Debating India

Muscle power and parochial projects


Friday 23 April 2004, by KATAKAM*Anupama

"THE Shiv Sena will not allow India-Pakistan cricket matches in the country if Pakistan continues to encourage cross-border terrorism," thundered party supremo Bal Thackeray at the start of the Bharatiya Janata Party-Shiv Sena alliance’s election campaign on March 28, in Mumbai.

in Mumbai

"We have given the green signal to Pakistan’s proposed cricket tour to India, but only if the Indian cricketers return home safely. My strength is my Shiv Sainiks, who queered pitches in the past to oppose Indian-Pakistan cricket matches. I will continue fighting like this if they continue cross-border terrorism. Let cricket be played at the other end." These statements could be dismissed as being made in Thackeray’s usual bombastic style. Yet, they are indicative of how strongly the Sena chief believes that he and his band of followers have the power to hold the country to ransom.

From being a regional political party fighting the cause of the Maharashtrians in Mumbai, the Shiv Sena has grown into a major player in national politics. Although its strategic tie-up with the BJP gave the Shiv Sena the impetus required to enter the national fray, it has proved that it can win seats on its own steam, making it a valuable partner for the BJP. For instance, in the 1999 general elections, of the 48 Lok Sabha seats in Maharashtra, the Shiv Sena-BJP combine won 28, of which the Shiv Sena secured 15.

The Sena’s political base was essentially confined to Mumbai and its voters were traditionally middle-class Maharashtrians. However, over the past decade the Shiv Sena has made considerable inroads into all the six regions of the State and into neighbouring States. An indication of the extent of its spread is available from the fact that the Shiv Sena has put up candidates from three constituencies in northern Karnataka, two in Goa and one in Dadra & Nagar Haveli. One of the main reasons why the Shiv Sena aligned with the BJP, it is argued, is that it wanted to work its way into the north of India, particularly Uttar Pradesh. While the Shiv Sena and the BJP are cognisant of their need for each other, the dynamics of the relationship seem to be changing. The Shiv Sena has begun to let the BJP know about its not wanting to play "small brother" anymore. Cracks in the relationship appeared in July 2003, when Sanjay Nirupam, Rajya Sabha member of the Shiv Sena, told Parliament that some officials in Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s office had arm-twisted former Unit Trust of India Chairman P. Subramanyam into advancing money to certain companies. Stunned by the charge, Vajpayee announced that he would resign, but he was persuaded by senior colleagues to change his mind. Although Thackeray did a complete volte-face on the issue later, the fact of the matter is that the Shiv Sena was miffed at the BJP’s reluctance to support its bid to overthrow the Democratic Front government led by the Congress(I) and the Nationalist Congress Party in the State. According to Shiv Sena general secretary Subash Desai, the party has been opposing the National Democratic Alliance government’s privatisation plans and the changes made by it in the labour policy. "Our loyalty is towards the employees and we need to ensure their safety," he told Frontline. "We hold a few key positions in the NDA government, the most prominent being the position of Lok Sabha Speaker held by Manohar Joshi. This allows us to believe that the NDA will take us seriously." But more important, the Shiv Sena has begun to realise that it has enough bargaining power with the BJP because Maharashtra has the second highest number of Lok Sabha seats after Uttar Pradesh. Without the support of the Shiv Sena, the BJP would only have a slim chance of retaining the same number of seats it won in the State last time.

WHEN the Shiv Sena was launched in 1966, it had a simple programme aimed at a limited constituency: the reservation of jobs and economic opportunities for Maharashtrians in Mumbai. At the time Mumbai was reeling from an overhaul in its economic set-up. Says Jayant Lele, a political sociologist: "the underside of State-sponsored private capitalist development, extortion, smuggling, drug-trafficking and contraband peddling had begun to emerge... For residents of relatively homogeneous Maharashtrian white-collar neighbourhoods, these changes on the socio-cultural scene were peripheral and yet potentially threatening. When the Sena promised to wipe out gangsterdom, it struck a sympathetic chord." Meanwhile, says Lele, the noticeable presence of South Indians in clerical and lower management jobs as well as small businesses began to irk the local Mumbaiite. Urged on by Thackeray, the Sainiks led a series of attacks on the South Indian and Gujarati communities and in the process won over the Maharashtrians.

By the early 1970s, the Sena had grown into a fairly strong political party. After winning the Municipal Corporation elections of 1968 and 1973, it began to set its sights on the State Assembly. Exploiting the crises in the State’s textile mills during the 1970s, the Shiv Sena entrenched itself in a terrain that was once -dominated by the Left. The Sena’s candidate from Mumbai South Central, which is largely populated by mill workers and Maharashtrians with average incomes, has periodically won elections to both the Assembly and Parliament.

According to Lele, in its early years, the Sena showed few signs of possessing a clear ideology, except for its strong anti-communism. "The Shiv Sena opposed every variety of the Left and supported all shades of the Right, making its allegiance quite clear," Lele explained. Yet, if it benefited the Sena, it would agree to work with "centrist" parties like the Congress (I) or even the socialists. The Shiv Sena’s decisive shift to Hindutva came in 1984, when it allied with the BJP over the Ram Mandir issue. Says Nikhil Wagle, Editor of Mahanagar, an evening newspaper based in Mumbai: "At that time the Sena was on a downward spiral. It needed to attach itself to some popular slogan to resurrect itself." Wagle, who has been tracking the growth of the Sena feels that "the Hindutva agenda was convenient" for the Shiv Sena. For it, "Maharashtrians = Hindus = Hindutva," he says.

Today, the Shiv Sena believes that it is the upholder of Hindutva. In fact, Bal Thackeray likes to call himself the "Hindu Hriday Samrat", the emperor of Hindu hearts. Over three decades the Shiv Sena has evolved into a fundamentalist organisation whose leader never fails to use an opportunity to attack minority communities, particularly Muslims. Often calling them outsiders and threats to the nation, the Shiv Sena managed to portray itself as a righteous vigilante organisation, always on the alert to protect Hindu interests. By playing the Hindutva card whenever it can and regularly stirring up communal trouble in sensitive areas, the Shiv Sena has widened its net.

THACKERAY’S fascist characteristics are well known. A cartoonist by profession, Thackeray, who lived in the Marathi-speaking area of Dadar in Mumbai, became immensely popular after he started using his skill to depict the anger, disappointment and distress that prevailed in his community. Moreover he writes vitriolic prose and is a provocative orator. Ever since his first public appearance, Thackeray has proved to be a huge crowd puller. His fire-and-brimstone speeches laced with fundamentalist statements, saffron attire, and show of Tiger and Shivaji symbols, have given him an almost cult-like status.

Thackeray took a page out of the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS) handbook and forged his party into a cadre-based organisation. The Shiv Sena has about 230 shakhas across Mumbai. Inspite of the Sena’s reputation as a party prone to violence, inspite of it being implicated in several cases, never has the party leadership been hauled up by the judiciary. The party continues to use muscle power to pursue its agenda. Thousands of unemployed, disillusioned youth have found the organisation a comfortable place to belong to and hence the Sena cadre is constantly strengthened.

The Sena has a notorious track record - it was involved in the 1992-93 Mumbai riots; was responsible for beating up Biharis who came to Mumbai to give the Railway Recruitment Board examinations; and is known to attack north Indian fishermen. But in an effort to mend its political image before the elections the Shiv Sena is trying hard to distance itself from its earlier actions. The "Mee Mumbaikar" project is one for this purpose. The Sena has decided to modify the slogan and use it to reposition itself as a party that works towards the best interests of Mumbai. Thackeray has even announced that it is important for Hindus to be united in order to take on the "rising threat of Islam and Muslims".

The party stayed away from the controversy over James Laine’s book on Shivaji. As self-appointed guardians of the Maratha warrior king, the Sainiks would have been the first to target the author and the Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute in Pune, which allegedly helped Laine with his research. They have, however, shrewdly tied-up with the Maratha Mahasangh, who were responsible for the vandalism, with the Maratha vote in mind. Usually, it is the NCP that wins the votes of this community. In an effort to woo the Dalit vote, the Shiv Sena has called for

`Bhim Shakti’ (represented by Dalit parties) to unite with `Shiv Shakti’ (represented by the Shiv Sena). Known for its hostility towards Dalits and Dr. B.R. Ambedkar, this time the Shiv Sena is leaving no stone unturned.

Apparently, this election will test whether the Sena chief’s son Uddhav Thackeray has the capacity to take over his father’s mantle. Clearly, the Sena nurtures the ambition to become a major player and will go to any length to achieve it. But the Sena’s future hinges on the relationship between Uddhav Thackeray and his cousin Raj Thackeray. There are rumours of a rift between the two after the latter’s hopes of being anointed Bal Thackeray’s heir came to nought.

See online : Frontline


in Frontline, volume 21 - Issue 08, April 10 - 23, 2004.

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