Awaaz kunacha? Shiv Senecha.” (Whose voice prevails? The Shiv Sena’s).
The slogan chanted by the Shiv Sena has dominated Mumbai’s political landscape for years, underlining the Shiv Sena’s pre-eminence in the socio-political geography of the city.
A month after Shiv Sena chief Bal Thackeray’s death, the sainiks’ hollering is turning feeble. They are now worried about the party’s self-goals. These include the controversy over Thackeray’s makeshift memorial at Shivaji Park, which saw it beat a retreat after weeks of sabre-rattling with the government, executive president Uddhav Thackeray’s long silence amid vitriolic statements being made by senior leaders like Manohar Joshi and Sanjay Raut and the U-turn over renaming Shivaji Park as Shiv Tirth.
This, they fear, has projected the monolith as a divided house and may take some vigour out of this slogan.
A senior Sena leader compared the situation of those turbulent days to the last years of the Peshwa rule in Maharashtra, where the Centre was weakened and warring feudatories had a free-run. Sena supporters worry that the shrill voices of warring leaders and Uddhav not asserting himself may have led to the party losing out on some of the sympathy generated after Thackeray’s death.
With just over a year left for the Lok Sabha and state assembly polls – the first for the Sena without Thackeray Senior – it has the challenge of dislodging the Congress-led dispensation while rivals like Raj Thackeray’s MNS and the NCP try to poach on its flock. Sena men say such controversies may lead to it being unable to translate the massive turnout at Thackeray’s last rites into political gains.
“It is unfortunate that we had to beat a retreat on the samadhi of a man who never went back on his word and took his statements to a logical end,” a Sena legislator said. “One must not issue threats on the memorial which they have no strength to go through with.”
They point out that the real tribute to the Sena chief, who was the first to push the Marathi manoos agenda in Mumbai, would be to ensure that Maharashtrians hold their own and thrive in the changing socio-economic landscape.
A veteran Sainik rued that Thackeray’s death had been used to create a controversy.
“Uddhavji should have asserted himself over these leaders…He does not talk and acts like a saheb. But he should have at least taken on these leaders in his own style,” he said.
Not all Shiv sainiks were happy about the hullabaloo over the memorial issue.
“This controversy was absolutely foolish,” a Shiv Sena veteran said, adding that the Sena chief never believed in erecting statues.
He added that the best tribute to the Sena chief would be to ensure the betterment of Maharashtrians in the city, where the old economic order is being replaced by new, and build socially relevant projects like hospitals and training centres in his memory.
“This was a power struggle to take the number two slot in the party,” he said. “The government had given the ground for the cremation for a day in good faith and also accorded state honour to saheb…Was this [refusal to vacate] not a breach of trust?” a Sena leader said.
Another Sena source questioned, “The controversy over the makeshift memorial was very unfortunate. Why have the top leaders of the party and various others refused to learn from the stance Balasaheb took on various issues?” He recalled that after the Babri Masjid demolition, a frank and up-front Thackeray had even said he was proud if any sainiks involved in it.
“What could be more unfortunate than the Sena not taking a clear stance on his funeral platform after his death…Haven’t our leaders learnt anything from Balasaheb?” he asked.
The rumblings among party men, too, has grown louder, with Uddhav being blamed for the confusion. “The root of the Sena’s problems is confusion. This stems from Uddhav’s style of working, irresponsible leaders and his lack of complete faith in party leaders,” the source alleged.
He said it was necessary for Uddhav to get over his distrust of mass and powerful leaders. “Strategists are necessary for deciding the course of action, but battles are won by warriors,” he said, adding that the party needed a strong second-rung.
“Uddhav’s statements on the memorial were vague…He should have taken a firm stand and said he was putting it forth on behalf of Shiv sainiks. This would have ensured that leaders do not cross the line,” he added.
Noting that the polls were just a year away, the Sena man said the party needed clarity in decision making to capitalise on the discontent against the Congress-led state and the central government to come to power. “Uddhav is good in theory and in building up issues, though he may take a beating at the practical level,” he said, adding that Uddhav had spoken about building a rainbow coalition with the Dalit-dominated Republican Party of India (RPI) around a decade back, involving the north Indians to adjust to the city’s changing demography through ‘Mee Mumbaikar,’ and focused on issues confronting rural Maharashtra and farmers.
“He tried to get the party out of the clutches of narrow, sectarian politics to widen its base,” the source said, adding that Uddhav was also good at number game as was evident in the Sena-BJP-run BMC, an attribute which would come handy in case the polls threw up a hung assembly. “Though he heads an aggressive organisation like the Shiv Sena and has grown under the wings of a charismatic leader like Balasaheb, he is gentle and polite. Only such accommodative leaders can survive in politics,” he said, pointing to how Uddhav had ensured that the Sena triumphed over the MNS and Congress-NCP in the BMC polls.”It [the Shivaji Park controversy] is an attempt at trying to take credit. There is an internal competition to see who shows more loyalty towards Balasaheb; an internal power struggle for leadership. So various statements were made from within the party,” said Surendra Jondhale, professor and head of Mumbai University’s department of civics and politics.
“The indecisive and fluctuating stance taken by the Sena reflects this internal churn,” he said. He added that sainiks always considered Thackeray Senior’s word as final, but Uddhav had not taken a strong stand on the issue. “This is why contradictory statements on the memorial and samadhi were made by leaders,” Jondhale said.
“Uddhav’s first challenge will be to build up the Sena’s organisation and give a new, contemporary political agenda to it,” he said, adding that these priorities could comprise issues like water scarcity in Maharashtra, inflation and the housing crisis in cities.
However, a Shiv Sena MP said that with the controversy over the makeshift memorial dying out, things would cool down.
“This was brewing for some time; it surfaced after Balasaheb’s death,” he said, pointing to the competitive statements made by senior leaders. “But that phase is now over.”
A BJP leader blamed the media for glossing over Uddhav’s statements calling for restraint during the memorial controversy and blowing up those made by party leaders. But he also stressed that the worst was over. “The Shiv Sena has its own captive vote base. The party has not been fragmented in rural Maharashtra…Raj has already damaged the Shiv Sena and cannot damage it further,” he added.