The Shiv Sena’s future

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In what seems like a very confused space that the Shiv Sena seems to be living in today, it is clear that the party has pulled off the impossible feat of having its cake and eating it too.

When the Bharatiya Janata Party decided to break its long alliance with the party days ahead of the Maharashtra assembly elections in October 2014, political analysts had all but given up on the Shiv Sena. The BJP, by all accounts, had been preparing for a long time to go it alone in those polls in the confidence that Narendra Modi would pull off a second victory in the state after sweeping all but six seats out of 48 during the preceding Lok Sabha elections that year. The Shiv Sena’s president, Uddhav Thackeray, was then going into the campaign with two handicaps – firstly without the tall presence of his father Bal Thackeray, the founder of the Shiv Sena, in the background and secondly, with very little time to prepare for a solo campaign. But he surprised everyone by winning half the number of seats as the BJP, leaving both the Congress and the NCP far behind. And although it took a while to work on differences with the BJP before it could ally with the party in government again, the Shiv Sena now has the best of both worlds – it is part of the government and it is also simultaneously acting as the main opposition to the ruling BJP.

That might seem as though the party is confused about its place in the polity but, I believe, that its opposition to the BJP, even though at times quite unnecessary and even tiresome, is deliberate and oriented towards its survival.  It has not escaped the attention of either Uddhav Thackeray or others in the Shiv Sena that although the BJP might have accepted the Sena as a partner in its government out of compulsion because of the shortfall in its numbers, its ultimate aim is to decimate the party so that it can wholly occupy the saffron space in the future. The Shiv Sena is not unaware of that game plan and the only way it can keep its head above water is by taking on the BJP every step of the way and putting some distance between itself and the incumbency that is bound to set in not just on account of its partnership in Mantralaya but also after two decades of its rule at the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation. Earlier it was natural to oppose the Congress and NCP in government and shift the blame for its failures at the BMC on to those parties. But now with no such cushion to soften its fall, I believe it is very innovative of the  party to unabashedly highlight its differences with its ally to keep the gullible believing that it is more sincere about its commitments than the BJP. Not all are impressed but there is no other way out for the Shiv Sena.

In the absence of real 21st century policies and programmes that might continue to attract the youth of today to the party as it had in the 1960s when it was founded on the issue of jobs and housing to the local population, all that the Shiv Sena has is its control of the BMC. That it continues to control the BMC is crucial to it future. Were the party to lose the BMC in the elections due in February 2017, it would lead to a tectonic shift in the politics of Maharashtra, changing all political equations forever and perhaps banishing the Shiv Sena to the side lines from where it might be difficult to make its way to the mainstream again.

The problem with the party since the exit of its founder Bal Thackeay is that it is lurching from election to election without much direction and with no long term plans for the future. Uddhav Thackeray has oft said in both private and public conversations that he has the blessings of his late father which helped the party to survive against all odds but it is important to consider how long the party can dine out in the name of Bal Thackeray. Memories fade as generations pass and soon the youth of Maharashtra will have little in common with Balasaheb’s core issues.

In the 1960s when the Shiv Sena first stormed into existence on the twin issues of jobs and housing to local youths, India – and Mumbai – was a very different country. The city of Mumbai particularly had a unique demographic proportion —  most job givers were what the Sena described as outsiders : Gujaratis and Parsis from the neighbouring state and most white collars workers were migrants from south India.  Between them the only space that local youth could occupy was as blue collar workers in the numerous textile mills which at the time was the only industry in Mumbai. But half a century later, Mumbai has shifted from being just a manufacturing hub to a vibrant banking and financial and Information Technology centre in the country. That means, unlike in the 1960s and 1970s, the Sena can no longer expect to have its cadres peopled by youth who are trained for nothing better than jobs like loaders, fitters and turners at the Mazgaon docks or loom operators at the textile mills which have in any case shut down for a large measure.

However, in its emphasis on the local people and the local language, the Shiv Sena has not really actively encouraged its supporters to acquire the kind of education that would equip them to take their place alongside others in a globalised economy that lays stress on high quality of knowledge and education. Emphasis on quality education has never been the Sena’s strong point. For example, former Mumbai university vice-chancellor Rajan Welukar had once told me that every time he stressed on the need to improve the quality of academics, courses and teachers at the university, members of the senate belonging to the Shiv Sena paid scant attention to those requirements and instead wanted more toilets and canteens built at colleges affiliated to the university. Why was that? Aditya Thackeray, the son of Uddhav Thackeray, was then a fresher at the university and had recently begun heading the Yuva Sena. The Shiv Sena members, looking to popularise Aditya as the Sena leader of the future, believed that students who would be voters tomorrow would have better recall about the toilets tha Aditya had had built rather than quality courses and teachers introduced at the university through a process where the Sena’s role would neither be exclusive nor recognisable. With that kind of understanding of the  aspirations of the youth, the Shiv Sena could have only a limited future confined to just its electoral successes which could in turn diminish as the party fails to evolve policies and programmes relevant to its voters’ futures.

Although there is are deep divisions in the polity today on visceral issues like castes, religions etc,  it is an undeniable fact that almost every young Indian is aspiring to a better future. In the kind of country that India is today, that future is dependent on a sound education that will open up doors to better opportunities and lift the people out of the mires of poverty or mere subsistence to a better quality of life and existence. The Shiv Sena has always failed to understand the value of such aspirations. While identity politics will continue to play their role even in the future, it is essential to supplement those issues with a more modern-day agenda that is neutral in terms of identity politics  and more universal in appeal.

Does the Shiv Sena have the capability to evolve such an agenda and secure its future? By all accounts, not in the short term when its focus is likely to be only survival through the next civic elections. The Party then can only face a bleak future.

By Sujata Anandan