BJP looks to capture Sena’s political space
Maharashtra’s 2022 coup is a retaliation for the betrayal of 2019. Eknath Shinde may be the new CM but the real power will be with the BJP
Whoever becomes chief minister, the remote control will always be with me.” Sipping a glass of white wine while seated on a silver throne-like armchair, that was Shiv Sena supremo Bal Thackeray’s blunt response when asked whether his son, Uddhav, would be chief minister (CM) if the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-Shiv Sena alliance won the 2004 Maharashtra assembly elections. Less than 20 years later, not only has a Sena-led government unceremoniously collapsed, but even the “remote control” is moving out of Matoshree, the traditional den of the Thackerays, suggesting a serious existential crisis for a party that emerged in the 1960s from the womb of a populist “sons of the soil” movement for Maharashtrian asmita (self-respect).
The Sena’s predicament is partly that of any family-centric, regional party whose identity revolves around a larger than life individual: Once the founder withdraws, how do the successors ensure their supremacy? Even Naveen Patnaik’s Biju Janata Dal, often held up as an example of a successful dynastical handover, faces a future challenge: After Naveen babu, who? Only the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam has been able to ensure relative dominance in Tamil Nadu even after the demise of M Karunanidhi because its cadres have remained mostly intact.
The Sena also has a well-entrenched cadre-based shakha (branch) network, especially in Mumbai, but central to this arrangement was Bal Thackeray. The political cartoonist-turned-politician was sui generis: A rabble-rousing neta who never fought an election, the unquestioned supremo who presided over a loose mafia-like organisation, a demagogue who endorsed the politics of “thokshahi” (violent intimidation) while embodying regional and nationalist aspirations.
Under his charismatic leadership, the Sainiks built a reputation as Mumbai’s lumpenised street warriors: From south Indians to trade unionists to Muslims, the “enemy” figure changed over time, but not the party’s distinctive militant character. Unsurprisingly, the new CM and rebel Sena leader Eknath Shinde’s CV includes being part of a mob that set on fire a hospital where his mentor, Anand Dighe, died after an operation.
While the soft-spoken Uddhav and his missionary school-educated son, Aaditya, represent a more moderate, urbane face of Sena politics, the party’s core tigerish brand was never going to change its stripes overnight. When a Maharashtra politician couple was charged with sedition over their insistence on reciting the Hanuman Chalisa, the cadres were perplexed by the secular shift, a confusion exploited by family rebel, the mercurial Raj Thackeray. While Aaditya’s commitment to environmental causes is admirable, it hardly resonates with the Sena cadre, which would rather take up emotive issues linked to identity politics.
But this implosion is not just an ideological or generational battle within the Sena. The split in the party would not have taken place without the conscious attempt by the BJP to capture the Sena’s political space. When the Sena and the BJP first came together in 1988, the rules of engagement were clear. The Sena would get primacy in Maharashtra, the BJP would be the national player. The glue between the Marathi manoos party and the Hindi heartland outfit was the rising tide of Hindutva politics that offered the first real challenge to the Maratha-dominated Congress in Maharashtra. Before their alliance, both had single-digit vote shares in the state. Together, they formed a government for the first time in 1995.
But an alliance of political equals was disrupted after the death of Bal Thackeray in 2012, and the emergence of Narendra Modi a year later. By 2014, the “Modi-fied” BJP, buoyed by its Lok Sabha triumph, was confident enough to go it alone in Maharashtra. It was a political risk taken by then BJP president, Amit Shah, but one that was rewarded when the BJP became the single-largest party in the assembly and had its first CM in Devendra Fadnavis. When the Sena clawed back into a BJP-led government post-elections, it was with the gait of a wounded tiger.
The “betrayal” of 2019, when the Sena broke away from the BJP to form the Maharashtra Vikas Aghadi (MVA) government with the Nationalist Congress Party and Congress, was a “revenge” for losing out in 2014. The 2022 coup is now retaliation for the betrayal of 2019, achieved through a mix of allurement and coercion. Shinde is the face of the new government, but the puppeteers are in the BJP. The Enforcement Directorate, in particular, has been misused to settle scores. Those aligned to Uddhav are facing the full heat of the agency’s powers while the breakaway group is virtually guaranteed immunity, judging by the BJP’s “washing machine” track record.
The choices before the Thackerays, when confronted with the BJP’s undiluted political aggression, are limited. A return to a BJP-led alliance would be a loss of face, and acceptance of junior partner status, forever at risk of being swallowed by the national juggernaut. Sticking by the MVA means further erosion of its Hindutva plank. Going it alone means risking isolation. Ahead of crucial do or die Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation elections — the country’s richest civic corporation remains the Sena’s last fortress — the Thackerays can ill afford another misstep. At stake is not just a greatly diminished family legacy, but the party’s survival.
Post-script: In the 1990s, seat negotiations between the BJP and the Sena involved direct dealings between Bal Thackeray and the late Pramod Mahajan at Matoshree. Once when Thackeray was miffed, Mahajan had to spend hours assuaging him. So how did the Sena chieftain eventually relent? “I gave him a box of his favourite imported Cuban cigars!” said the BJP leader. Times sure have changed.
Rajdeep Sardesai is a senior journalist and authorThe views expressed are personal