The Shiv Sena on Saturday crossed a threshold in its half century of political skullduggery - the party's chief actually apologised unequivocally for hurting the sentiments of a section of the people.
As Maratha anger over an obscene cartoon published in the party mouthpiece ‘Saamana’ last Sunday refuses to die down even after several attempts at pacification by other party leaders, the top boss evoked the name of his father, Bal Thackeray, and apologised in his name. Although Uddhav did not quite say it, the apology -- a first from a Thackeray -- was an admission of a serious lapse of judgment on the part of the Shiv Sena which was the singular party being eyed by Marathas who had grown tired of all other political dispensations in the state. Now they may have lost that vote forever.
In the 1980s, Bal Thackeray had similarly missed the bus with regard to Dalits in Maharashtra. History repeats three decades later with his son's inability to similarly sense which way the political wind was blowing.
In February this year, the situation with regard to various communities in Maharashtra was very fluid. Political analysts and sociologists believed that Dalits, OBCs and Marathas were all uniformly tired of the Congress and the Nationalist Congress Party. That is why they had swept the two parties out of power both at the Lok Sabha and subsequent assembly elections in the state which brought the BJP and the Shiv Sena back to power after a gap of 15 years.
Political analysts had then believed that their vote could swing either way in the next elections. “It depends on which party spots first that they are there for the taking,’’ Prakash Pawar of the Shivaji University at Kolhapur had said.
Suhas Palshikar of Savitribai Phule University in Pune had been of a similar view – the Maratha hegemony, which survived the Congress split post-Emergency in 1977, had finally been broken nearly 40 years later and it was unlikely the party would gain a toehold again, he had said.
The consensus then building up was that only the Shiv Sena was conducting itself rather well – keeping its ally, the ruling BJP, on their toes and exercising the role of a real opposition party while in government.
But far from spotting the fact that the OBC and Maratha vote was ripe for the picking, the Shiv Sena might have lost the game with the Saamna, on Sunday (September 25) publishing a rather unsavoury cartoon on the ongoing Maratha agitations. It exercised both the Congress and the NCP who have now been quick to step into the breach. But more importantly, it has hurt the common Maratha people who have refused to accept the paper's apology and close the unsavoury episode.
Members of the Sambhaji Brigade, who claim affiliation with the NCP, stoned the Saamna offices in Navi Mumbai damaging several window panes. The building is still under heavy guard by the state police,
Political observers are, however, stunned at how it took just a cartoon to turn Marathas away from the party which, barely a week ago, was the most credible option for large sections of the community. According to Chandrakant Rasame, a former journalist and PR professional who grew up in the 1960s in the Lalbaug area of central Mumbai, considered the bastion of the Shiv Sena, ``It was not likely that the Dalits would ever look upon the Shiv Sena as their saviour. Nor would the OBCs who are feeling rather edged out by the RSS and the BJP ever since 2014. The only community that might have had the confidence to deal with the Shiv Sena were the Marathas. Now the party has blown it forever.’’
That, he says, is a permanent affliction with the Sena—its leaders can never spot where their voters stand. In the 1980s, Bal Thackeray deliberately chose Hindutva over a Bahujan Samaj approach, despite everything in his favour at the time. Thackeray’s Hindutva then was too extreme for even the BJP which eventually allied with the party in order to keep the saffron voters within one fold. Thackeray soon realised his error – at one time he had also opposed the publication of Dr B R Ambedkar’s works and called him a stooge (sarthak) of the Nizam of Hyderabad when, in fact, Ambedkar had fought bitterly for the liberation of Marathwada from the Nizam’s estates. That had completely alienating a large section of Dalits who were looking for alternatives to the Congress. Thackeray’s ridicule of Ambedkar pushed them back into the arms of that party.
Now, decades later, there is sense of déjà vu -- Marathas were beginning to eye the new age Shiv Sena as a credible alternative to the Congress, the NCP and the BJP. But the party’s underbelly was once again exposed as an anti-Bahujan Samaj entity with the cartoon that poked fun at the silent morchas making their way from across the districts to the state capital.
The silent marches are known in Marathi s “muk” morchas. The word “muka’’ also means a kiss. The cartoonist, Shrinivas Prabhudesai attempted to pun on that word and depicted a man kissing a woman on her cheek . Even Bal Thackeray’s cartoons, very acerbic and full of scatological humour, were never as obscene. It has been described as “in bad taste’’ by all sections of society but it has also raised questions about the editorial judgement of the paper’s executive editor Sanjay Raut as well as Uddhav who as both the editor of the paper and leader of the party should have.known better. The BJP was not amused either and asked the party to apologise - this is the first time the Sena or Uddhav have conceded anything to the BJP.
Good sense perhaps prevailed after some reflection into the past - Marathas from the region of Marathwada had swung in large numbers towards the Shiv Sena in the early 1990s when the Congress government, then led by Sharad Pawar, had renamed the Marathwada University after Dr Ambedkar in concession of a long standing demand by Dalits. They stayed loyal to the party for much of this time but Marathas from Western Maharashtra were compelled to deal with the Congress and NCP owing to their co-operative interests. The BJP tried wooing them but failed. Now they were eyeing the Shiv Sena which seems to have shot itself in the foot.
Adds Ganesh Mali, an ordinary factory worker living in a Sena stronghold, “It is the arrogance of power. They never know what is good for them. They are in government because of the BJP. Otherwise who wants them to rule us?’’
Obviously, Uddhav recognises that his party may have scored a self goal. And it could be too late to make amends.