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From Hindu Hriday Samrat to Secular Liberal: Why Shiv Sena transformed itself so radically

The reason that Shiv Sena is going for this image makeover, are cold numbers. The continuous influx from other states has reduced the Marathi population in Mumbai to 38 % only. So depending upon 'Local' or 'Marathi Manus' appeal is dangerous.

‘Asmita’ like many Indian words is almost impossible to translate in English. At best, it can be defined as Pride mixed with a dash of Angst. With that settled, let us move towards the main topic, the transformation of Shiv Sena.

Hindu Hriday Samrat

Though I was never a party member, I have very happy memories of Shiv Sena. Party, run by the indomitable Hindutva icon, Balasaheb Thackeray! In the nineties and well into the new millennium, Sena was on a solid ideological footing. Along with strident Hindutva, it was known to fight for ‘Marathi Manus’ (People). It never had any difficulty in explaining its position. And it proved to be an ideal foil to BJP’s Hindu Nationalism appeal. Importantly Balasaheb’s presence gave it the much-required heft and the upper hand in this relation. Shiv Sainiks used to refer to their own party as Big Brother amongst the two, which though with reluctance, BJP leaders used to nod to. Shiv Sena, more than a political party, resembled a Militia, with an air of impregnability, run from a fortress, named Matoshree (Thackeray Residence). 

This halo of impregnability was somewhat broken in 2006, when nephew Raj, decided to quit SS and start his party, Maharashtra Navnirman Sena (MNS). And though in direct competition with Sena, he ensured that not even a murmur of disrespect towards Balasaheb was uttered in the party. Which in a way ensured Sena’s hold over Mumbai and Balasheb’s adulation amongst Marathi populace, till his demise. 

Welcome to brave, new world of Amit Shah

Then, two events in quick succession, Balasaheb’s death in 2012 and Modi’s BJP winning a majority on its own in 2014, changed the status quo. In the assembly elections later the same year, Amit Shah, going against the conventional logic, broke the 25-year-old alliance. His reading of the situation was accurate. The Modi wave which got BJP 282 seats in 2014 General Elections, enabled BJP to win, best ever 122 seats in October. And for the first time ever, it had its own CM.

Sharad Pawar, out of the turn extended the support to BJP, which forced Uddhav Thackeray’s hand. And Sena had to join the Government eventually. Though BJP ruled for five years with Shiv Sena as an ally, the camaraderie between BJP-Sena was over. Sena bitterly opposed BJP, on various issues throughout the term. By the time 2019 assembly elections were there, Uddhav Thackeray and Sanjay Raut, in connivance with Sharad Pawar had hatched a plan to backstab BJP.  It was promptly activated post the elections. Uddhav made impossible-to-fulfil demands to BJP and formed a Government with NCP-Congress support. Uddhav had no qualms while making this huge ideological compromise. From strident Hindutva, to sharing power with Congress, a party which, not only is steeped into minority appeasement but has also denied the very existence of Prabhu Ram, opposed Ram Mandir and many Hindu causes openly. 

Now, playing Devil’s Advocate here, one can argue that because Amit Shah decided to go alone in 2014, Uddhav returned the favour by snapping the ties after the 2019 elections. But you see this is nonsense. Sena just like most other political parties is an opportunist. It turned to Hindutva because it saw an opportunity. It stuck to Hindutva and BJP for thirty years, because BJP allowed it the space to grow. But the moment BJP became assertive and Amit Shah negotiated hard for every seat, it backstabbed BJP. 

Frenemy Shiv Sena

One look at the electoral history of Shiv Sena and it becomes even more clear. 

Lok Sabha (LS) Elections;

1971 – Contested 5 seats – won 0.
1980 – Contested 2, won 0 
1989 – Contested 3, won 1 (Alliance with BJP sealed)
1991 – Contested 22, won 4

The same year (89), it competed with BJP and fought in Goa Assembly elections, on 6 seats, drawing a blank. Again in 1991, in UP assembly elections it fought on 14 seats winning 1. In 1993, it travelled to MP, fought on 88 seats and won Zero. Here you can take a look at Sena’s electoral performance. Obviously, it’s quite abysmal other than Maharashtra. Point to be noted here is that it kept competing with BJP outside Maharashtra while having an alliance in the state for 30 long years. So this argument that Uddhav broke this alliance because a principle was compromised or some breach of faith has taken place, is just plain rubbish. Uddhav was with BJP because it suited him. In 2019 he broke the alliance to become Chief Minister. Nothing more, nothing less!

Shiv Sena when started in the sixties, used to oppose South Indians, on the pretext that they are taking away Marathi people’s jobs. They even had a shameful slogan “Uthav lungi, bajao pungi!” Obviously, targeting the attire very popular with South Indian males. It adopted Hindutva only in the eighties because they saw an emerging vote bank there. Once allied with BJP. It worked as a force multiplier for both. 

Secular, Liberal Uddhav Thackeray

If Uddhav Thackeray had made one big compromise to grab the power, to continue in power he is making a series of them. 

In December 2019 Shiv Sena supported Citizenship Amendment Law in Lok Sabha, but opposed it in Rajya Sabha. In January 2020, Uddhav equated Police action on students in JNU to 26/11. In February 2020, this Uddhav Government scrapped quota for Economically weaker Sections(EWS) in RTE, meant for poor Hindus who don’t benefit from any other quota. This was brought by the Modi Government in January 2019. I haven’t seen a more brutal attack on the interests of that section Hindu society which is poor and deprived. 

So, out of two pillars, Hindutva & protecting Interests of Marathi people, on which Sena rested, it has sacrificed Hindutva for power. And, it’s not far from giving up on the ‘Marathi party’ claim too. Just look around and you will see the telltale signs. I am not sure how many are aware, but Sena has been running a Hindi edition of Saamna since 1988. Then, there was a time when, even on national TV channels, a Marathi spokesperson used to represent the party. Since the formation of the new MVA Government, only Hindi speaking spokespersons have appeared. Regarding the prized Rajya Sabha seat, Uddhav could have nominated any old faithful party worker. But he chose a Congress defector, Hindi speaking, Priyanka Chaturvedi. There could be more reasons other than only the language. But the point remains. Another notable change, Sena, which was known to attack Gujaratis till recently, now has its leaders putting up billboards in Gujarati. 

There’s more. In its second avatar, Sena has consciously presented Aditya, a younger, liberal face, loving Cinema and seen to be friendly towards Bollywood personalities. Someone who supports nightlife, talks about soccer and ecology. 

And the reason, Sena is going for this image makeover, are cold numbers. The continuous influx from other states has reduced the Marathi population in Mumbai to 38 % only. So depending upon ‘Local’ or ‘Marathi Manus’ appeal is dangerous. Another important data point which must be haunting Uddhav is, that a sizable Marathi population has a preference for BJP over Sena in many elections. 

Hence it makes perfect sense for Sena to make a shift from a ‘Marathi Manus’ party to a more inclusive outfit. Episodes like destroying Kangana Ranaut’s office or attacking ex-Navy officer Madan Sharma are decoys to make Marathi people believe that it’s still their old Shiv Sena. 

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Ajay Sudame
Ajay Sudame
Ajay Sudame aka 'Pakodewallah' is for Free Markets and is a Nationalist. He is the founder and editor of the Marathi OpEd website - Also runs a YouTube channel by the same name. Tweets @IndicVichaar

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