With each passing day, Shiv Sena leader and cabinet minister Eknath Shinde’s rebellion, With a large number of MLAs from Maharashtra’s ruling party, it seems to be growing in magnitude. What seemed like an internal skirmish at first has now become a high-voltage political drama, pointing towards a deep-rooted crisis in the state government led by the Maha Vikas Aghadi (MVA), and more significantly in the internal working of the Shiv Sena.
The crisis is neither a complete surprise nor a phenomenon in the Shiv Sena. It is an outcome of some of the key challenges that the party has been facing over the last in general and during its tenure decade as part of the MVA in particular. I want to look at three such key challenges here: The fizzling out of the “idea of Sena”, BJP’s aggressive attempts to reclaim power in the state, and the disagreements between the alliance partners in the MVA.
When Uddhav Thackeray took over the reins of the Shiv Sena during the 1990s, he brought about a substantial transformation in the party’s working. Despite being Bal Thackeray’s son and heir, Uddhav’s style of leadership is distinctly different from his late father’s. A large part of the success the Shiv Sena got as a movement and party in the initial years stemmed from Bal Thackeray’s charismatic leadership, his aggressive stance and his emphasis on actionism. Uddhav’s ways were more systematic and moderate and, unlike Bal Thackeray, he did not manage to project himself as a mass leader.
The very idea of the Sena, which relied heavily on violence, street politics and espousal of aggressive nativism and Hindutva through the party’s grassroot network of shakhas began fizzling out with Uddhav stepping in. Old Shiv Sainiks, who were trained to do things on the ground rather than think and deliberate, struggled to find relevance in the Sena’s changing avatar. The conflict between the old and new Sena that stems from this confrontation of ideas, ideologies and leadership traits only grew with time. It became a key reason for the likes of Shinde to publicly express their discontent with the party they once identified with.
The induction of Aaditya Thackeray and the young and elite men and women who entered with him ruffled some old feathers and underlined the sentiment that the Sena was changing. Sena’s internal demography has changed substantially since then as English-speaking, affluent people gain prominence in day-to-day decision-making, as opposed to the ordinary Sainiks working at the shakha level in Mumbai and elsewhere. This has two ramifications. One, senior leaders find their position weakened within the organization and two, at the grassroots, with the decreasing autonomy and power to shakhas, local networks of brokerage and patronage are affected, causing distress among party workers. Even as Aaditya attempted to put governance first while tackling fundamental issues of health, education and environment, his failure to convey his ideas at the grassroots seems to have led to a disconnect further between the old and new Sena.
The Sena’s decision to become a part of the MVA government in 2019, parting ways with saffron partner BJP, created further resentment among its senior leaders. Even with Uddhav Thackeray at the helm as chief minister, there has been growing anger among Sena leaders as they allege that the NCP and the Congress got a larger share of the pie. There was a feeling that power-sharing was unfair, with the NCP getting to keep some of the prominent portfolios such as Home and Finance. Eknath Shinde, in particular, faced a big blow after Uddhav Thackeray decided to take up his chief ministerial role while retaining his post as Sena Pramukh, thus closing all doors for Shinde’s further elevation within the party and government.
Uddhav’s elevation as CM also made him even more inaccessible for Sena leaders and grassroot Shiv Sainiks, mainly because he was engaged in handling the catastrophic effects of the Covid-19 pandemic for a substantial period of his tenure. The disconnect has been particularly felt by leaders from rural and mofussil areas of Maharashtra who now claim that they were supported by Shinde as they could not reach the Thackerays when they needed them most. Shinde seems to have systematically tapped into this anxiety and strengthened his own support base by combining street politics and optics. His espousal of late Anand Dighe, a popular Sena leader from Thane and the recent release of ‘Dharmaveer’, a film that glorifies the life and politics of Dighe, seem like conscious attempts to create this narrative of old vs new Sena. His rebellion seems to be an attempt to challenge the dominance of the Thackeray brand and appropriate the symbols of Shiv Sena, with the BJP’s strong support.
In the last two years, the BJP has made conscious attempts to tap into the insecurities of Sena leaders and aid its aggressive attempts to reclaim power in Maharashtra. Like in many other parts of the country, its alleged use of central agencies to further this agenda seems to play a key role even in the case of the recent Sena rebellion. Among those who have joined the rebel camp are Pratap Sarnaik, who was recently under the ED scanner in connection with a money laundering case and Yamini Jadhav, the wife of Yashwant Jadhav, former Sena corporator and four-time chairman of the Standing Committee of Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation, who was summoned by the ED earlier this year in a Foreign Exchange Management Act violation case. Even as most MLAs claim that they want the Sena to go with the BJP because of the Hindutva factor, the security that comes along with such a deal seems to be a key determinant in their decision to join the Shinde fold.
Very soon, we will know whether Shinde’s rebellion is powerful enough to topple the government and snatch power from the Uddhav-led Sena. For now, it is crucial to see whether the Sena can revive its very idea and ideology and garner support from its grassroot Sainiks to keep itself relevant in the state’s political canvas. The scenes outside Matoshree when Uddhav Thackeray moved his base there from his official residence on Wednesday, sent a clear message: Whether the government stays in power or not, the idea of the Sena is too strong to be uprooted overnight.
The writer is a researcher at the University of Mumbai. His doctoral work looks at the journey of Shiv Sena between 1985 and 2022