Mapping Shiv Sena’s dynamic with new big brother BJP
The first from the family to contest elections; a young leader known for causes like environment; and moderate in his speech — Aditya Thackeray is the symbol of a possible change underway in the Sena.Updated: Oct 16, 2019 01:07 IST
It is early morning and Mumbai’s famous Shivaji Park in Dadar is crowded with joggers, cricket enthusiasts, and men and women exercising.
Sahib Rao works in finance in a private sector firm. He has just finished his walk and opens up when asked about the upcoming polls.
“This falls within the Mahim assembly seat and is a traditional stronghold of the Shiv Sena. The Sena Bhawan is right down the road. We are all supporters of the Sena. And I think Devendra Fadnavis has done a good job. The alliance will comfortably win.”
Rao acknowledges the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has become the bigger party but says the Sena is today stronger than it was in 2014. “It has kept its traditional positions, but it has evolved in keeping with the times. Its base is intact and its connect with the young, with migrants, with even Muslims has grown.”
Rao‘s views on the possible outcome reflects the broader political consensus in the state. But it is his view of the Sena and its changing nature which is more intriguing. Has the Shiv Sena — associated with anti-minority rhetoric, anti-migrant positions, and violence — actually changed? What is its current strategy of mobilisation on the ground? How is its changing dynamic with the BJP playing out?
Indeed, these three elements — of a possible ideological shift; electoral tactics and sources of strength; and a complex alliance framework — mark the churn in the Sena in this election.
The old Sena, the new Sena
The symbol of a possible change underway in the Sena is Aditya Thackeray — the first from the family to contest elections; a young leader known for causes like environment; and moderate in his speech.
But is he just a token face, while the core remains the same? Priyanka Chaturvedi, deputy leader of the party, argues the Sena is undergoing a transition which is in keeping with the aspirations of a new generation. “At one point, what Balasaheb fought for — recognition of identity and assertion — was valid. But that goal has been achieved. Resentment against outsiders has subsided. And aspirations have changed. The young want economic opportunities and jobs. Aditya is a millennial; he understands this.”
Bhushan Khanot, a party supporter in Matunga, defends the party’s original line. “Look at what governments in Telangana, Madhya Pradesh, or even Gujarat have promised — reservations in jobs for locals. Balasaheb [Thackeray] said it 50 years ago.” This, he adds, does not mean the party is against migrants any more and cites examples of outreach programmes for Gujaratis, North Indians, and South Indians in the polls.
Insiders claim that in engineering a makeover, a silent but effective role has been played by Uddhav Thackeray, who had been dismissed when compared to his more militant cousin, Raj Thackeray, when the party split. “Today, see where Uddhav is and where Raj is. That is because Uddhav understood this change. He has acted as a bridge between traditionalists and the more modern ideas,” says an insider closely associated with the party’s campaign, who wished to remain unnamed.
But elements of the extremist ideological legacy persist. The party’s Haryana unit gave a ticket to the man accused of having shot the former Jawaharlal Nehru Union student activist, Umar Khalid. The party claims that the leadership had no idea about the move and a cleanup of state units elsewhere is in the offing; it also rejects any association or endorsement of violence. But the incident shows what many think the Sena continues to stand for.
What do those who have often been the objects of Shiv Sena’s ire feel? In Dharavi, the Sena is pitted against the Congress. Yasmin Sheikh, a contractor in his early 30s, says he is confused about whether to vote for the Congress — which has traditionally won the seat — or the AIMIM of Asaduddin Owaisi. But despite being a possible AIMIM voter, Sheikh is surprisingly positive about the Sena. “They are ten times better than the BJP. If we go to Sena’s local leaders, they help.” But weren’t they at the forefront of communal violence? Sheikh says that was two decades ago. “Things have changed. I won’t vote for them but I can talk to them.”
The battle on the ground
It is within this backdrop of an ideological churn that the Sena has had to grapple with the reality of the electoral contest. It is fighting 124 of the 288 assembly seats. It is relying on its organisational strength; traditional supporters who still praise the Sena’s help in accessing government services; and newer voters who may be driven by Aditya Thackeray’s appeal.
But on the ground, depending on particularities of seats, the Sena faces distinct challenges. It has relied both on new faces and old families. Take two examples.
In Igatpuri constituency of Nasik district, the Sena’s candidate is Nirmala Gavit, a two-term Congress legislator from the seat.
Her prospects rest on a fine balance. She will lose older votes. Junaid, a local mechanic in a town bazaar, says “We won’t vote for her now that she is in the Sena. We will stick to Congress.” But she will also gain votes. “Tribals, a section of Dalits, OBCs, our old organisational vote and her personal vote will combine. We will win,” says a local Sena activist.
Deolali — again in Nasik — offers a different challenge. Here, the Gholap family of the Sena has been politically supreme for over three decades, with father Babanrao Gholap winning all the assembly elections since 1990 to 2014, and his son, Yogesh, taking over in the last polls.
But this has generated anti-incumbency and a strong anti-dynasty sentiment. In this seat, the BJP had a local aspirant, Saroj Babulal Ahiray. But once the alliance got formalised and the BJP ceded the seat to the Sena, Ahiray moved to the NCP and became their candidate. Today, she is gaining popularity and even Sena voters of the past want to see change.
So while the ideological churn at the top will play a part, the election will also turn on local politics.
An election of strike rates
And it is in this local political dynamic that the alliance with the BJP is both an asset and a challenge. It is an asset for the Sena because of Narendra Modi’s popularity, the support for moves like Article 370, the BJP’s organisational machine, and Fadnavis’ image. But it is also a challenge because many at the local BJP level may not want the Sena to succeed, precisely in the way the Sena in various seats would not like the BJP to succeed.
That is why a key interlocutor associated with the Shiv Sena campaign termed this election as a “strike rate” election. “Everyone knows this government is coming back to power. The game is not between BJP-Sena and Congress-NCP. It is between the BJP and the Sena. And the contest is who can maximise their seats.”
This, he explained, would determine the bargaining position of both parties on result day. “If the BJP maximises, the Sena will have to settle for less. If the Sena maximises, the BJP will have to be more generous in power sharing. The party’s aim is thus to win 90-100 of the 124 seats.”
Each election is significant. But for the Sena, this is particularly so for it will shape its multiple transitions — from being an extreme, nativist party to a relatively more open and inclusive formation, and from being the leading regional force in the alliance to a secondary partner of the BJP.