Can the Shiv Sena dismount the tiger?

Can the Shiv Sena dismount the tiger? | Elocationfinder

When Bal Thackeray, once a cartoonist with this newspaper, launched the Shiv Sena on June 19, 1966, political analysts gave it ten years at the most before it merged with the Congress. On its 55th foundation day on Saturday, the Sena admonished the Congress, telling its junior partner in the ruling Maha Vikas Aghadi coalition to behave.

Which political pundit could have foreseen this twist of fate, where the party which had aided and abetted the Sena would end up fighting for its own survival. Perhaps, this is what prompted Mumbai Congress chief Bhai Jagtap to announce that the Congress was ready to contest the next year’s Mumbai civic polls without allying with the Sena, which has 97 members as compared to the 30 of the Congress in the 227-member civic house.

Yet, things are not as they seem. The Shiv Sena is not in an unassailable position. Its former ally, the BJP, is thirsting for revenge ever since power slipped out of its grasp even with 105 of the 288 assembly seats in hand, compared with just 56 of the Sena.

Last Wednesday, the BJP did the unthinkable. It stormed the Sena Bhavan at Dadar! The provocation was an editorial in the Shiv Sena mouthpiece Saamna, criticising the suspicious land deal at Ayodhya for the Ram Mandir. The editorial had urged the PM to intervene and ensure that no “blot of a scam” remained on the Ram temple. It said that everything regarding the temple should be “transparent and honest” as it was a matter of “national pride”.

The Sena has played down the incident, given that Gujaratis – die-hard Modi supporters – form a sizable vote bank in Mumbai. In fact, the BJP, with 82 corporators in the BMC, is hot on the heels of the Sena. The latter’s campaign to woo Gujarati voters is called, ‘Mumbai ma jalebi na fafda, Uddhav Thackeray aapda’. In the 2017 BMC election, the Sena fielded 14 Gujarati candidates, of which only two won. The bitterness between Maharashtra and Gujarat, both of which had claimed Mumbai as their capital, lingers on and so do communal taunts such as, ‘Mumbai tumchi, bhandi ghasa aamchi (Take Mumbai but wash our utensils)’.

The BJP may not hesitate to use all combinations of the Gujarati card in the forthcoming civic polls. The polls are a make-or-break one for the Sena, which first wrested control of the country’s richest civic body in 1985. According to the World Population Review, Maharashtrians currently account for 42 per cent of the population of Mumbai and Gujaratis for 19 per cent, while people from the north and the south account for the remaining 39 per cent.

Indeed, dismounting the tiger is the challenge for the Sena. It started off on the ‘sons of the soil’ plank; attacking South Indians for ‘taking away their jobs’, demanding protection money from Gujarati businessmen who ‘milked Mumbai’ and then went on to bashing north Indians. Muslims were always wary of the party, ever since Bal Thackeray hitched on to Hindutva. Now, with Maharashtrians selling off their apartments in the island city and moving out to satellite townships, the Sena has to woo the very voters it antagonised. It has its back to the wall. In the 2014 assembly election, the Shiv Sena won 14 out of Mumbai’s 36 constituencies and the BJP 15. In 2019, it was 14:16.

The Sena’s USP though, is the secular functioning of its ‘shakhas’, the local offices, which help residents – from getting school and hospital admissions to water and electricity connections to ration cards and protection against eve-teasing. The party also has the reputation of giving tickets to grass-root workers.

Uddhav Thackeray has attempted a makeover of his party known for its parochialism and propensity for violence. His son Aaditya caters to the interests of the younger generation. Given the Shiv Sena’s past and its role in the post-Babri communal riots, Uddhav went out of his way to reassure Muslims; the guardian minister of Mumbai is Aslam Shaikh of the Congress. The community reciprocated by heeding the CM’s call not to allow congregations in mosques.

Compared to his father, Uddhav has the charisma of a bank clerk but he makes up for it by his earnestness, which has struck a chord with the people. Despite his lack of administrative experience, he has done a decent job of managing the Covid crisis, something that even the Supreme Court applauded.

Critics deride him as an accidental CM but insiders say that the same things were said when he was appointed the party chief. In fact, the party was expected to implode after Bal Thackeray. Not only did Uddhav keep the flock together, he won his spurs in the 2017 civic polls where the Sena was written off but managed to increase its tally from 75 to 97, despite an ascendant BJP contesting on its own.

It must also be noted that the Shiv Sena has managed to overcome the crises when Chhagan Bhujbal quit, when Narayan Rane was expelled, when Arun Gawli formed the Akhil Bharatiya Sena and when Raj Thackeray quit. The BJP was unable to break the party even though it rode roughshod over it during the last term.

However, there is some resentment in the Shiv Sena about Uddhav’s coterie and the way his son Aaditya is being foisted on the party. But with Sharad Pawar watching over his shoulder, Uddhav has to worry only about the Mumbai civic polls in February.

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