Bal Thackeray's party: Shifting alliances, single agenda

Bal Thackeray
"Aawaj Kunacha? Shiv Senecha." It translates into, "Who's got the voice? Shiv Sena."

It's a slogan that people across Maharashtra easily connect with the Shiv Sena. Whatever its ideology — hardline, Hindutva-oriented, Pakistan-hating, right-wing ideology, sons-of-the-soil — the Shiv Sena always made noises that were always loud and clear.

Formed in 1966, the Shiv Sena (literary Shivaji's army) raised a voice for Marathis in demanding jobs, fighting for their rights in governance, and addressing their issues with a strong dose of identity politics. The party, which is largely authoritative in nature, has been dominated and single-handedly run by cartoonist and leader Bal Thackeray. Aggressive, often violent and diehard, party workers would be ready to take to the streets on the call of their chief.

"It is very much an individual-centric party, an informal monolithic structure, with an urban focus and close geographical connections with dominant Marathi middle-class localities," says B Venkateshkumar, political scientist with the Tata Institute of Social Sciences. "The good part of the single authority was the formation of a disciplined and focused cadre but the flip side was that it left little room for democracy and dialogue."

The party today has 28 wings and organs, Thackeray's son Uddhav as executive president to handle its daily affairs, 10 leaders and a very close-knit party cadre, connected through the unique concept of shakhas. Each locality of Mumbai has a shakha, headed by the shakha pramukh who is the most prominent contact point between the party and the citizen. Sena workers have climbed the ladder within the party from this basic post to become MLAs.

As the time came for the ageing Thackeray to name a heir, he chose son Uddhav over active nephew Raj. In 2003, during a party session at Mahabaleshwar, a new post as working president was created and Uddhav appointed. Two years later, Raj quit to launch a rival party, picking up the Sena's agenda and stealing part of its vote bank.

Over the years, the death or exit of several influential leaders has affected the party to a large extent. The Sena today faces the challenge of holding on to its old-time loyalists and attracting young urban recruits, and launched the family's third generation with this in mind. Uddhav's son Aaditya was introduced as the Yuva Sena chief two years ago.

The party has had an interesting journey of alignments, once supporting Congress in a bid to oppose Left groups and increase its grip among workers at mills and offices, and then tagging the Hindutva line and being a staunch ally of the BJP.

In 1960-70, the Sena viciously targeted South Indians, calling them derogatory names. Thackeray spearheaded attacks on restaurants and theatres screening films by South Indian producers. Thackeray's slogans such as "Lungi hatao, pungi bajao" went with the sons-of-the-soil agenda.

In 1973, Thackeray announced a working committee of ten members. In 1976, a Sena constitution was formed and an executive body of 13 members named. "The party believes in a common civil code for citizens irrespective of caste, creed, etc", states the constitution, and, it "supports three language formula". The Shiv Sena pramukh (chief) "shall be the highest capital authority of the party and his decisions in all matters concerning the party policy and administration shall be final". The pramukh "can at any given time he desires delegate his powers/authority to the working president".

Despite electoral successes, especially in local body elections, it was only in October 1989 that the party applied for recognition as political party with the Election Commission.

Within a year of its formation, Sena contested the Thane Municipal Council elections and won 15 of 40 seats and coming to power with the support of six others.

In 1968, the Sena contested the BMC elections and won 42 seats. It began forging tie-ups to win Assembly seats. In 1970, Wamanrao Mahadik was elected in an Assembly bypoll with the support of the Jan Sangh, the RSS and the Swatantra Party.

In the 1973 BMC elections, Sena came to power with the help of the RPI. Two years ago, it revived its links with the RPI which had been severed after remarks by Thackeray had angered Dalit groups. The party has made inroads in rural local bodies in Vidarbha and Marathwada.

Playing the Mumbai card, Pramod Navalkar claimed in the legislative council that attempts were being made to separate Mumbai from the state. This was supported by then Congress CM Vasantdada Patil. The Sena won 75 seats and Chhagan Bhujbal was elected mayor. It was during '70-80s, Sena was referred to as "Vasant Sena" and allegations were made about its closeness with the Congress. The Sena supported the call for Emergency and over the next decade seemed to support the Congress. In 1979, the Sena tied up with Muslim League but the alliance didn't succeed. In 1980, it supported Congress candidates and won two council seats in exchange. The party suffered setbacks during this phase.

In 1987, the Sena adopted the Hindutva line. The Sena and the BJP tie-up had been forged in 1985 and remains intact but has seen a few hiccups. The Sena contested the 1984 elections on the BJP symbol, the lotus.

In 1989, the Sena-BJP alliance won four seats and the Sena entered Parliament. During the 1999-2004 NDA rule, Sena held three ministries and former chief minister Manohar Joshi was elected Speaker.

In 2007, two parties appeared on the verge of snapping ties. In recent interviews, Thackeray had said that he does not share the same rapport with new BJP leaders as he did with A B Vajpayee, L K Advani and Pramod Mahajan. With the growing prowess of the MNS, the ties between these two allies have been strained amis regular calls for a three-party alliance.

Venkateshkumar observes: "The Sena continues to be interested in dominating the local civic bodies. While Uddhav represents the new Sena which is moderate and talks of development, Raj has taken up the old cause of locals and embodies his uncle's charisma. Any development in future is plausible and only time will tell how the two cousins, their families and parties will work this out."

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