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Rise of Sena & 2nd generation Thackerays

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This article was written in 2006 by Aditi Phadnis and Makrand Gadgil in Of Cabals and Kings: Political Profiles published by BS Books. It has been updated and is being reproduced here

In 1966 when Prabodhankar (a person who spreads the light of knowledge) who was a leading light of Maharashtra's social reform movement announced at a mammoth rally at Mumbai's historic , "I am offering my Bal for the cause of Maharashtra,”  Prabodhankar could not have imagined that his son one day would rule the state through his famous remote control, a man who would arouse curiosity, passion and hate across the nation.

The hangover of  the movement (Movement for United Maharashtra) which created modern linguistic state of Maharashtra in 1960 had started to subside.

Marathi youth of Mumbai who courted arrest and zealously participated in the movement to create Samyukta Maharashtra with Mumbai as its capital were waking up to the rude awaking that though Mumbai was Maharashtra's capital they were not really in control of it.

Businesses were owned by  Gujaratis, Marwaris and Parsis and white collar jobs were going to South Indians, who were fluent in English and trained in accountancy and short-hand. And the new rulers of Mumbai, chief ministers and ministers were not interested in their plight as their constituencies were in far flung rural Maharashtra.

Bal Thackeray, a cartoonist who had walked out of in a huff in the late 1950s in protest against  the mangement's stand that Mumbai should be a centrally governed city state, sensed this void and decided to launch a magazine dedicated to cartoons along with his musician brother Shrikant , the father of Raj. The magazine which was fashioned on the British magazine Punch was called Marmik (apt comment) and it started poking fun at Gujrati Seths,  South Indian clerks, Udupi Hotel owners  and Congress politicians among others — creating enduring steorotypes.

Down the line it also started to publish lists of new recruits in public sector undertakings like SBI, Reserve Bank of India, Air India and LIC  to drive home how sons of the soil were ignored.  This list was titled provocatively Vacha ani swastha Basa (read and keep quiet).

Marmik's runaway success attracted large number of Marathi youth to Thackeray which finally culminated in launch of Shiv Sena on June 19, 1966.

In the first ever public meeting at which Thackeray  listed out his hate objects, interestingly Communists got top billing. 

Thackeray's pathological hatred of Communists  was a handy tool to Congress rulers who wanted to break the stranglehold of Communist and Socialist trade unions in public sector undertakings as well as the private sector in the country's financial capital.

In fact Thackeray and then chief minister of the state Vasantrao Naik shared so close a relationship that, Thackeray's party was jokingly called Vasant Sena in the state's political circle.

Because of this, the investigation of the murder, in broad daylight, of CPI MLA, never reached its logical conclusion.  Some lower rung sainiks were arrested  and a few got convicted.

But Thackeray's Shiv Sena never grew beyond Mumbai and neighbouring Thane as Maharashtrians in rest of Maharashtra did not see outsiders as a threat.

In fact by the early 1980s Sena had even became marginal political player in Mumbai although its fire power was intact.

But once again Congress chief minister gave a  lease of life to Sena.  Patil, who wanted to settle scores with then Congress's Mumbai unit chief , spoke about a conspiracy being hatched to separate Mumbai from the state.

The result  was obvious. The 1985  Mumbai municipal corporation elections were won by the Sena with a thumping majority — a majority  which it was not able to achieve even at the height of its anti-South Indian agitation. Chhagan Bhujbal became the Mayor of Mumbai.

In India and elsewhere, frequently, a party that is a big success as an opposition party tends to loosen and chip at the periphery when in power. The Shiv Sena was an exception to this rule, partly because of the way it was structured but also because of Bal Thackarey.

As the party came to power at various levels, the representation of the absolute control of Bal Thackeray was endorsed and affirmed  through public demonstrations of obedience and obeisance by even senior members of government. Former Chief Minister Manohar Joshi declared himself to be a puppet in his hands. Anand Dighe, probably one of the most independent leaders of the Sena, too declared "I will take action with due consent of my Supremo, Bal Thackeray." Whether it was bandhs or development of the state, Bal Thackeray’s was  the "remote control", that is his final say over any government decision. As founding member of the Shiv Sena and former Transport Minister Pramodh Navalkar said: "It is not unusual for him to read an item and immediately call up the minister concerned. That's how the remote control-thing really works." State guests were encouraged to call on Thackeray to pay their respects — as in the case of Rebecca Marks and her successors of the American energy company Enron demonstrated. Chhagan Bhujbal also once declared: "We all take Balasaheb as our supreme commander. Whatever he says is an order for us, and we don't go against it."

Sena, which had alliances with political parties right from the Praja Socialist Party, the Janata Party  and even the Muslim League had an alliance with new born Bharatiya Janta Party (BJP) in the 1984 Lok Sabha elections. Although the alliance candidate fail to win a single seat, it garnered sizeable votes in Mumbai. But again, in 1985, Sena and BJP parted ways and contested assembly elections independently.

By this time Thackeray, who had started nursing pan Maharashtra ambitions, sensed popular Hindu polarisation in the country in the wake of the Ramjanmabhoomi agitation and the infamous Shahbano case and decided to champion the cause of Hindutva.

And the young general secretary of the BJP, Pramod Mahajan, realised if they teamed up with Sena which had a charismatic leader like Thackeray at the helm of affairs, the two parties could break the Congress monopoly over power in the state. Thus after lot of persuasion Thackeray agreed to contest  the 1989 Lok Sabha elections in alliance with the BJP.

The alliance was not without its pitfalls.  Mahajan had to use his persuasive skills more with the Sangh and BJP leadership who saw Sena as an organisation of ruffians of little use outside Mumbai. In fact, few know that to this day, BJP leader and former President Dr Murli Manohar Joshi does not share a podium with the Shiv Sena because he feels they are against the Constitution of India.

Apart from the Hindutva plank,  the opposition space vacated by Sharad Pawar who had merged his Congress (S) and returned to the Congress fold in 1986 helped Thackeray spread his party in Marathwada and other regions of the state.

The youth from Marathwada who joined Sena were mostly from upper caste Maratha or Other Backward Classes (OBC)  but not from the elite 96 Kuli  (96 families) or Deshmukh Marathas that form the core of Congress politics in the state.  These were lumpen youth who were left out or marginalised by Congress's politics of cooperative institutions.

Chhagan Bhujbal, an important OBC leader from the state helped Sena bring OBC youth from across the state to Sena's fold.  However after 1990 assembly election, the post of leader of opposition went to Manohar Joshi who went  on to become first non-Congress chief minister of the state and speaker of the Lok Sabha.  Hurt, Bhujbal waited for an opportunity and crossed the floor on the issue of Sena's opposition to the Mandal commission.

This was a major setback for Sena, but the polarised atmosphere which followed the 1992-93 Mumbai riots and blasts helped Sena ride to power with its alliance partner in the 1995 Lok Sabha elections.

Aggressive posturing on Hindutva  and the active role played by Sena in these riots helped it extend its support base in Mumbai.  Many non-Maharashtrian communities like Gujaratis, North Indians and Kannadigas helped Sena win 31 assembly seats out of 32 in Mumbai during 1995 election.

Besides taking bold and aggressive positions on the sons of soil issue and Hindutva, its brand of Robin Hood style of politics also helped Sena gain popularity among the masses.

Shiv Sainik stood between the citizen and corruption, made things work and offered protection in a variety of ways. Nothing is free, so petty criminalisation and extortion lubricated the vast and complex shakha machinery. But by the mid-1980s, the collections of the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) were beginning to swell. At the same time, privatisation of development meant the state had to be bypassed in providing many services, in a practical manner. The Shiv Sena filled this breach.

It is important to understand the organising principles of the Sena. Despite the relentless references to and demonstrations of the supreme command of Bal Thackeray, the shakhas of the Sena were given a degree of autonomy in the activities and services they offered. Noted expert on the Shiv Sena Julia Eckert noted in an article that it was left to the shakhas to create their clientele through the services offered locally. Moreover, shakhas were responsible for the funding of their respective activities- the collection of donations and protection money. The diffusion of command did not mean that the organisation’s ability to act as a close-knit network and as a tightly controlled "army" was ever impaired.

The shakhas functioned autonomously in their everyday activities, guided by a certain general directive concerning the types of activities, their overall intent and the line of justification and explanation given out through Saamna and through Thackeray's speeches. This enabled them to create structures of power, control revenue, and the command over a local clientele that was mobilised when the party demanded it. The organisational strength of the sainiks, usually confined within their respective shakhas, was mobilised on a larger scale when internal discontent mounted.

But this also meant rivalry and a fight for turf that had high stakes. Vithal Chavan, MLA for the Sena, was killed in 1992 in inter-Sena rivalry and Khedari Redekar died in 1998. Shrikant Samolkar was once shot but survived and the Shiv Sena Mayor, Vaidya, survived several attacks on his life in 1998.

The rise of the Shiv Sena as a major political force across the state also heralded the rise of the second generation of Thackerays on the political scene.

The 1990s election saw Raj hitting the camping trail and people immediately realised that here was a chip off the old block.

For Swarraj aka Raj Thackeray it was always ‘ like uncle like nephew’, especially because most of his childhood and adolescence years were spent at his uncle's house at Bandra.

For Raj, Balasaheb's house was second home as not only were Bal and Shrikant brothers but his mother Kundatai and Balasaheb's wife Meenatai were sisters.

Raj was launched in politics by floating the party's students wing called the Akhil Bhartiya Vidyarthi Sena (ABVS).  By 1995, when the party came to power Raj had established himself as youth leader and crowd puller.

Around the same time Raj’s cousin and Balasaheb’s son Uddhav, Sena's current working president, was trying to find a foothold in politics. However, Uddhav was a reluctant politician, spurred into taking bigger role in the family business by his wife Rashmi. 

How things change. Today the retiring Uddhav is firmly in command of his party, the Shiv Sena's apparatus, surefooted and calculating, ensuring all future threats — whether it is Narayan Rane, the uncrowned king of the Konkan region in Maharashtra who was thrown out of Shiv Sena; or his cousin Raj who has launched the Maharashtra Navnirman Samiti (MNS) — represent no challenge to his leadership of the party.

Back then, Uddhav was just a mild mannered, wild-life photographer. But he found himself inexorably pushed to the political centrestage and by 1995, was contributing to the party's propaganda machinery. In 1995, when the party came to power, no one could have dreamt that one day he would emerge as a successor to Bal Thackeray and lord it over the organisation.

The rift between once inseparable duo of Dadu (Uddhav) and Sonu (Raj)  began with Sena's rise to power.  Within two years of installing Sena's chief minister at Mantralya, Balasaheb had lost wife Meenatai and elder son Bindumadha. The family patriarch started depending heavily upon Uddhav.

At the same time Raj's name got involved in the infamous Ramesh Kini murder case.  He was accused of putting pressure on police to shield the accused who were his close friends.

In 1996, Ramesh Kini, a lower middle class resident of an old dilapidated building in Dadar was found dead in mysterious circumstances  in a cinema hall  in Pune. The issue of  Kini's death was first raised by the Marxist activist Pushpa Bhave. Later, the leader of the opposition in the Legislative Council, Chhagan Bhujbal also used the issue to target the BJP-Sena government in the state and the upcoming political heir of Sena chief Bal Thackeray, Raj.

They alleged that  Kini was murdered because he was refusing to vacate the tenement in the old building of Dadar which builder Laxmichand Shah and his son Suman wanted to redevelop, and Raj pressurised the police not to pursue investigations in the case and close the file.  Bowing to the pressure, state government  handed over the inquiry to CBI, which later on exonerated Raj as it held no prima facie link could be established connecting Raj with Kini.  Later, the Shah father-son duo was also acquitted by the court in 2002. It took around two years for CBI to give a clean chit to Raj.  In this period Raj had to lie low politically and using this opportunity Uddhav took over the reins of the party apparatus.  

The organisation succeeded so long as there was Balasaheb Thackeray - larger than life, loved, feared, and revered. But he chose his son Uddhav, rather than his nephew Raj, as his formal successor. In this Thackeray acted predictably and conventionally. He disappointed a lot of his followers. The most important of them, Narayan Rane quit the Sena and spoke out against the infallible Thackeray himself. Raj Thackeray - acknowledged to be the 'mason' of the Sena while Uddhav has always been considered the 'architect' — also walked out. Confused, the Shiv Sainiks began questioning their leadership and its ideology. Suddenly everything was negotiable.

When faced with a setback - electoral or political - the Sena's answer is violence. When they lost the Lok Sabha elections in 1998, sainiks stormed the concert of Pakistani ghazal singer Ghulam Ali, they renewed their attacks on painter MF Husain for painting nude pictures of Hindu gods and goddesses and supported the ransacking of his house by the Bajrang Dal, the youth organisation of the VHP. Sainiks dug up the ground in the Ferozshah Kotla stadium in Delhi prior to a cricket match with Pakistan. They also threatened to attack the newly established bus link between Delhi and Lahore which Prime Minister Vajpayee had just inaugurated.

But that was all in the past. Uddhav was in charge. Maharashtra saw a bad round of bomb blasts in 2006. By now formally anointed Executive President, he attended a condolence meeting for the blast victims  but the target of his attack was neither Pakistan, nor Muslims. It was the Congress for indulging in "casteist" politics for power for the past 50 years.

Between then and now, Uddhav has grown in stature not only in the party but also in state politics. He first tasted major success in politics with Sena retaining control of BMC in 2002. This obviously qualified him to a promotion and he was appointed working president of party, and clearly, his chosen successor.

By 2006, Raj, his cousin, couldn't take it anymore. He left the party and launched his own outfit, the Maharashtra Navnirman Samiti (MNS). The two cousins, now political rivals, no longer share a cordial relationship in their personal lives either. They try to avoid each other even at family functions. (recently, at a relative's wedding, the two cousins ensured they were not present under the same roof at the same time. When one arrived, the other left). There has been some sort of a reconciliation of late, effected by Uddhav’s heart ailment. But everyone knows: mergers and acquisitions succeed in only 1 out of 10 cases. There are now parallel organizations  with office bearers, real estate, etc.

In terms of personality the two are as different as chalk from cheese. Uddhav lacks the charisma, the firebrand oratory and the devil may care attitude of his father and cousin Raj. But he overcomes these handicaps by being a studious, meticulous planner and hard working politician.  When Bal Thackeray  decided to turn his party from a Maharashtrian to a Hindu outfit, his instincts paid off. He could sense the popular mood in the country and state and exploited it to the hilt to expand the party across the state.  

However, when Uddhav led the party’s popular agitations on issues like  loan waiver, long hours of power cut and crumbling urban infrastructure,  it was the result of a well thought out strategy to use popular anti government sentiment against the government.

The BMC election in 2007 and subsequent victories in municipal elections elsewhere in the state have had the average Shiv Sainik bow their head in deference to Uddhav. But his biggest test will be from now onwards: he will have to ensure the party repeats its performance during the forthcoming Lok Sabha elections with its alliance partner, the BJP in the state and without the towering personality of Balasaheb in the background. The saffron combine had bagged 25 seats out of 48 in the state in 2004.   In 2009, the party won 11 out of 22 seats it contested out of a total of 48 Lok Sabha seats.

Worse was to follow. In the Rajya Sabha elections, the Shiv Sena broke away from the BJP on several occasions. In the elections to the President of India too, it was the same story, whether on the issue of Pratibha Patil or Pranab Mukherjee. Balasaheb’s authority was being eroded even in the NDA.

Uddhav cannot afford to fail.  So far senior party leaders like former speaker of Lok Sabha Manohar Joshi,  former speaker of the state assembly Dattaji Nalavde,  general secretary Diwakar Raote and various smaller leaders across the state have remained loyal to party. But that was then, when Balasaheb was still on the scene.

But failure to bring party back to power in the state may prove to be Uddhav’s Waterloo, with many second rung leaders shifting their loyalties to his younger cousin. Raj has managed to capture the imagination of the younger generation of the state from urban areas as he is aggressively championing the cause of the sons of soil. Which Sena shall it be? 2014 may have the answer.

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