Of all the revolts that the Shiv Sena has faced in over 50 years of its existence, the current one undoubtedly looks the most threatening. Still, one can find a common thread that is responsible for every fissure: The Shiv Sena‘s consistent failure to convert itself from a rag-tag sanghatana (organization or union) into a mature political party. The Sena was formed in 1966 to espouse the cause of the “sons of the soil” and help the Marathi manoos get enough jobs in PSUs and banks. With this limited goal, it was easy to run the organization — which its founder, the late Balasaheb Thackeray, did. The Sena smelled political success only after the rise of Hindutva. It was easier for it to add a dash of religion to its regional appeal. This expanded the Sena’s clout and political footprint.
However, as it enjoyed the concoction of regional plus religious politics, it continued to ignore the most crucial element on its journey to becoming a political force: its decision-making process. Modern political parties demand a proper decision-making mechanism, even if power remains in the hands of a chosen few. Such a mechanism addresses the aspirations of its second- or next-rank leaders, besides keeping the outfit engaged. It also helps everyone in the system feel proud of “being consulted” on important issues, even if some of their opinions are not considered.
This is exactly what the Sena has consistently failed to do. The history of its rebellions underlines this. The Sena received its first jolt in 1991 when Chhagan Bhujbal joined hands with Sharad Pawar to join the Congress. This happened against the backdrop of the Sena supremo Bal Thackeray’s reluctance to take note of the post-Mandal reality and make the necessary changes in the party organisation. Thackeray senior, to his credit, never believed in caste politics, and dismissed the issues raised by Bhujbal, an OBC leader. Such was the former’s clout that Bhujbal lost his assembly seat in the following election.
The next big split that the Sena experienced was in July 2005, when former chief minister Narayan Rane decided to quit the party. Like Bhujbal, Rane too didn’t leave for want of a post or portfolio. His grouse, too, was that he was being ignored in decision-making. A few months later, the Sena had another high-profile exit: that of the younger firebrand leader Raj Thackeray. He had felt sidelined in the Uddhav-led Shiv Sena and decided to float his outfit, the Maharashtra Navnirman Sena (MNS). After the MNS’s spectacular success in its maiden election in 2009, in which it sent 13 members to the 288-member state legislature, Raj Thackeray faced a similar exodus.
Ironically, the same reason lies behind the situation that both Thackerays face, time and again: Their inability to convert their outfits into political parties. In the Shiv Sena’s case, the failure is bigger because of its history and the heights it has scaled. It was all the more important for it to fortify its organization and be more vigilant after it antagonised the BJP, its powerful and ruthless partner, to form the government with the Congress and NCP. Hurt and humiliated by its estranged partner, the BJP was never going to allow the SS-NCP-Congress government to complete its term.
Armed with central agencies, the BJP adopted a two-pronged strategy to weaken Shiv Sena. It kept accusing, if not threatening, minister after minister in the Maha Aghadi government with serious corruption Vikas which were promptly taken note of by the “efficient” central agencies. At the same time, it spared certain leaders and started “investing” in them, one of whom was Eknath Shinde, The typical Sena-style strongman, Shinde had the responsibility of the most resource-rich ministries in the state cabinet. Along with the extremely lucrative urban development portfolio, he also handled the Maharashtra State Road Development Corporation (MSRDC) which has awarded contracts worth hundreds of crores of rupees. Interestingly, the ever-alert BJP could never spot any misdeed in Shinde’s ministry.
The first sign of success for the BJP’s strategy came when another Shiv Sena strongman Pratap Sarnaik came out in the open to demand an alliance with the BJP. Thanks to a couple of raids by the Enforcement Directorate in the Topsgrup security scam and the attachment of his firm and plots in the alleged NSEL (National Spot Exchange Ltd) scam, Sarnaik was candid when he asked Uddhav Thackeray to sever ties with the NCP and Congress and return to the saffron fold. It’s no coincidence that Eknath Shinde too wants the same. “I won’t mind even if I am denied a ministry, but for Hindutva’s sake please return to the BJP,” Shinde said. Sarnaik is accompanying Shinde in the ongoing revolt. The difference between the earlier revolts and the current one is the absence of Sena patriarch Bal Thackeray. His presence was the reason the earlier splits were solitary and not many had accompanying defectors, unlike this time where it looks like a vertical split. With the Sena missing a larger-than-life leader, along with the absence of a “party” structure, it has been dealt a fatal blow by Shinde.
It would be naive, however, to believe that behind Shinde’s effort to split the Shiv Sena is his pursuit of Hindutva alone. It will be equally imprudent to swallow the Sena’s allegation that Shinde and company are being lured by the BJP. Along with the BJP’s strategy, it is the Sena’s style of decision-making that compels its leaders to look outside the party for that crucial element that all leaders worth their salt crave: Importance. Even if it survives the latest threat, the Sena’s future depends on how quickly it understands this and converts itself into a full-fledged political party. This means that it has to give up its sanghatana-style behaviour.
The writer is editor, Loksatta