“Every election is seen as do-or-die for the Shiv Sena”, is an oft-repeated jibe at the media by the party faithful. So there is great mirth in Sena circles at any dire predictions regarding the civic polls due in Mumbai in a few months.
The fact remains, though, that this is the first time the Sena will face its biggest challenge from its ally and not the opposition. An aggressive Bharatiya Janata Party has made no secret of the fact that it wants to capture power on its own in the country’s richest civic body, the BMC, where it has so far played second fiddle to the Sena.
However, this is also the Sena’s biggest opportunity. Here’s how.
The Sena has always thrived on a diet of emotive issues, feeding the public fear of the ‘other’. The targets of its chauvinistic politics have ranged from communists to various communities -- South Indians, Gujaratis, Muslims, and, more recently, North Indians. The ‘other’ this time is the BJP.
The Sena leadership realises that the BJP has turned itself into the bogey against which the Sena can mobilise its cadres. This realisation is what lies behind the Sena’s decision to target the BJP constantly; the opposition Congress and NCP barely get a mention in the party organ Saamna’s editorials or even at public meetings. The Sena now consistenty paints the BJP as an aggressive and cocky party that does not even respect the late Bal Thackeray, the Sena’s deity-like founder.
This line has gone down well with the Sena cadre, especially in Mumbai. “Despite us being so well-entrenched in the city, we were forced to part with seats to the BJP, which robbed many of our workers of the chance to contest. The BJP needs to be taught a lesson and we will do it,” said a vibhag-pramukh from Mumbai.
Social media and walls along the city streets reflect this aggression. After the BJP leader and minister Prakash Mehta, in a thinly-veiled reference to the Sena, said the rule of tigers over Mumbai had ended, the Sena put up posters outside his home calling him a fat cat pretending to be a lion and threatening to teach him a lesson. A Sena leader, later, said this was just the beginning.
But targeting the BJP alone will not help the Sena tide over its troubles. The Sena is yet to establish itself as a credible force that can helm the State’s governance; in fact, the BJP seems ahead in this perception battle. The Sena’s critics say the party’s ministers in the Fadnavis government, especially those handling portfolios such as transport and health that directly affect the common man, have not used the opportunity to improve public perception about their ability to govern.
It’s crucial for the Sena to move from being known as a party good at street agitations to being recognised as standing for development. “During the 2014 general and assembly polls, the BJP clearly realised that it needed to win this battle of perception. In the assembly polls, that was the difference between us and them,” says a Sena MP.
The Sena has realized this. Early this year, on the late Sena chief’s birth anniversary, all Sena ministers presented a report card of their work. Later, the Sena leadership made a presentation of the work it was carrying out in the drought-hit areas of Marathwada, which, insiders said, was a subtle attempt at changing perceptions.
However, the Sena has its work cut out if it aims to not just win the BMC polls but beat the BJP in the 2019 Assembly elections; jibes at the media notwithstanding.