Last Saturday, the Shiv Sena mouthpiece, “Saamna”, stuck its unflappable head into the controversy over Abhijit Mukherjee’s infamous comment on anti-rape protesters. The paper said that he was reflecting popular opinion, but had merely got his timing wrong.
At a time when Mukherjee’s party had distanced itself from his remarks and even his sister and father seemed to disown him, the Shiv Sena walked in headlong and offered a rather puerile argument for doing so: that the very protesters had come down on the Shiv Sena for its opposition to a Facebook comment by Shaheen Dhada, but were now denying Mukherjee his freedom of expression.
The party’s stand has sent mixed signals to its cadres who are not sure whether they are coming or going. First, they had Uddhav backing off from a confrontation with the government over the construction of a memorial at Shivaji Park after it was ramped up to a flashpoint. It seemed like a timidity that Shiv sainiks are not accustomed to. If that was an attitudinal shift from the party’s core political temperament, the latest salvo seems to take it back to where it started.
More than anything, it could be a sign of an impending turf struggle within the Shiv Sena. “Saamna” is virtually controlled by Sanjay Raut, the last of the party’s dwindling crop of firebrands.
Though Raut has emerged as the party’s voice over the years, it is Uddhav who bears the mantle of leadership inherited from his father. Old timers say Raut is unlikely to have sought directions from Uddhav before setting out the party line in print. He is more likely to have “briefed” him on the matter.
Many sainiks believe that Uddhav will win his way and redefine the party in a way they might not be comfortable. Even if they may want to quit, they feel handicapped in the absence of a political alternative that shares the Sena’s temperamental disposition and they would be discouraged by the experience of those who have deserted the party. The Maharashtra Navnirman Sena appears to be an easy option and some could slip into that group. But there are many who would not for emotional reasons and some who feel that Raj does not have the staying power.
Some other big leaders of the Shiv Sena, who left some years ago, are doing no better. Narayan Rane, for instance, came close to being bundled out of the Congress when he tried to unleash the belligerent Sena style. Today, he survives on the sidelines.
Chhagan Bhujbal, another stalwart who quit in a huff, had his use in the Nationalist Congress Party because of his Mali caste. But, before Sharad Pawar made him quit the government over the Telgi scam, he fell out with him over OBC reservations, the very reason for which he left the Sena. He maintains cordial relations with the party boss, but he is rarely consulted on party matters.
Clearly, the Shiv Sena’s slam-damn politics doesn’t work in most parties. So, for its followers it’s a Hobson’s choice.