Five decades after it came into being, where does the Shiv Sena stand today? The Sena, which turned a half-century on Sunday, is in power in Maharashtra, but as a junior partner; it controls the country’s richest civic body, Brihan-mumbai Municipal Corporation, and it has strength in smaller towns like Thane, Pune and Nashik. But how does this compare with other regional outfits like Trinamul Congress, TD and TN’s Dravidian parties? Has the Sena managed to fulfil the main objectives for which it was set up? On June 19, 1966, a group of people — 18, according to one account — gathered at Bal Thackeray’s home and broke a coconut, and the Sena was born.
It began as a movement to protect the rights of “sons of the soil”, Bombay’s Marathi-speaking people; it wanted them to get preference in public and private sector jobs. Other conditions were laid down for anyone to be part of the Sena: They had to take an oath that they would help each other, they wouldn’t sell property to a non-Marathi speaker, buy goods from Marathi shopkeepers and boycott Udupi restaurants (as South Indian restaurants were called). The oath for a sainik also included a resolve to learn English and “cast away laziness.”
Maharashtra was born in 1960 after a protracted bloody struggle, in which over 100 people died in police firing. Six years later, there was a growing feeling that Marathi speakers were still no better off and that “outsiders” were in control of the economy. High finance and petty trade were in the hands of Gujaratis, the restaurant business totally monopolised by South Indians and the private sector was a mix in which Maharashtrians got only the lowest jobs.
Soon, his storm troopers,began beating up lungiwallas (South Indians) and bhaiyyas (North Indians) as well as barging into offices demanding that Maharashtrians be hired. The Sena was also against Gujaratis and that faultline has remained to this day. Soon the Sena also began attacking Communists, who controlled the city’s mill workers’ class. It has long been said that the Sena was backed by Bombay’s capitalists who were afraid that a West Bengal-like situation would emerge in the nation’s commercial capital.
The Congress, under V.P. Naik, was happy to look the other way; and it may have even tacitly backed the Sena. The Sena grew from strength to strength, but it took three decades for it to win power at the state level. Though the party had captured the municipal corporation in the city, Bal Thackeray just couldn’t spread his network outside Bombay Even the victory in the state elections was in an alliance with the BJP. That has been a big failing of the Sena, that has remained a nativist party and not a bona fide regional one. It shifted from being just pro-Marathi to a Hindutva party in 1990s, but even that hasn’t yielded benefits in the hinterland.
There are many reasons for this, but put simply, the Sena has nothing to offer rural Maharashtra: its violent tactics of little use in places where the core issues are different. Under Bal Thackeray, the party continued to grow, but after he died political pundits felt his son Uddhav, an altogether less fiery personality, wouldn’t be able to keep the party intact; and there was a real danger that the flock would move in large numbers to cousin Raj Thackeray, who displayed all the aggression of his uncle. But Raj Thackeray flattered to deceive and the Shiv Sena under Uddhav Thackeray has held intact. He has shown keen political acumen and work under the BJP, that now dominates Maharashtra.
True to form, the Sena gets its own back by constantly sniping at its ally. But the satisfaction of hurling a barb can only be temporary. The Sena has to ask itself some fundamental questions: Are the state’s Marathi manoos better off than they were 50 years ago? Has the Sena got them a better deal? There’s a good chance the party will do well in the coming Mumbai civic elections. Any party must expand, otherwise it withers away. It can’t sit on past glories, nor keep deploying the same methods as it did years ago. Marathi youngsters want jobs, not promises.
The BJP is making inroads among the Marathi manoos and has been increasing its voteshare. Its success can only be at the Sena’s cost As it celebrates the past, the Sena would do well to start thinking of the future — does it want to remain a Mumbai-based party or turn into a serious political player whose voice counts beyond its own backyard....