At a time when the media gets repetitive with same old news stories about price rise and BT Brinjal, one can always count on the Thackerays for entertainment! Some months back it was the estranged Raj Thackeray who managed to grab the headlines with his ‘beat’ politics and anti-North India tirade. At that time, Raj had effectively used the Bachchans to prop his political career and make the MNS a household name in Mumbai. This time an almost similar comeback is being scripted by his cousin and arch-rival Uddhav Thackeray by using Shah Rukh Khan as a prop.
An important point to note is that Uddhav is quite unlike his cousin. Raj is what Bal Thackeray was during his spring years – rash, bold and a thorough hardliner; heck, on a minor note, Raj Thackeray even looks a lot like Thackeray senior than what Uddhav does. In the run up to the Maharashtra Assembly elections, Uddhav prominently displayed his eagerness to take a detour from the extremist politics of the Shiv Sena and model the party on more moderate and secular lines, changing the attention on important but overlooked issues like infrastructure than harping on redundant sectarian politics. But his attempt to reorient the party did not pay off at the electoral booths wherein the MNS effectively ate into the Marathi vote-bank thereby helping an incumbent Congress-NCP government win.
Interestingly, the current controversy with Shah Rukh Khan and Rahul Gandhi mirrors the existential crisis plaguing the Shiv Sena post-Bal Thackeray. The Sena is a nativist political outfit that since the very beginning has created its electoral base by a consistent anti-immigration policy. This was done, at first, by antagonizing the economically forward Gujarati merchants in then-Bombay and was followed by its repeated attacks on the South Indians, accusing them of usurping the white-collar jobs in Bombay from the native Maharashtrians. The party also acquired a distinct communal undertone during the Ayodhya movement and were blatantly responsible for the subsequent Bombay riots. The movement catapulted the BJP into national prominence and the Shiv Sena into regional prominence. Here the BJP made a crucial observation by noting (and correctly) that it cannot become a national party on its own and needed to construct a strong alliance if its dream were to be realized. Thus, began the scramble for regional allies, and, in Maharashtra, it was the Shiv Sena that gave this backing. From hereon begins the rise of the Shiv Sena that culminated in 1995 when the BJP-Sena combine won the Assembly election.
But success is seldom simple and it always brings with it a whole new array of challenges. Something similar happened to the Shiv Sena. Successfully winning the 1995 and 2000 Assembly elections threw the party into an ideological dilemma – whether to re-posture itself as a mature political party by considering the State as a whole rather than a fragmented parochial entity. Thus, an existential crisis was quite inevitable. The fillip was provided with Bal Thackeray’s decision to hand over the baton to his son Uddhav, leaving his nephew, Raj, out cold. Here, the Machiavellian Thackeray senior made a tactical mistake by disregarding the ground realities. Like his uncle, Raj Thackeray was a mass leader who commanded the respect of the Shiv Sainiks. The latter never saw Uddhav as their leader because he was perceived to be too mellow for their tastes. Hence, the hurt was palpable. Although, Raj accepted Bal Thackeray’s decision and was himself the person who had proposed Uddhav name for the post of executive president, he, predictably, felt sidelined and overlooked. With this, the Shiv Sena was split down the middle into the moderate faction led by Uddhav and the hard-line faction led by Raj.
Two other prominent people played an important role in this postmodern internecine succession battle – Manohar Joshi and Narayan Rane. The former went over to the Uddhav camp while the latter chose to side with the Raj camp. Things came to a head when Rane resigned as Leader of Opposition because of his disagreement with Uddhav’s way of functioning after the party lost the 2004 elections. Rane had quite rightly alleged that Uddhav lacked political oversight and neglected the grass-root touch. In fact, this did not come as a surprise for many Sainiks because Uddhav had alienated many by mishandling the tickets distribution for the 2004 elections. Rane’s departure and Raj’s growing realization that his chosen shaka pramukhs were being replaced by Uddhav loyalists made the rift unbridgeable. Raj Thackeray finally quit the party and formed his own outfit, the Maharashtra Navnirman Sena.
After the departure of Raj, Uddhav was given a free hand in restructuring the Sena as he pleased. But here the cub proved to be the father of the tiger. MNS successfully followed Bal Thackeray’s legacy by targeting the North Indians and gradually postured itself as a protector of the rights of the Marathi Manoos, a plank that previously belonged to the Shiv Sena. The recent controversy, which was initially stoked by the flip-flop of the Congress party, is a heaven-sent opportunity for the Shiv Sena to go back to its moorings and recover the ground lost. In a way, Uddhav’s hard-line makeover is a Darwinian response of survival over the threat posed by its enemy. But the enemy here is the Sena’s own doppelganger.
Arnav Das Sharma is an English graduate and a freelance journalist. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org