MUMBAI: The fall of the Udhav Thackeray Government following a vertical split in the Shiva Sena has put the party founded by Maharashtra’s charismatic but controversial leader Bal Thackeray in 1966 in an existential crisis.
The rebels have formed a government with their leader Eknath Shinde as the Chief Minister and Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) as a partner. Former chief minister Devendra Fadnavis, who is from the BJP, has been appointed as Shinde’s deputy. This has surprised political observers who had predicted that the BJP would lead the Government with Fadnavis as the Chief Minister.
Shinde has made it clear that he would not stop at ousting his boss from the Chief Minister’s office. He is fighting legally, and on the ground, to prove that his outfit is the real Shiv Sena. The Sena is at a crossroads. The BJP has questioned its faith in Hindu nationalism after it partnered with centrist parties. And now it’s out of the Government as well. On stake is the future of one of India’s most influential regional parties. Rebellion is not new to Shiv Sena.
The party split in 1991 when senior leader Chhagan Bhujbal quit along with several lawmakers and workers. Another leader, Narayan Rane, quit the party in 2005 and took several lawmakers along with him. Uddhav Thackeray’s cousin, Raj, left the party along with several lawmakers and workers in 2006. But commentators say this time the setback is likely to leave the party severely bruised. Political analyst Suhas Palshikar says the revolt in the party “has started the downfall of Shiv Sena”.
Bharat Kumar Raut, a former Shiv Sena MP, echoes a similar sentiment. “The party has never faced a crisis of this magnitude before. Grassroots supporters and workers have also deserted the party,” he said.
In India, regional parties such as the Sena exercise considerable political clout and often defeat national parties in state elections. They also play a pivotal role if a national party fails to get the majority in federal elections.
Bal Thackeray, a political cartoonist, fought for the rights of the Marathis in the face of a wave of immigration from Kerala and other southern states in the 1960s. His fiery rhetoric made him one of India’s most controversial politicians. The country’s financial capital, Mumbai, experienced innumerable strikes on his orders in his heyday.
The Sena gained considerable notoriety in 2014-15 when it succeeded in forcing the cancellation of talks between India and Pakistan to revive cricketing ties between the two countries. It also forced the cancellation of a concert by Pakistani singer Ghulam Ali and disrupted the launch of a book by a former Pakistani foreign minister.
Analysts say the Sena will now find it difficult to energise its base and convince its supporters that it still has the same fire that brought it prominence, and sometimes notoriety as well.
In the past, the Sena emerged stronger after desertion of its leaders thanks largely to the fact that it was in power in partnership with the BJP. But that partnership doesn’t exist anymore. The Udhav Thackerayled Sena’s future is in the hands of the grassroots workers of the party, whose loyalty is uncertain after the latest split. The first real trial of strength between the rival groups would be elections to the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation due later this year.