BJP-Shiv Sena Ties: A Brewing ‘Saffron vs Saffron’ Battle
Image used for representational purposes.
Image used for representational purposes.(Photo: Erum Gour / The Quint)

BJP-Shiv Sena Ties: A Brewing ‘Saffron vs Saffron’ Battle

Uddhav Thackeray, steering the course of the 52-year-old Shiv Sena and setting its compass for the next decade, is not a great fan of Shakespeare’s work. Yet, the classic dilemma from Hamlet – “To be, or not to be...” – best describes his political predicament of the last four years. And underscores his Dussehra speech at Mumbai’s famed Shivaji Park.

Caught in the dilemma of whether to be an ally or adversary to the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), Thackeray dialed back to the Sena’s agenda of the 1980s – belligerent and confrontational Hindutva.

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What the Dussehra Speech Was Meant to Be

Since the late 1980s, the Shiv Sena was in the driver’s seat of the anti-Congress forces, the hub around which right-of-centre parties in Maharashtra gravitated, never mind that the Congress had a subtle role in the Sena’s early growth. The BJP was a bit player, adding to Thackeray’s belligerence or providing him the cover of sophistication as required, content to be the younger brother to Sena’s “big brother”.

This equation reflected in their seat allocations during elections, vote percentages, and the influence and visibility they enjoyed in the public domain. Neither Pramod Mahajan’s death in 2006 nor Bal Thackeray’s passing away six years later changed it.

In 2014, the equation of the 25-year-old alliance was ruthlessly reframed by Narendra Modi and Amit Shah, relegating the Sena to the margins.

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The BJP riding the pro-Modi wave challenged the Sena, did better at the hustings. Six months later, on the eve of Maharashtra Assembly election, it pulled the plug on the alliance, leaving Uddhav Thackeray and the Sena with a sense of great betrayal and electoral test. He led his party to a neck-and-neck situation with the buoyant BJP, enough to ensure that Modi-Shah could not form the state government without his party.

Since then, Thackeray’s chosen men have shared power at the Centre and in the state, but he has also essayed the role of the opposition leader, calling out Prime Minister Modi on governance, or throwing the gauntlet to Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis on state issues.

Uddhav Thackeray’s Dussehra speech, an annual tradition since his father addressed the first rally at Shivaji Park in 1966, was supposed to be the pointer to the resolution of his dilemma. It was supposed to declare to the cadre – restless and anxious Shiv Sainiks – which way to head as 2019 elections dawn.

Uddhav Thackeray Wants to ‘Go Solo’ in 2019

Thackeray’s 48-minute speech – middling in its content, delivered with attempted bombast, devoid of dramatic flourishes or hold-your-breath announcements – left Sainiks and listeners confused on this issue. Thackeray has either not resolved the dilemma yet, or he isn’t letting on.

He wants to go solo in the 2019 general elections. But he did not say a word about walking out of either government. He launched a tirade against Prime Minister Modi, Devendra Fadnavis and Amit Shah on a number of issues.

But he did not clearly call for ousting the governments. He criticised the governments for their decisions but did not explain why Sena’s ministers in those cabinets did not protest at the appropriate time. He avowed that the Shiv Sena’s “bhagwa” (saffron flag) will fly in Delhi and Mumbai next year. But he did not say how that would be possible when the party does not have a pan-India presence.

He touched on the duality, the non-tenability, of his being simultaneously an ally and an opposition-like voice. But he only asked a rhetorical question: should he remain silent even as his government conducts itself in an anti-people manner. That is neither here nor there.

Thackeray Didn’t Hesitate to Mock Modi & Shah in His Speech

In the end, it did not matter that Thackeray lambasted the government on issues: for the “lootmaar” they have got from fuel prices burdening the common man; for the snap decision on demonetisation and hollow claims for rooting out black money; for the tardy handling of farm crisis and Maharashtra’s drought; for the slide in the rupee (“Pramod Mahajan asked me what I dream for India when a dollar cost Rs 37, I said I wanted the reverse. Now it’s double that and Modi is perhaps waiting for it to be Rs 150 a dollar”); for Modi’s inability to rescind Article 370; for his government’s directionless policy on relations with Pakistan (“soldiers die…but the PM goes to cut a birthday cake”), and so on.

It also did not matter much that Thackeray mocked Modi and Shah at various junctures of his speech, in a manner that even opposition leaders in Maharashtra hesitate to.

Sample these. “There was a “hawa” (wave) in 2014; that is no longer around, the atmosphere has changed”, or “in the country’s horoscope, Shani and Mangal have become maleficent; we know how to straighten them out”, or “You are said to be Vishnu’s 11th avatar, but you cannot control and bring down prices?” or “You travel all around the world and because of you I learned about hitherto unheard of countries on the world map, but you couldn’t travel to Ayodhya?”, or “What is the meaning of asserting that they will be in power for 50 years when the Pradhan Sevak and mukhya sevaks (chief ministers) have to criss-cross states to win elections?”

Only ‘Half a Threat’

Thackeray hit out as hard as he could have, but the barbs did not really hurt. He threw not a dare, but what might be called ‘half a dare’. Half a challenge. Half a threat. That, for the 2019 election, is not good enough. Sitting in the government, yet opposing it seems like a fixed match. Devoid of strong content, characteristic bombast, and risqué language that Shiv Sainiks are used to hearing from Thackeray’s father, Uddhav sounded tired or acting out his part.

He did not once tell his cadre “let’s get rid of these governments, do what you can but they should go” or lines to that effect.

And, the dilemma hung heavy. Together, it explains why he went back to the tried-and-tested agenda – Hindutva.

Thackeray’s choicest words and strongest emotions were reserved for this theme. He declared that he would personally head to Ayodhya on 25 November, take the mahants and saints into confidence, and get started on building the Ram Mandir. “Will you build it or should we,” he demanded to know from Prime Minister Modi, “if the Ram Mandir promise was also a jumla, then the Shiv Sena will gather every Hindu of the country to do that… (Then) this isn’t an NDA sarkar, there’s something wrong with its DNA”.

“Get Ready for Action”, Hindutvawaadis

That he specifically pointed out to the BJP that “no party had sole proprietorial rights over the Hindu community” meant he was upping the Hindutva agenda for his own party and throwing another half-dare to his ally.

Contained in it was also a message to Shiv Sainiks who have been rather upset at the inaction, the softening as it were, of their party: get ready for action. When the Babri masjid was demolished, Shiv Sena was there, he reminded them. “When leaders had gotten scared of the consequences, Balasaheb was the only one to proudly declare that his boys had brought down the dome… similarly in the early 90s, he was the one who without fear popularised the slogan ‘Garv se kaho hum Hindu hain’, Sena made sure that Hindus survived and were awakened,” he said.

Thackeray Senior’s “flaming Hindutva” was the theme that the Sena migrated to once the sons-of-the-soil and anti-south Indian planks wore out in a rapidly changing Bombay of the 1980s.

Within Maharashtra, the word and its connotations were associated with Savarkar. Outside the state, radical so-called fringe groups of the sangh parivar used to speak it. But not the BJP.

Well before the BJP embraced Hindutva, the Shiv Sena had. In the 1987 by-election in Bombay’s suburb of Vile Parle, campaigning for his candidate Ramesh Prabhoo, Thackeray Senior had thundered on about the need for Hindus to unite and about Hindutva being the lode star of the country. That speech was challenged on electoral malpractice grounds under the Representation of People’s Act, and the Supreme Court later had handed down a six-year ban to him.

But it had caught popular imagination. Pramod Mahajan then took it to his party’s national executive, LK Advani’s rath yatra was conceptualised and realised, and the rest is divisive and bloody history. This “flaming Hindutva” is what Uddhav wants to return to. In 2018, caught in the dilemma that he is, it will be his best bet in the election, he reckons.

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A Return to Flaming Hindutva

That the RSS Chief Mohan Bhagwat asked Modi’s government to bring in a law to build Ram Mandir in his Vijaya Dashami speech, may have taken some wind from Thackeray’s sail. But to his cadre and the public, he made his side clear on an issue that will, unfortunately but in all probability, dominate the next election. He could have upped the ante on any issue but he chose the Mandir issue.

This issue, complete with its emotiveness and throwback to “the good times of Sena” is likely to energise the party’s cadre more than price rise or farmers’ plight. This return to “flaming Hindutva” has already showed up in posters across Mumbai and other cities, of Ram as the warrior god, with Sena’s symbol, bow-arrow, prominently featuring on them.

The party has attempted to bring small pro-Hindutva or pro-Mandir groups on its side. Thackeray met Janmejay Sharanji Maharaj, chief of Ram Janmabhoomi trust, earlier this month. The culmination will be his visit to Ayodhya.

“The bow-and-arrow is ours,” he told his audience of nearly a lakh, “it does not require a 56-inch chest, it requires strong wrists/hands, and we have them.” The game is here is to be the “better” or more aggressive Hindu, to demonstrate a deeper shade of saffron.

Maharashtra is likely to witness saffron versus saffron battles, even if the BJP and Sena handshake an alliance for the elections next year.

(Smruti Koppikar, Mumbai-based senior journalist and columnist, has written extensively on politics, cities and gender. The views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)

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