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Shiv Sena’s fractured kutumb navigate a crisis of loyalty

Apr 14, 2024 12:45 AM IST

With elections looming, the question of which faction commands the loyalty of the sainik base hangs in the balance.

Seventy-two-year-old Rajan Patkar calls himself a “kattar shiv sainik” (a staunch supporter of Shiv Sena). Patkar, a resident of suburban Mumbai has supported the party since the age of 12. Having seen three generations of leadership within the party, Patkar has been a frequent visitor of his local shakha for decades. Over the last year, however, these visits have become infrequent. One Sunday afternoon, he called me and lamented, “We have seen many ups and downs in the past, but we were all one family. Now it is just so difficult to keep everyone together. First, it was our top leaders but now the rift is evident even on the ground. As local leaders jump to the other side, their supporters follow. This is not our Shiv Sena,” said Patkar who continues to be a Shiv Sena (UBT) loyalist.

As Maharashtra braces for the electoral battleground, the fissures within Shiv Sena's kutumb serve as a sobering reminder of the fragile nature of political loyalties. PREMIUM
As Maharashtra braces for the electoral battleground, the fissures within Shiv Sena's kutumb serve as a sobering reminder of the fragile nature of political loyalties.

Since Eknath Shinde’s rebellion from the Sena and the subsequent decision of the Election Commission of India to allot the official name and party symbol to the Shinde-led group, there have been instances of several skirmishes at the local level. Shakhas (branches) which form the backbone of the party’s grassroots presence are also split down the middle in many places, as groups try to woo supporters. In the middle of the political rigmarole, claims and counterclaims, the ordinary Shiv Sainik is facing possibly the biggest crisis in identity and struggling to tide through one of the toughest times for the Sena kutumb (family).

The word kutumb holds a special significance for Shiv Sena, Shiv Sainiks and the Marathi manoos in Mumbai and Maharashtra. Since the initial days of its existence, party founder Bal Thackeray always said that it was “one big family.” To be a good sainik, one had to support each other in their joys and sorrows and Thackeray insisted on it. The sainiks I spoke to during my doctoral research on the party often underlined how the family aspect played a crucial role in their continued loyalty as the party went through several ups and downs. This is not the first time that the family has been challenged.

One of the earliest challenges was when senior leader Chagan Bhujbal left the party in 1991 with 17 MLAs. While Bhujbal’s rebellion was a major crisis in the Sena, a majority of supporters and party cadre strongly backed Bal Thackeray and his leadership. In fact, the sainiks united against Bhujbal and vowed to teach him a lesson by disrupting his sabhas and blocking his movement in many parts of Mumbai.

A similar crisis arose in 2005 when Narayan Rane left the party alleging that he was being sidelined. Uddhav Thackeray launched a tirade against Rane and tried to contain the rebellion to some extent. This time too, the cadre more or less remained with the Thackerays.

One of the biggest setbacks to the party’s morale came after Raj Thackeray left the party in 2006. Raj commanded a huge influence among the cadre and his formation of the Maharashtra Navnirman Sena (MNS) subsequently threatened to divide the Shiv Sena’s voter base. Despite the dent that it caused in the party’s local cadre, Bal Thackeray’s declaration of Uddhav as his heir apparent and subsequent appeals of supporting him and grandson Aaditya invoking the values of shraddha (faith) and nishtha (loyalty) helped the party overcome the damage to some extent. Eknath Shinde’s rebellion, however, has been the toughest crisis for the Shiv Sainiks, something that most of them are still unable to wrap their heads around.

When the party saw the biggest vertical split in its history, it was believed that despite the leaders jumping to the other side, the majority of the Sena cadre was going to remain loyal to Uddhav and Aaditya, as their loyalty rests with the Thackerays and the chair of the Shiv Sena pramukh (chief). Even as there was discontent among old-time sainiks about the party joining hands with old foes Congress and Nationalist Congress Party (NCP), and a change in its once aggressive stance on Hindutva, many sainiks continued to back the Thackerays as they could not imagine Shiv Sena without the family. Nearly two years on, however, the situation is not as black and white as it seemed earlier.

The exit of prominent leaders to join the Shinde camp and the Bharatiya Janata Party-led coalition subsequently led to a similar split across the Shiv Sena ecosystem, reflecting at the level of bodies such as the Bharatiya Kamgar Sena (Shiv Sena’s labour union) and right up to the local shakha. The traditional cohesion and discipline that characterised Shiv Sena's organisational structure seems to have eroded amid the scramble for power and influence.

Old timers in the Sena said that many factors are responsible for this. A primary reason for this is the political aspirations of the younger brigade.

“Right now, the Shinde-led faction has huge financial and political might. We worked for Balasaheb and Uddhavji relentlessly but the new generation has political aspirations. They are eager to make hay while the sun shines. It is unfortunate but it is a fact,” said a former shakha pramukh from the eastern suburbs. Shiv Sena’s local presence through its shakhas across various neighbourhoods in the city is a crucial aspect of its political influence. While the shakhas hold a reputation of being parallel problem-solving machinery, with the change of guard at various levels, it is increasingly becoming difficult for the loyalists to get work done.

“Earlier, we could make a single call to an official in the civic body and get people’s work done. But now, the equation has become complex. They control the state government and effectively the BMC. We have no bargaining power left,” said another local karyakarta. Decision-making in the Shiv Sena has always been centralised with the aadesh (diktat) being doled out at the top and the sainiks following it with no questions asked. But the current split has created so many power centres in the party that karyakartas are themselves confused about what route to take.

With elections looming, the question of which faction commands the loyalty of the Sainik base hangs in the balance. The outcome will not only shape Maharashtra's political future but also determine the fate of one of the state’s largest and most influential political cadres. The Shiv Sena’s transformation from a unified family to a divided entity reflects broader shifts in Indian politics, where personal ambitions often supersede collective ideologies. For Patkar and countless other loyalists, this existential crisis within the party is not just a political dilemma—it's a profound test of their enduring faith and commitment.

As Maharashtra braces for the electoral battleground, the fissures within Shiv Sena's kutumb serve as a sobering reminder of the fragile nature of political loyalties. The outcome of the elections will not only decide the fate of parties but will also reveal the true allegiance of Shiv Sainiks torn between competing narratives of identity and opportunity.

Dr Sanjay Patil is a Mumbai-based researcher who works on Maharashtra politics and urban informality. His doctoral work looks at the journey of Shiv Sena between 1985 and 2022. The views expressed are personal.

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