DAYS AFTER THE Election Commission (EC) ruled that Shiv Sena’s name and its bow and arrow symbol will go to the rebels led by Maharashtra Chief Minister Eknath Shinde, the Sena’s dispossessed leader Uddhav Thackeray said everything had been “stolen” from him except the name Thackeray. He promised to wage a fresh battle in the Supreme Court against the EC’s order which he denounced as having been delivered at the bidding of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). But the note of defiance was unmistakably tinged with lament as the latest roll of the dice in the Sena’s internecine blood-letting went decisively against the Thackerays. It marks a steep reversal of fortunes since the Sena-NCP-Congress government fell in June last year, ending Uddhav’s brief occupancy of the chief minister’s office.
Losing the Shiv Sena label and the well-known symbol (along with bank accounts) to Shinde & Co is a huge blow for Thackeray. The Supreme Court refused to stay the EC order even as it agreed to hear Thackeray’s plea. Unless the final order reviews the poll body’s ruling, relief may be distant for the former chief minister. The court’s observations in another case relating to the disqualification of MLAs in the Maharashtra Assembly are not encouraging. Noting the challenges to the speaker’s powers to decide the disqualification of legislators, the court expressed its disinclination to decide such issues, saying undermining constitutional authorities, despite occasional aberrations, is not a wise course of action. No doubt the EC’s order will be thoroughly scrutinised but undoing it will not be simple given the commission’s mandate and the tests it has applied in adjudicating the rival claims of the Sena factions.
Rather than assessing the loyalties of the Sena shakhas and the composition of the party’s organisational structure, EC has gone by the support enjoyed by the Shinde group in the Maharashtra Assembly and Parliament. The fact that the party’s electoral college is practically determined by the party chief (Thackeray) did not impress EC, which held that the rebels enjoy a “qualitative superiority” given that they number 40 MLAs and 13 Lok Sabha MPs, reducing the Thackeray camp to a small minority. In a messy fight where both sides accuse the other of “betraying” the Sena’s ideals and the legacy of late Balasaheb Thackeray, there is no easy way to settle the dispute. The speed with which the Sena offices in the Maharashtra Assembly, the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) and Parliament were handed over to the new inheritors, advantages the rebels and is likely to give them the upper hand in wooing the shakhas and local leaders ahead of the prestigious corporation elections in Mumbai and the 2024 Lok Sabha polls.
It was not just that BJP was waiting in the wings to entice Sena MLAs. A visit or two to the Sena’s stomping grounds in Mumbai and conversations at bhojanalayas would have provided a clue or two. While the Sena, with the support of Aaditya Thackeray, sought to approach cosmopolitan constituencies, it failed to keep an eye on its core support
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It’s a hard fall for Uddhav and son Aaditya. Union Home Minister Amit Shah did not soften the blow when he said the 2019 state elections had been fought with Prime Minister Narendra Modi as the poll mascot. Modi’s photos dominated the campaign rather than Thackeray’s, the home minister said, and accused the leader of striking an opportunistic deal with ideological adversaries just to be chief minister. As he has done before, Shah denied there was any understanding on splitting the chief minister’s term. The election results put BJP’s 105 seats way ahead of Shiv Sena’s 56, obviating any case for a rotating chief minister. The bogey of an alleged deal, Shah said, was an excuse to shake hands with the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) and Congress. Shah rubbed it in at a public rally when he said that those who cheat should not be forgiven otherwise they become emboldened. Thackeray and Sena mouthpiece Saamana lashed out at Shah, accusing him of being the “enemy” of Maharashtra, but the home minister had made his point. After the 2019 result, Thackeray was swayed by suggestions that he would be doomed to play second fiddle if he did not assert his claim and that BJP may hatch plans to subsume the Sena. But in striking a Faustian deal with NCP and Congress, he underestimated his former allies.
Looking back, Thackeray might have avoided the Shinde event if he had paid attention to what was happening on the ground. It was not just that BJP was waiting in the wings to entice Sena MLAs. A visit or two to the Sena’s stomping grounds in Mumbai and conversations at bhojanalayas (eating places) would have provided a clue or two. While the Sena, with the support of Aaditya Thackeray, sought to approach cosmopolitan constituencies, it failed to keep an eye on its core support. Expanding the party envelope is a legitimate goal but should not mean neglect of the base that supported the party almost since its inception in 1966. The impression that NCP patriarch Sharad Pawar was the one really calling the shots while Uddhav remained largely confined to his residence, choosing to visit the chief minister’s office only occasionally, gained credence. The chief minister’s perceived remoteness and access control imposed by a coterie worked against him. The tipping point came when legislators began to feel the Maha Vikas Aghadi (MVA) was a losing proposition and could affect their electoral prospects. Sena leaders close to Thackeray have sometimes expressed anger and frustration at voters shifting loyalties to Modi and forgetting their ‘original’ benefactors. Politics requires 24×7 engagement and Thackeray failed to notice the ground slipping below his feet.
Most Shiv Sainiks are uncomplicated and straightforward in their views, driven by a strong sense of loyalty to the Thackeray family and the Hindutva cause. While they might remain conflicted over their emotional attachment to ‘Matoshri’ (the Thackeray residence), they were puzzled by the party’s choice of allies in NCP and Congress. Sena has fought these parties for long and its supporters see them as venal and sectarian outfits with an “anti-Hindu” bias. The alliance was always going to run into trouble on the ground even as BJP bosses chaffed at being deprived of a prize they felt was rightfully theirs. Indeed, it is hard to disagree that the Sena benefitted from the Modi charisma in an election held soon after BJP won 303 seats in the General Election. The slew of corruption cases against MVA, including damaging allegations of the state home minister acting in cahoots with corrupt cops to extort funds, hardly helped matters.
There was a time when the late Balasaheb would imperiously decide how many and which seats BJP would contest. BJP leaders pragmatically accepted the terms and sought to make the best of Hindutva unity. Sometimes, they would speculate on a post-Balasaheb scenario, and wonder if they could be in the driver’s seat. Uddhav decided to fight the 2014 state polls on his own, rejecting BJP’s offer on seat-sharing. Ironically, if the Sena had accepted the terms, it could have led the government. It did not and ended up as junior partner in a BJP-led government. Shiv Sena failed to recognise that the times had changed with the advent of Modi on the national stage. The MVA experiment was always a wobbly edifice. Only the Thackerays did not recognise its impermanence.