Some years ago, Uddhav Thackeray, president of the Shiv Sena told me with great pride, "My father is the only leader in the world who has headed one party for more than four decades. This has not happened anywhere else in the world."
As records go, that could be a dubious one (of course, even the Congress and the Nehru-Gandhis cannot claim that for themselves). For the Shiv Sena began not as a political party but as a cultural organisation to fight for the sons of the soil. It gave itself a hasty constitution and party hierarchy only during the Emergency or they could otherwise be shut down under the Representation of People's Act. Bal Thackeray figured nowhere in that hierarchy – for the fear that he could be arrested for unlawful political activities. But there was never any doubt that he was the unquestioned leader of the Shiv Sena and every word of his was the law to his supporters.
The Sena started by fighting for the local Maharashtrians in Mumbai in order to get them houses and jobs, which were being steadily usurped by south Indians migrating to the city and Thackeray hated the Gujaratis, who were largely responsible for building the metropolis even before Independence, for their wealth. Hence, much of the Sena's ire was directed against these two communities. But it was a hatred shared by the then Congress stalwarts, who found in Thackeray a convenient tool to drive these communities down or out of Mumbai, and much of the Sena violence in the early years was condoned for that very reason.
But the issue had limited appeal and the Sena has always been in search of an issue to stay relevant. In the 1970s and 1980s, Thackeray reinvented his party as a communal entity and it actually became a serious political party only after the mid-1980s when it forged an alliance with the Bharatiya Janata Party.
Shiv Sena 'Pramukh' Bal Thackeray with BJP's Nitin Ghadkari when the two parties were political allies (HT Photo)
Now that the longest-standing alliance in Indian political history stands broken (though the Sena continues to partner the BJP at the Centre) and, in its 50th year, it is still a party in search of a raison d'etre. The Sena's partnership with the BJP in this new government is an uneasy one – they are bitter rivals but have no choice but to stay together. The Sena does not agree with many of the NDA government's policies – particularly the surreptitious attempts to shift various institutions like the port trust and Reserve Bank of India headquarters to neighbouring Gujarat as it has workers unions in these institutions and fears it will lose its support base should this happen. Its ministers continue to write letters to the Union government protesting this injustice to locals but awaits the civic elections in 2017 which will determine who controls the metropolis. Their biggest threats are not the Congress or the Nationalist Congress Party but the BJP which is determined to systematically finish off its ally which occupies the same space in terms of political ideology.
But even today, the Sena is unable to move beyond its "injustice to local Maharashtrians" rhetoric. Do locals really care that the RBI might be headquartered in Ahmedabad or the port trust in Porbandar? Or are they keen and eager to take their place alongside the best of Indians in a global economy that will open the doors to prosperity and realise their aspirations?
I emphasise this point because the Sena began by fighting for lower-rung jobs to be given to locals. Five decades later it is still beating up taxi drivers and peanut vendors from north Indian communities - all these years of fighting for their rights doesn't seem to have taken the Maharashtrian youth upwards but downwards, who now seem to be threatened by migrants taking away jobs in the unorganised sectors.
The continuing emphasis on Marathi as the lingua franca of the state is another issue that keeps local Maharashtrians from connecting with the best in a globalised scenario. This handicap is already being felt by the new generation of Shiv Sainiks and it is a telling commentary that the grandchildren of the old timers now go to the best English medium schools in quiet defiance of the Thackeray diktat. Bal Thackeray never encouraged education among Shiv Sainiks for he wished to build up an army of musclemen who would accept his diktats quietly and enforce fear and violence in the city for as little as a job as a fitter or a loader at the Mazgaon docks or Air India where the Shiv Sena has its workers unions among many other institutions.
Uddhav Thackeray needs to address the issue of lack of skills and education amongst the Shiv Sainiks (HT Photo)
Such lack of skill and education has set a whole generation of Shiv Sainiks back by a generation and Uddhav needs to address their concerns immediately or see his party lose relevance should he fail to win the BMC elections.To that extent, the Sena's problems are similar to that of the Congress which emphasises more than necessary on doles and charity than on making the youth capable of standing on its feet.
But, as a senior Shiv Sena leader told me, "The trouble with Uddhav is that he only has a coterie but no good advisers. His father had people surrounding him from all walks of life – the rich and the poor, educated classes and working masses, socialists and capitalists and he listened to everybody before coming to his decisions. The problem with the new generation is that they think the old methods and ideas will work in this century – Maharashtrians want to be defined by more than just violence and blue collar jobs."
Raj Thackeray's Maharashtra Navnirman Sena has collapsed due to its extreme ideologies (HT Photo)
The best and biggest example of the risks that the Sena faces is the manner in which Uddhav's estranged cousin Raj Thackeray's party, the Maharashtra Navnirman Sena, collapsed for defining itself with little more than violence and xenophobia. It will be a long time, if at all, before the MNS will be able to rise again. Uddhav faces the same risk - the Sena could sink sooner than expected if it fails to reinvent itself in the modern idiom.
The patriarch is no more. But the Sena tiger could soon be extinct!
(This story was first published on June 19, 2015)