Following the Election Commission of India’s (ECI) decision to freeze his party’s name and symbol, Uddhav Thackeray, 62, and the 55-year-old Shiv Sena face the biggest challenge they have ever faced.
Thackeray has been prevented from using the name of the party in its original form and its election symbol of three decades. The Shiv Sena as formed by its founder Bal Thackeray is not in existence now, albeit till the final decision is given by ECI on the petitions by the warring factions of the party.
The term ‘Shiv Sena’ has a resonance beyond the confines of Maharashtra, and is identified by its bow-and-arrow symbol. Popularising a new name and symbol will be a challenge for the party. Thackeray will have to go before the people with a modified name of the party and a new election symbol. And fight a rebel faction which is claiming to be the real Shiv Sena.
The split induced by chief minister Eknath Shinde, who toppled the Thackeray-led Maharashtra Vikas Aghadi (MVA) coalition is different from the previous dissensions in the Shiv Sena. Apart from walking out with 40 of the 55 MLAs and 12 of the 19 Lok Sabha MPs with the active support of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), Shinde has gone much beyond the damage caused by rebels like Chhagan Bhujbal (1991), Narayan Rane and Raj Thackeray (2005). He is trying to take over the party completely.
“There had been rebellions in the Sena in the past, but these rebels either merged with another party or formed their own outfits. They did not stake claim to the original party,” explained a senior Shiv Sena leader. “Now, we will have to fight on three fronts—in the courts, ECI and also among the people (during elections),” he added.
Things are pretty bad for the Thackeray faction. Majority of its MLAs and MPs have defected to the Shinde faction. Further, they will be backed by the BJP to defeat Sena in each and every election in their areas. The central and state governments are hostile to the party. The local body polls in most cities and districts, seen as a ’mini-assembly election’, are just a couple of months away and the Thackeray faction has to contest those elections with a new party name and a new symbol and without most of the leaders who were providing resources. A crushing defeat in these elections would make things worse for the Thackeray faction. Its traditional voter could turn its back to the party and most of its functionaries who are still sticking with Thackeray could find options.
While the party cadre would try and take the new name and symbol to the masses and also use social media for the purpose, this would be a challenge in rural areas and tribal pockets.
However, a Shiv Sena leader said the sympathy for Thackeray and the Shiv Sena would grow due to the perception that they were being victimised by the BJP using Shinde.
The Shiv Sena was born in 1966 as a reflection of the existential anxieties of the Marathi manoos in Mumbai. These anxieties have grown starker over the decades—ironically despite the presence of the Shiv Sena. The BJP, which is seen as the driving force behind Shinde’s rebellion, continues to be perceived as a party dominated by the non-Maharashtrians, mercantile interests and upper-castes, despite its horizontal and vertical expansion.
The interests of these core voters of the BJP are at odds with those of the Marathi working and middle classes, who often vote for the Sena with their feet. The shrinking of shared living spaces like chawls and lower-income housing has also affected the cultural osmosis and spatial integration among various linguistic, caste and religious denominations, while sharpening a sense of identity.
In the past, the Shiv Sena has emerged stronger each time it faced a crisis, as party veterans point out. Following a split caused by a rebellion led by Chhagan Bhujbal, the party came to power in 1995. Though Konkan strongman Narayan Rane quit the party in 2005, the Sena’s influence remained the same in the coastal region. In 2012, the Congress and the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) were in power and the Raj Thackeray-led Maharashtra Navnirman Sena (MNS) was on the ascendant. Then chief minister Prithviraj Chavan said that after the BMC elections that year, the Sena would become “inconsequential.” However, this led to the Shiv Sena cadre and supporters closing ranks and helping it retain power in India’s richest civic body, which is central to the party’s politics. In 2014, at the height of Modi wave, Uddhav Thackeray had to contest election on his own but he managed to win 61 seats and ultimately the BJP had to take Sena along to run the government.
A Sena worker, however, warned that neither Thackeray nor his son and Yuva Sena chief Aaditya Thackeray should be lulled into a sense of complacency by this sympathy, instead they must work on expanding and strengthening the party’s grassroots organisation.
Hemant Desai, a senior journalist and political analyst, said that the ECI’s decision and the perception that Shinde and the BJP were trying to usurp the Shiv Sena would help Thackeray and the Sena gain sympathy. “The Shiv Sena can put forth a perception that the institutions have been misused for this. Shinde has not gained substantially from this development. The challenge for the Shiv Sena, however, is to take the new name and symbol to the voters,” he said.