A crown prince adds an extra push to the BJP-Sena rollercoaster
Lhendup G Bhutia | 11 Oct, 2019
Shiv Sena’s Aaditya Thackeray, Mumbai (Photo: Getty Images)
ON AN EARLY weekday morning, in a tiny Shiv Sena office under a flyover in Lower Parel, its branch head, a man in an orange waistcoat, moves about with a smiling but somewhat pained expression. Every few minutes, someone says something to him and he responds. Neither hears the other owing to the loud drumbeats outside but they keep up the pretence of a conversation by smiling at each other. The man then walks to the threshold and looks—with surprise—at the size of the crowd outside.
The crowd is indeed large. It has taken up not just the immediate footpath outside, but has spilt across both sides of the road and the space immediately underneath the flyover, stretching all the way into a large two-storied building on the other side. At the windows on the top floor of this building, you see more people, waiting to join the crowd below. There are bugles, drummers, female dancers, men with rolls of firecrackers; right amidst them, a large open truck has been arranged where photographers have crammed in. Immediately above, on the flyover, where no pedestrian is allowed, large men with grubby hands wait with rose petals. Every once in a while, someone there makes a mistake and the sky bursts into a shower of fresh purple petals.
The crowd is huge—many in it will only later find out that their pockets have been pinched and gold chains and mobile phones stolen. One of them, a Sena supporter named Abhijeet Jadhav, will later tell The Indian Express, “We all were busy in the roadshow. We came dancing all the way. We realised about our pockets being picked only at Worli.”
For now, however, the only person attempting to bring in some discipline is a man wearing a blue turban. “Journalist brothers and sisters, don’t take [sound] bytes of Aaditya [Thackeray],” he shouts into a microphone. “You people [to the crowd], don’t try to take selfies with Aaditya.”
At the office, the surprise on the face of the shakha pramukh has disappeared and a worm of anxiety has wriggled on his brow. Eight-thirty in the morning has turned to 11. But Aaditya Thackeray hasn’t shown up yet.
“Today, when Prime Minister Modi is delivering on key promises, we are here to support these shared dreams of the Shiv Sena and the BJP that we have worked on for the last three decades,” says Aaditya Thackeray, Shiv Sena
When he does arrive, at this tiny unit in Lower Parel, something of a riot breaks out. It is akin to a Churchgate-Virar peak-hour local train rush many times over, except there are petals raining from above. People are tossed, shoved and pressed. It is as if a filmstar has arrived. Women are stretching their hands to graze him. Others just want to catch his eye. Nearby, the party spokespersons appointed to speak with the press that day are saying, “It’s a historic day for Maharashtra. Just look at all this.”
PUSHING AND SHOVING, people place him atop an open jeep. And a cavalcade of more than 10 cars has appeared out of nowhere to join him. Just the day before, across Worli (the constituency Aaditya is contesting from), large hoardings featuring him asking ‘Worli, how are you?’ in various languages—Marathi, Gujarati, Urdu, Hindi and many south Indian languages—have come up. It is as much an electoral pitch as an announcement of a departure from the party’s earlier anti-migrant politics.
This area, Lower Parel, has transformed rapidly from a mostly Marathi neighbourhood filled with chawls and textile mills into a plush locality of high-rises and shopping malls. And Aaditya travels here, under these new hoardings signalling a changed politics, to break a family tradition and file his electoral nomination—the first Thackeray to do so.
“If you ask me,” says Surendra Jondhale, a professor of political science at the University of Mumbai, “Aaditya had to contest elections. Everything has changed so much. Politically speaking, Maharashtra is in a state of flux.”
The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), at one point seen mostly as a party of upper castes and traders, is growing rapidly in the state, drawing other castes into its fold and not just outrunning the Congress and Nationalist Congress Party (NCP), which controlled Maharashtra with the backing of the dominant Marathas, but even going past the Shiv Sena, its ideological partner which once claimed to hold the elder cousin status.
In the last state Assembly election in 2014, despite the BJP and Sena not forming a pre-poll alliance, much to the surprise of everyone, the BJP won a record 122 seats and the Sena, 63. The two then formed the government with a cumulative vote share of 47.2 per cent. Earlier this year during the Lok Sabha elections, the BJP and Shiv Sena, this time in an alliance, won 41 of the 48 seats with about 51 per cent of the vote.
If the reports of the disarray in the Congress and NCP and the mass defection of leaders from these two parties in the last few months to the BJP and Sena are any indication, the ruling alliance is likely to repeat its strong performance when the state votes on October 21st.
“The Congress and NCP are still stuck in the old conversation,” says Prakash Pawar, a professor of political science at Kolhapur’s Shivaji University. “They will talk about farmers’ plight, about rural issues. And then you have the BJP and its talk of bullet trains and smart cities.” As Pawar points out, Maharashtra has more cities and urban areas than any other state and, along with it, a huge group of people entering the middle class. A pitch such as the BJP’s appeals much more to the middle class, he says. “If you listen to the Shiv Sena, you will hear even they are watering down their Marathi manoos politics and talking more along these lines,” he says.
A lot of the conversation about this election has centred around Aaditya Thackeray. Groomed for several years to take over the Sena after his father one day, the young Thackeray, only 29 years old, is seen as a progressive leader trying to change the face of the party. Aaditya tells Open he decided to contest the election while he was touring Maharashtra and that while his grandfather then, and now his father, believe in serving society through goodwill, he personally thinks he could also contribute through the legislative process.
“Whatever [Shiv Sena] is today, as it is or is perceived to be, is with 100 per cent cooperation and approval of the entire party rank and file,” he says. Talking about the departures Sena is seen to be making in its politics, from one that was parochial and anti-migrant to becoming more embracing towards migrants, he says, “With social media and our work going to people directly without filters of bias, the perception has changed. The party leadership has always raised issues relevant to the need of the time. Yes, every movement begins with a struggle and protest, since it’s a fight against injustice. Once one has a considerable say in things, the energy has to be diverted to creating more for others.”
Under the bonhomie between the Shiv Sena and BJP, there is a deep undercurrent of resentment, says political scientist Surendra Jondhale, as the former is going through a deep existential crisis. Huge chunks of its base — the Marathi manoos in urban areas—are now gravitating towards Fadnavis’ party
“It’s like making a statue,” he says. “While making it, one uses a hammer and chisel. Once the statue is made, the use of a hammer can break it.”
Although Aaditya is now widely seen as someone reshaping the Sena, he first came into public prominence about a decade ago, when he burnt a copy of Rohinton Mistry’s novel Such A Long Journey at the Mumbai University’s gate, threatening the vice chancellor and getting the book removed from the syllabus. I ask him if he still believes in what he did. “Reactions and perspectives change over time, and in a decade, I have tried to better myself at work every day,” he says. “The book protest was majorly because of some teachers and students coming in and requesting the same, as they felt it an insult to a community. There’s absolute freedom to read and write as per individual choice but they didn’t want to study it. The Congress government of the day had also supported it as it had hurt sentiments. However, it’s been a long journey of evolution since a decade ago.”
THE ONE BIG challenge that the Devendra Fadnavis government faced was when the Maratha community seemed to be turning against him. Last year, violence broke out in several parts of the state over reservation demands. Fadnavis even had to cancel his visit to the Vitthal-Rakhumai temple in Pandharpur during Ashadhi Ekadashi in July last year despite its having become something of a tradition for the Chief Minister of that day and his wife to conduct the prayer service on that day. He cancelled because, Fadnavis told journalists, police had intercepted messages of a ‘stampede’ being sought to be created by releasing ‘snakes among devotees’. He has managed to ride out that storm and win the community’s support by introducing 16 per cent reservation in government jobs and education in the state. And earlier this year, Fadnavis, along with his wife, was back in Pandharpur, conducting the puja on Ashadhi Ekadashi.
The BJP under him has also been working quietly to wrest control from the Congress and NCP over the state’s powerful cooperative sector. The levers of power in Maharashtra have always run through farm cooperatives and district cooperative banks.
The BJP has been taking them over, either through elections to these cooperative bodies or by poaching leaders who control these. When Radhakrishna Vikhe Patil recently moved from the Congress to the BJP, it wasn’t just the Leader of the Opposition in the state Assembly dumping the Congress, he was also bringing along with, to the BJP, the political weight of one of the oldest and largest cooperative networks in Maharashtra—Pravara in Ahmednagar, whose cooperative bodies span agriculture, dairy and educational institutes. Prakash Pawar points at another recent defection: Dhananjay Mahadik from the Mahadik family which controls Gokul (the Kolhapur District Cooperative Milk Producers Union), considered the lifeline of the district, has moved from the NCP to the BJP.
Nawab Malik, appointed the head of NCP’s Mumbai unit after his predecessor Sachin Ahir joined the Shiv Sena, disagrees that the NCP and Congress are in decline in the state. “All that talk is exaggerated. And about those who have left us, the voters will see them for who they are,” he says. According to Malik, in fact, the recent Enforcement Directorate (ED) charge against Sharad Pawar for money laundering in the Maharashtra State Cooperative Bank case was politically motivated and has now galvanised the NCP’s rank and file. “Just wait till October 24 and you will see how this has played out,” he adds.
With the Congress state leadership almost non-existent, Pawar has come to assume the mantle of the alliance’s head. He’s spent much of the last few days holding massive rallies throughout the state. According to reports, after the ED charge, Pawar brought Satara to almost a shutdown at a rally. Earlier in Mumbai too, Pawar worked the ED charge in his favour, announcing he would visit the ED office the following day and finally deciding against it, after several entreaties by the government and the police, fearing a law and order issue.
Sharad Pawar has come to assume the mantle of the NCP-Congress alliance’s head as the national party’s state leadership is almost non-existent. He’s spent much of the last few days holding massive rallies throughout the state
According to Prakash Pawar, Sharad Pawar is trying to raise what the political scientist calls a Shivaji-centred subnationalism in the state. “He’s begun to pitch a Delhi against Maharashtra narrative, where the BJP-Sena government is working under the orders of Delhi and are against Marathas,” he says.
“Yes, there’s a BJP-Sena alliance in the state. But not [in Sindhudurg district],” says Pramod Jathar, the BJP president of the district.
There has been a widespread rebellion within the BJP and Sena across the state this time. Several leaders, either upset at having been denied a ticket from their own parties or at finding that the constituencies they had been eyeing have fallen to their alliance partner, have filed their nominations as Independents. In some cases, these leaders have withdrawn their nominations, after disciplinary action was threatened against them.
However, in the Kankavli seat in Sindhudurg, although this constituency has fallen to the BJP in its seat-sharing alliance, on the day of the polls, voters will find not just a BJP candidate, but strangely also one from the Sena.
The reason is the BJP ticket in Kankavli has been granted to Nitesh Rane, the son of a former Sena member and one-time Maharashtra Chief Minister Narayan Rane. The Ranes are immensely disliked by the Sena. According to reports, Narayan Rane has himself been trying to join the BJP, but that’s been kept on hold so as to not upset the BJP-Sena alliance. About eight years ago, Nitesh and Aaditya Thackeray almost came to blows when their cars grazed each other in Mumbai.
“We appealed to [the Sena]. But they hate the Ranes. And they didn’t agree,” Jathar says.
As a result, Jathar hints that the local BJP unit will pitch their support against rival Sena candidates in Kudal and Sawantwadi, the other two constituencies in Sindhudurg which have fallen to the Sena in their seat-sharing alliance.
“The opposition has no chance in Sindhudurg. But now, what can I do? Our rivals are going to benefit,” he says.
I ask him if the BJP should be in an alliance with the Sena.
“No,” he says. “If you ask me, we could have won a majority on our own.”
According to Jondhale, under the bonhomie between the Sena and theBJP, there is a deep undercurrent of resentment. “For me, the party going through a deep existential crisis in Maharashtra is actually Sena. Huge chunks of its base—the Marathi manoos in urban areas—are now gravitating towards the BJP. And although a majority of its base is in cities, if you look at the way seats have been distributed, in places like Pune, the Sena has not got a single ticket. That’s going to cause a lot of resentment,” Jondhale says. “And you can’t rule out the possibility of [Sena] workers going against the
In all, despite Sena’s earlier claims that the seats to be contested between them would be shared equally, it has been given only 124 seats. The BJP has got 164, including 12 for smaller allies whom the BJP wants to contest under its symbol.
When I ask Aaditya about his views on Sena getting fewer seats to contest in the alliance, he says this points to the party’s commitment to serving the country and people and how much it values loyalty in friendship.
“Whatever we do is genuine. We’ve been with the BJP for 30 years. Today, when Prime Minister Modi leading our alliance is delivering on key promises like houses to all, water to every home, the Ram temple, removal of Article 370, the Uniform Civil Code, we are here to support these shared dreams of the Shiv Sena and the BJP that we have worked on for the last three decades. The Shiv Sena has never bargained for any post or ministry. We believe politics and friendship are commitments and we do whatever it takes to fulfil our word to society.”