Maha politics has entered a new phase
Uddhav Thackeray’s ideological options are limited — he cannot move to the Right because hardliner Shinde will have him outflanked. His only option appears to be to stick to his moderate Hindutva message, hark back to his father’s legacy, and position himself as a servant of the Marathi manoos
For more than a century, Maharashtra has been the battleground for two competing ideological currents. It was the virtual birthplace of modern Hindu nationalism with popular leaders such as Bal Gangadhar Tilak and VD Savarkar building the ideological foundation of Right-wing politics. Further, with the establishment of KB Hedgewar’s Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) in 1925, a disciplined cadre-based organisation emerged to help instil the ideas of militant Hindu nationalism among the masses. But the state is also a fountain of rationalist, progressive, reformist politics, with the powerful legacy of Shivaji Maharaj, Mahatma Jyotiba Phule and BR Ambedkar.
In the post-Independence churn, Right-wing forces found themselves squeezed. The Jana Sangh, seen as a Brahmin-Bania party, had little success. It was only in 1966, with the arrival of the maverick Bal Thackeray that Right-wing ideology found a firm footing in the state. The Sena quickly became popular among unemployed young men and small-time toughs, many of whom acted as strike-breakers during a wave of union shutdowns in the city’s industrial heartland. To many, the Sena was a B-team of the Congress that helped the Maratha-dominated ruling party curb the influence of trade unions.
In the 80s, the Sena reinvented itself — this time as a front for the average Marathi manoos (human), forging a muscular Marathi identity, using the emotive image of Shivaji that helped draw smaller backward groups and Kunbi Marathas, who believed the party represented its regional and cultural ethos. At the same time, towards the middle of the decade, it pivoted to Hindutva (which handed its cadre an emotive pitch for the masses) and started building a grassroots network that helped galvanise its connection with the working classes. In Mumbai, especially, the Sena ran an almost parallel government through its shakhas, mass organisations, social clubs and cultural units — this network helped it keep its citadel safe even after Bal Thackeray’s demise in 2012.
It is against this backdrop that allegations of the Shiv Sena, under Uddhav Thackeray, having deviated from its militant ideology must be evaluated. As evidenced by its journey, the Sena has always shown a nuanced understanding of political ideology and adopted pragmatic and even paradoxical strategies to build a powerful regional organisation, mainly to serve the interests of the poor Marathi working class and the the backward communities in the Maratha fold.
Admiring the Sena’s creative strategies to engage and mobilise poorer sections, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) made overtures to Bal Thackeray in the early 90s. The alliance appeared natural, but as assembly elections since 2014 have shown, it did not benefit the Sena, which remained locked in the Mumbai-Thane-Konkan belt, and some pockets in Aurangabad.
With Uddhav Thackeray’s resignation this week, the political turmoil in Maharashtra has entered a new phase. The BJP has cleverly appointed rebel Sena leader Eknath Shinde as the chief minister (CM) and asked Devendra Fadnavis to serve as his deputy. With this move, the BJP has moved to erase its image as a party opposed to Maratha interests — remember that Fadnavis faced strident protests for Maratha reservation towards the last two years of his tenure, and the Marathas, who comprise about a third of the state and form as high as 40% of the electorate in large swathes of western Maharashtra, were angry that a Brahmin was made the CM by the BJP — and sought to project Shinde, a Maratha, as the Hindutva face in the state.
As the dominant community in the state, Marathas are largely divided into three sections: The affluent, ruling class, the well-off, but largely agrarian, landholding group and the poorer, landless underbelly. The first group has always backed the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP), whose strongholds are in the rural areas. The second and third groups are party-agnostic, but have started to slowly move from the Congress-NCP alliance towards the BJP. With Shinde’s support, the BJP believes that it can turn the tide and bring backward Maratha votes to itself. Add that to its already sizeable base among other backward class (OBC) communities — which helped it sweep the Marathwada and Vidarbha regions in 2014 and 2019 — and the BJP is close to becoming a pan-Maharashtra party in a state where it had only an uneven presence a decade ago.
What about Uddhav Thackeray? He walked out of the National Democratic Alliance in 2019, trying to offer a moderate version of Hindutva politics and reinvent the Sena’s lost legacy of being a pragmatic organisation committed to the majority Marathi public. He spoke almost exclusively in Marathi, and tried to position the Sena as a progressive regional force, centred around the ideas of social justice, good governance and strong leadership. His ideological options are limited — he cannot move to the Right because hardliner Shinde will have him outflanked. His only option appears to be to stick to his moderate Hindutva message, hark back to his father’s legacy, and position himself as a servant of the Marathi manoos. Whether this will work will be seen in September, when Mumbai votes in the municipal polls. For now, the BJP is in the driver’s seat.
Harish Wankhede teaches at Jawaharlal Nehru University
The views expressed are personal