Life After Balasaheb Thackeray: Why Shiv Sena Will Never Be the Same Again


Life After Balasaheb Thackeray: Why Shiv Sena Will Never Be the Same Again

Illustration: Akshita Monga

When Bal Thackeray passed away back in 2012, the city went silent for a couple of days. Electronic dance group Swedish House Mafia, which was supposed to perform on the day, was sent off packing. The entire city was diverted to Shivaji Park to pay respects to one of its most controversial — yet influential — leaders.

One teenage girl, who probably didn’t have too many fond memories of Bal Thackeray, and complained on Facebook about shops being closed, was arrested. Another teenager, who liked the post, was arrested as well.Such was the power of Bal Thackeray.

Thackeray wasn’t known for his respect for the authorities or law. Nor did he like South Indians, Gujaratis, North Indians, or Muslims. But he liked cigars, drank beer, and drew political cartoons for his political weekly Marmik. He was once photographed chilling with Michael Jackson and was charismatic enough to charm a Virar fast into stopping at Mahim.

The cartoonist, politician, and king of the Marathi manoos rose in stature in the 1960s, with his “Mi Marathi” agenda, and changed the face of the state’s politics. It’s no surprise, then, that he would command that kind of respect. But Shiv Sena’s brand of dadagiri — holding the state to ransom by calling for a bandh whenever they felt like it — also had a role to play. It was in February 1969 that the nation witnessed the kind of influence Thackeray had over the state. The Shiv Sena, which was a three-year-old party then, started an agitation demanding a settlement of the Maharashtra-Karnataka border row. Morarji Desai, then Deputy PM, ordered firing on a Sena protest that led to over 50 deaths. But what irked the already angry Sainiks was Thackeray’s arrest. There was violence across the city, which ceased only after the Sena chief’s appeal for peace from Yerwada Jail.

After 1969, the bandh — and violence if anyone did not heed to its call — became synonymous with the Sena. In 2009, when news channels accidentally misquoted Thackeray, a group of party workers attacked media offices, making sure it never happens again. No one wanted to mess with the supremo.

Now that he’s gone, the power that the Sena wielded over Mumbai has waned. The party has been reduced to the “people who occasionally attack journalists” status. Their critical editorials in Saamana don’t make much of an impact anymore. The daily, which the senior Thackeray launched in 1988, had always been a major hit among Sainiks, one of the most successful examples of a political mouthpiece. It offered a peek into the lives of one of the country’s most provocative politicians, as well as provided unbiased news at the local municipal level, which explained its popularity at the time.

Today, under Thackeray’s son Uddhav, its headlines are dominated by the Shiv Sena’s tussle with its frenemy the BJP and other political rivals. In a recent editorial, the Shiv Sena called the BJP a “mad murderer,” and the UP CM Yogi Adityanath a “hypocrite,” but this still didn’t make national news. Compare this to Bal Thackeray, whose mere presence kept the Shiv Sena in the spotlight, despite being a regional party.

Today, as Uddhav faces pressure to ally with the BJP before general elections, it seems that the party is going to try and win elections on the same religious plank.

During its Hindutva phase, the Shiv Sena ended up contributing in a big way to the demolition of Babri Masjid in 1992. Thackeray himself claimed that he was proud of the Sainiks who helped demolish the Masjid, and was later chargesheeted for hate speech. But this strategy would continue for another year, when Mumbai would face its deadliest communal riot, the 1993 riots, which lead to over 700 deaths.

One would assume that having a deadly riot on your hands would be enough to relegate you to obscurity, but Thackeray thrived under these circumstances. The Shiv Sena’s role in the riot ended up giving Maharashtra its first and only chief minister from the party, Manohar Joshi, in 1995.

The riot was no setback for the Sena, nor was the deflection of Thackeray’s right hand man Chhagan Bhujbal to the Congress. It survived infighting, the exit of Sanjay Nirupam and Narayan Rane from the party. It even survived after Raj Thackeray left the Sena and started the MNS. What the Sena hasn’t survived, is the death of its king.

In the years after Thackeray, the Shiv Sena has floundered. It hasn’t fully relaxed its hardline politics à la 1990s Bal Thackeray, but also hasn’t really shifted focus to municipal issues like 1960s-80s Bal Thackeray. Right now it seems to be stuck somewhere in the middle.  

The party which once reigned over the BMC now finds itself cornered by the BJP. Last year, Devendra Fadnavis conceded the civic body to the Sena after the polls. But the BJP wasn’t being kind, it just has its eyes on the bigger picture. By restricting the Sena to Mumbai, the BJP plans to consolidate its position in Maharashtra for 2019 and aims for a takeover of the BMC in the next civic polls, scheduled for 2022. A weakened Sena struggles to find the way forward.

Today, as Uddhav faces pressure to ally with the BJP before general elections, it seems that the party is going to try and win elections on the same religious plank. Meanwhile, its only valid contribution to municipal issues remains changing the name of Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus to Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Terminus and promising to build a 3600-crore Shivaji Statue in the middle of the sea.

Until the Shiv Sena gets itself another Bal Thackeray, it’ll probably remain a small party that lashes out at opponents, and cares only about Shivaji. Maybe the answer lies in a Sena and MNS merger ahead of the general elections. This might gain the confidence of the Marathi vote bank, which is now split between the two warring cousins.

But whatever it does, it is unlikely the Sena of 2018 will resemble the Sena of 1980s. Uddhav and Raj, even together are no match for the prowess of Bal Thackeray, the one and only undisputed king of Mumbai.