort with Modi.
Sena went with the BJP’s decision any way but it could not stop Modi and BJP’s near complete capture of the Hindutva space.
This also revealed the fragile nature of Shiv Sena’s Hindutva card compared to that of the BJP. Sena’s Hindutva was fundamentally dependent on the larger than life personality of Bal Thackeray, whereas the BJP’s Hindutva came from its RSS roots and an older and deeper ideological foundation.
New Power Equations
The BJP-Sena power equation fundamentally changed after Modi’s massive victory in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections and the subsequent appointment of Amit Shah as the party president.
Shah made it abundantly clear to the Sena that the BJP won’t be willing to play second fiddle in Maharashtra any longer. The party demanded an equal share of seats in the 2014 Assembly elections, which wasn’t acceptable to the Sena.
As a result, the two parties contested separately, which worked to the benefit of the BJP, which won 122 seats compared to the Sena’s 68. But the BJP was forced to take the Sena’s help to form the government. However, the NCP’s offer of support to the BJP reduced Sena’s bargaining power considerably.
The BJP refused to give Sena the deputy chief minister’s position, it denied the party key ministries like home, finance, revenue and public works.
But the slighting of the Sena wasn’t restricted to power-sharing. In an article in Hindustan Times, journalist Sudhir Suryawanshi writes, “Since 2014, the BJP leadership also stopped visiting Matoshree (the Thackeray residence) as much as they did earlier. During Bal Thackeray’s time, no deal with the Sena would happen without a visit to Matoshree. This change hurt Uddhav Thackeray’s ego.”
What made matters worse for Thackeray was the fact that the BJP leaders who acted as the bridge between the two parties, were no longer around. Pramod Mahajan, the architect of the Sena-BJP alliance, was killed in 2006 while Gopinath Munde, deputy CM in the Sena-BJP government between 1995 to 1999, died in a road accident in 2014.
Neither Modi or Shah, nor chief minister Devendra Fadnavis gave the Sena the kind of importance Mahajan and Munde used to.
Between 2014 and 2019, Sena spared no opportunity to criticise the BJP. Many believed that the party would quit the NDA in the run-up to the 2019 Lok Sabha polls but it didn’t happen. The Pulwama attack and Balakot strike gave Sena an excuse to stay on in the alliance by projecting it as being in the “national interest.”
Its hope was that the power equation with the BJP would change if the latter’s ally falls below the half-way mark of 272. But BJP won 303 seats and gave Sena just one Cabinet berth, the same as parties like Akali Dal and LJP, which had far lesser seats.
It became clear to Uddhav Thackeray that Sena would have to fight with the BJP to regain its self-respect.
BJP a Threat to Shiv Sena
Self-respect was only one part of the problem. The BJP under Modi and Shah had also become an existential threat to the Sena. This was particularly the case in urban areas.
Between 2009 and 2014, the Congress and NCP declined rapidly in urban areas in Maharashtra, but instead of the Sena, it was the BJP that gained most.
The BJP also became a threat to the Sena in its crown jewel – the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation. In the 2017 BMC elections, the Sena went up from 75 wards to 84 but the BJP went from 31 to 82, just two below the Sena. Before this, the BJP had never won more than 35 wards. This was a huge jump for the party.
With the Congress and NCP being predominantly rural parties, the Sena had never faced a major challenge in the BMC since 1997. But with the BJP’s meteoric rise in 2017, it became clear to the Sena that its citadel was in danger.
The Sena on its part also tried to damage the BJP in other states. In the 2015 Bihar elections, the Sena candidate in the Dinara Assembly seats polled enough votes to ensure the defeat of senior BJP leader and RSS favourite Rajendra Singh.
The Sena also drew blood in the Madhya Pradesh Assembly elections. It harmed the BJP’s chances in the Suswara seat in Mandusaur district and Nepanagar seat in Burhanpur district. Had the Sena not eaten into the BJP’s votes in these two seats, the gap between Congress and BJP would have been just 1 seat, instead of five.
Sena’s fears increased after the BJP’s victory in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, which included a near complete sweep of urban areas across the country.
Uddhav Thackeray felt that the only way Sena could prevent conceding further space to the BJP is to have a strong face in Maharashtra. As neither he nor his son Aaditya Thackeray had the persona of Balasaheb, which was essential to sustain a “power without political office” arrangement, it was felt that the only way out is to have a Shiv Sainik, preferably a Thackeray, on the CM’s chair.
The last hope for the alliance was the BJP agreeing to a rotational CM arrangement due to its below par performance in the recent Assembly polls. But the BJP’s firm refusal meant that the Sena had little option but to break the alliance. Continuing to work under the BJP would mean that the Sena would be subservient not just to Modi and Shah but to Fadnavis as well.
What becomes clear in the Sena’s political journey is that while the party is committed to Hindutva, its first priority is always to do whatever increases Matoshree’s influence. Be it the decision to support the Congress and not the Jan Sangh in the 1970s as well as Uddhav Thackeray’s exit from the NDA this month, the Sena’s main motivation is to preserve the Thackeray family’s power.
Even the decision to form an alliance with the BJP in the 1980s was as much driven by power politics as ideology.
Given this, it won’t be surprising if Uddhav Thackeray is able to arrive at a common ground with the NCP and the Congress to form a Sena-led government in Maharashtra. How the party will save its Hindutva credentials remains a question.
*(Taken from Bal Thackeray & The Rise of the Shiv Sena by Vaibhav Purandare)