The Shiv Sena is barely 18 months away from celebrating its 50th year of existence but its agenda is still a conspicuous throwback to the past: politics driven by the Marathi manoos’ identity.
As Mumbai and its adjoining cities transform into globalised urban centres with rising migrant populations, it is likely that the phenomenon of identity politics that the late Bal Thackeray, the party’s founder, had espoused during his reign will get stronger.
The Marathi identity was the central theme of the assembly election campaign. Party president Uddhav Thackeray positioned Marathis primarily against Gujaratis and other communities. The issue of Marathi pride being accorded its rightful place in the new political dispensations in Mumbai and New Delhi has been present in his negotiations with the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) this year.
As the BJP increasingly threatens to claim the Sena’s political space, playing down its Hindu identity politics in favour of development-led agenda, Thackeray would want to push the Sena’s primary agenda with more ferocity; if he manages to articulate the concerns of Marathi-speakers and Maharashtrians without the violence and “direct action” associated with the party so far, he would have given second wind to the politics of identity, said political analysts.
The assembly election did not result in the Sena forming the government that Thackeray had intensely desired but it validated his premise that Marathi-speakers and Maharashtrians would back the party. It picked up 14 of the 36 seats in Mumbai. The BJP won 15. The Sena picked up most of the Marathi-dominated areas. This is a clear pointer to the reality that stares the party in the face: More and more areas of Mumbai are less and less Maharashtrian in population and character.
“The fact that Uddhav played identity politics and won seats in the face of the ‘Modi tsunami’ and development talk means people responded. The Marathi manoos’ identity crisis in Mumbai-Thane will get worse in the years ahead. This is happening even in London,” pointed out Prakash Akolkar, political editor of Sakal and author of the Sena’s definitive biography “Jai Maharashtra”.
The Sena has always played a double role – that of a political party competing in elections as well as a social-moral force representing the Marathi identity. These roles fed off each other, as well-known political analyst Suhas Palshikar pointed out. “The better its electoral victory, the more legitimacy its identity-driven anti-democratic methods get,” he said.
Not all Maharashtrian and Marathi-speakers fall in line behind the Sena; its appeal is highest among the lower and middle classes. It continues to be unapologetic. “When Mayawati can do Dalit politics and Tamil Nadu politicians do Tamil-based politics, why pick on the Shiv Sena for the Marathi card,” asked Manohar Joshi, veteran leader.
It is not merely the identity-driven politics but its articulation that is now drawing attention. “The Sena doesn’t correctly express the Marathi identity. For example, it alienated Muslims after 1992-93 though Marathi Muslims in Konkan and Marathwada are more Marathi than Muslim. The Marathi Christians in Vasai and elsewhere have their church services in Marathi.
Uddhav needs to expand the definition of who is a Marathi and build a constructive Marathi identity,” said Deepak Pawar, political science professor in Mumbai University and Marathi language activist.
The Sena’s definition of Marathi identity was still stuck in the times that Bal Thackeray lived and worked in. “It’s time for post-Thackeray identity politics that comes out in a constructive way, beyond mere symbolism,” Pawar added. The rise of the All India Majlis-e-Muslimeen (MIM) in the Assembly election is a pointer that the reasons for identity politics never really disappear.
A trajectory in the Sena’s politics has been the competitive pull of the Marathi and Hindutva identities. The party attempted to straddle both spaces at the same time. The BJP’s pan-Indian appeal as a party expressing the Hindutva agenda means reduced space for the Sena.
This makes it incumbent on Uddhav Thackeray to evolve the Sena beyond mere symbolic identity politics or re-shape the Marathi identity to make it more inclusive and positive. How soon he does this could determine the future of the party.