It was a shift spurred by changing times. Bal Thackeray, who founded the Shiv Sena in the ’60s to espouse the cause of the Marathi manoos, switched to hardline Hindutva only in the ’80s just so that his party could grow out of the Mumbai-Thane region and make inroads into the rest of Maharashtra.
The Shiv Sena chief’s critics too admit that Thackeray was originally a liberal, and that his Hindutva encompassed the masses unlike the upper caste constructs of the Sangh Parviar.
In fact, Thackeray’s father, ‘Prabhodhankar’ Keshav Sitaram Thackeray, was a social reformer.
In the past, the Shiv Sena had experimented with soft Hindutva with its involvement in communal flare-ups in Bhiwandi and Mahad, but it turned to hardline Hindutva in the ’80s when it encashed the rising Hindu assertion caused by the Ramjanmabhoomi movement. In 1989, Thackeray toured Marathwada, making massive inroads into the backward region, rising as a Hindutva icon.
Initially, the party did not raise issues other than those relating to the Marathi manoos, says Surendra Jondhale, head of the Mumbai university’s department of civics and politics. “This restricted the party’s expansion (outside Mumbai where this had little resonance),” says Jondhale, adding that it was Thackeray’s “political compulsion to speak that language (of Hindutva).”
In 1987, the Sena successfully campaigned on the Hindutva plank in the Vile Parle assembly by-poll. The alliance with Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in 1989 further helped cement Thackeray’s image as a Hindutva icon. It only helped that Thackeray promoted people within the saffron outift, regardless of their caste and social standing. It was in 1989 when Thackeray toured Marathwada, cementing his image as the Hindutva icon.
And the results did show up eventually. In the 1990 assembly polls, the Sena’s seat tally rose from 1 (one) in 1985 to 52. In 1995, the Sena got 73 legislators elected, and rode to power with the BJP.
Hindutva also helped the Shiv Sena reach out to non-Maharashtrian Hindus. In 1986, many grassroot workers from Sharad Pawar’s Congress (S) party, especially those from
non-metropolitan areas like the Marathwada region, flocked to the Shiv Sena after Pawar’s party merged with the Congress (I).
Former Sena leader Chhagan Bhujbal, who is from the ‘other backward class’ (OBC), played a role in taking the Sena to the rural areas and the hinterland. Today, the Sena enjoys a wide support base among upper castes, Hindu dalits and the OBCs — perhaps next only to the Congress. Ironically, the party opposes caste-based reservations! During the 1992-93 Mumbai riots, Thackeray and the Sena portrayed themselves as “protectors of Hindus”.
However, the Sena lacks an institutional base in the co-operative sector, which holds the key to power in the rural areas, points out Jaideo Dole, reader, department of mass communication and journalism at Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar Marathwada University. “The Sena can only indulge in emotional, not institutional politics,” says Dole.
What helped the Shiv Sena move beyond the Mumbai-Thane stretch to a pan-Maharashtra party, was the rise of factionalism within the Congress and opposition to the Congress’s dynastic politics, coupled with Sena corporators’ election to the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation in 1985 which helped the corporators further expand their political presence to their native areas in the interiors of Maharashtra.