Fifty years is a long time in the life of a political party.
Regional parties across India, which set up in business post-Independence, have come to power in their respective states within 15 years of their existence each. It is only the Shiv Sena which took double the time – 30 years – to accomplish that task in 1995 -- and even then it may never have been a party of governance had it not been for the dogged determination of the BJP, its long-standing ally, to make sure that the miniscule saffron vote in the 1980s did not get split so that it stood a fair chance of becoming a party of consequence nationally.
The Shiv Sena, completing its golden jubilee on June 19 this year, is still riding piggy back on the BJP and it is a very telling comment that in five decades of its existence it has not put down roots anywhere but five urban centres of Maharashtra – Bombay, Pune, Nasik, Thane and Aurangabad, the last only because of the sharp Hindu-Muslim divide in that city. The core of its strength, though, still comes from the city of its birth where the Marathi-speaking population today is less than 40 per cent of the whole.
Looking deeply at how the party has played its cards over the past decades, it is obvious that of the two defining ideologies of the party – regionalism and Hindutva -- Bal Thackeray had been helped along both the paths by the Congress and the BJP respectively and had no original ideas of his own. Today, the Shiv Sena finds it difficult to extricate itself from either and look for a more modern 21st century agenda that is not borrowed from one or the other political party and one that will become its defining characteristic over the next half century.
However, in the entire brouhaha over how the Shiv Sena is a better opposition party today than the Congress or the NCP, one tends to forget that the Sena always bites the hand that feeds it and that opposition to the ruling dispensation is the life’s blood of the party. A history of the Shiv Sena shows that it has grown every time the Congress seemed to have erred in either policy or perception – in the 1970s, it made a good showing in the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation elections when a Muslim corporator from the Congress refused to sing ‘Vande Mataram’. A decade later as then chief minister Vasantdada Patil, opposed to then Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, floated the bogey that the Union government might be considering making Bombay into a city-state, the Sena stormed to power in the BMC with a brute majority.
The demolition of the Babri Masjid in 1992 and the shameful manner in which the Congress, then in government at both the Centre and the state, handled the subsequent riots in the city ensured that it would take the Sena just three years to finally storm Mantralaya. But then it could do little to retain that power and the party slowly imploded with not just a political split within the family but also few leaders willing to come to the aid of Bal Thackeray in later years.
Thackeray’s son and political heir Uddhav Thackeray is in much the same position with very few advisers and a complete lack of intellectual inputs that could help reshape the party for the future. The instinct of the Sena, though, as ever is to oppose – and sometimes the party opposes simply for the sake of opposition. But now the Congress is no longer in power either in the state or at the Centre for this opposition to seem reasonable and accrue political gains to the party.
I believe, therefore, that Uddhav is on a tight rope walk vis-à-vis the BJP, Sena ministers sitting alongside the BJP at cabinet meetings and then opposing the policies they might have endorsed at those meetings. So far, the Sena has done well in the issues it has opposed, reinforcing the impression that it is the only party with the Marathi manoos at its heart. It is very obvious that this constant carping and cribbing will continue up to the next BMC elections. But what after that?
I doubt if the Shiv Sena has a 21st century agenda that will ensure its survival into the next half century – or even a quarter.