In his first visit to Ayodhya since he became chief minister of Maharashtra, Eknath Shinde, on Sunday, 9 April, tried to impress on everyone that his Shiv Sena is through and through a Hindutva party.
"Ram temple and Ayodhya are not a political issue for the Bharatiya Janata Party and Shiv Sena. It is an issue that is close to our heart, it's about our faith and emotions," he said.
Shinde claimed that his faction was carrying forward the ideology of the Shiv Sena founder Balasaheb Thackeray, saying that it was a dream of Thackeray to see the Ram temple being constructed.
"After waiting for 500 years, it feels like a dream. Everyone wanted the Ram temple. It was the dream of our Hindu hriday samrat Balasaheb Thackeray. It was the dream of lakhs and crores of Hindutva believers and Ram bhakts. This Ayodhya, this Ram temple is the emblem of Hindutva."– Eknath Shinde
Shinde rebelled against the party chief and then CM Uddhav Thackeray in 2022 claiming that the Thackeray scion had betrayed his father's ideology and compromised his politics by aligning with the Congress and the Nationalist Congress Party. Shinde gave an ideological and moral foundation to his rebellion by accusing Uddhav of moving away from Hindutva and styled himself and his party as the preservers of it.
When Shinde parted ways with Thackeray and aligned with the BJP, he did not have a statewide presence, nor was he known as a particularly articulate politician. He became the leader of a party by accident and had to suddenly figure out the identity of that party.
When you defect from a party to form your own, you are forced to carve out an identity in opposition to the older party and its leaders. Shinde faction chose to base this opposition on the plank of Hindutva and to a lesser extent the dynastic politics of the original Shiv Sena.
Shinde embraced the Hindutva ideology wholeheartedly. He makes a mention of it on a regular basis and doesn't tire of accusing Thackeray of giving it up for personal gains. In the process, he has also become more and more articulate about it. So much so that one wouldn't be faulted for mistaking him for a BJP leader.
"Some people have allergy of Hindutva. After independence, some people have intentionally been insulting Hindutva, misleading people about it. Hindutva, Hindu religion is a way of life. Hindu religion means tolerance."– Eknath Shinde
Shinde has been attempting to establish his Shiv Sena as a Hindutva party. When Congress leader Rahul Gandhi took a dig at VD Savarkar recently, Shiv Sena and the BJP took out Savarkar Gaurav Yatras across Maharashtra. "I am a Gandhi and not Savarkar and Gandhis do not apologise," Rahul had said.
Shinde lashed out at Gandhi vehemently in response to this statement and also targeted Uddhav for his alliance with the Congress. He also enthusiastically participated in the Savarkar rallies.
Shiv Sena has offered tacit support to the statewide Hindu nationalist rallies under the banner of Sakal Hindu Samaj, which have been raising widely debunked issues such as "land jihad" and "love jihad." The party leaders such as Sandipan Bhumare, Atul Save and Pradeep Jaiswal have been in attendance in these rallies and Shinde as chief minister has taken no action against the organisers of these rallies, nor the speakers who have indulged in hate speech in these forums.
More and more, Shiv Sena's programme seems indistinguishable from the BJP. The way Shinde has been fashioning the ideology of his party, it seems like an imitation of the BJP. He also effusively praises Prime Minister Narendra Modi on almost every occasion, resembling a BJP leader.
So then the question arises, what is it that distinguishes Shiv Sena from the BJP? Does it have a programme of its own, an ideology that gives it a distinct identity?
Shinde may not have to answer these questions right now when he is the chief minister and his party is ruling the state. However, when he goes to the people of Maharashtra for votes during the elections, he will have to make sure voters do not look at his party as a cheap copy of the saffron party.
If Shinde fails in that, it will not be difficult for the BJP to encroach on its territory and wipe it out of Maharashtra's map as has been predicted by multiple political commentators.