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Third Life of the Shiv Sena

Notorious Becomes ‘Normal’

Suhas Palshikar ( taught political science at the Savitribai Phule Pune University, Pune and is currently chief editor of the journal, Studies in Indian Politics.

The most crucial issue is whether, in their reincarnations, parties can substantially give up on the characteristics inherited from the time of their foundation. The example of the Shiv Sena suggests that moderation and normalisation do take place but the predominant tendency is to convert notoriety into normal.

As one looks back at the destruction of the Babri Masjid from a quarter of a century away, what strikes one more than the memory is the present. The party that spearheaded the agitation leading up to those events of 6 December 1992 is not only ensconced in power but is also seen as a respectable party working towards “development.” It is this conversion of notoriety into “normal” that also marks the (only) ally of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) (at that point), the Shiv Sena.

Was the Shiv Sena directly complicit in the vandalism at Ayodhya on 6 December 1992? Its founder, Bal Thackeray, is said to have made the claim that his brave sainiks (party workers) were among the ones who were atop the demolished structure ( 2009). Not many believed this. In any case, Thackeray had a complicated relationship with both the Ayodhya agitation and various Hindutva organisations. He was sceptical about the Vishva Hindu Parishad (VHP) because Ashok Singhal and other leaders were hogging the limelight. Thackeray also ridiculed the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) for being far too sober and passive. His criticism of the RSS came from being sceptical of Brahmins on the one hand and from his affinity towards Vinayak Damodar Savarkar’s idea of militant Hinduism rather than what the RSS would usually call “cultural” activity, on the other.

Some reports later indicated that the Shiv Sena, after all, was playing a double game during the Ram Janmabhoomi agitation. It carefully avoided getting entangled in the Ayodhya-related mobilisations (which is understandable given the Sena leadership’s caution in not getting itself on the wrong side of the long arm of the state) and at the same time, kept repeating its appeal for “Hindu unity” and making claims of the sainiks’ brave involvement in the events that unfolded in Ayodhya on 6 December 1992 (Swami and Katakam 2001).

But keeping aside the “facts” of the Shiv Sena’s direct involvement (or otherwise) in the demolition of the Babri mosque 25 years ago, one cannot easily forget the effects of its virulent rhetoric in Marathi. This produced a surcharged communal sensibility among the Hindus of Mumbai and adjoining areas, a sensibility that spilled over to other parts of Maharashtra and allowed the party to upgrade its leader to “Hindu Hriday Samrat” (emperor of Hindu hearts), an honour till then reserved for Savarkar (at least among Marathi circles); the epithet that was to be subsequently stolen by someone from a neighbouring state.

This claim (of involvement in demolition of the Babri Masjid) gave the Shiv Sena an opportunity to showcase what it was trying to offer to the Marathi electorate since 1984–85—a new, militant, non-Brahminical variant of Hindutva that was less interested in rituals and fine points about history and culture; was more directly anti-Muslim and had the lure of “direct action” which any exclusionary political platform requires. What began in 1985 as a halting project of communalising Maharashtra, or as one scholar has described it, the “vernacularisation of Hindutva” (Hansen 1996), suddenly became possible through the Sena’s decision to piggyback on the Ram Janmabhoomi agitation of the late 1980s and early 1990s.

In early 1984, Thackeray had mooted the idea of a Hindu mahasangh (though no Hindutva organisation took any note of it). Following the Bhiwandi riots around Shiv Jayanti in 1984, the Sena held its maha-adhiveshan (conference) in November 1985 at Mahad and formally announced its decision to espouse Hindutva. This move was obviously linked to its ambition to move beyond Mumbai and into the hinterland of Maharashtra. Accordingly, it also announced its plan to expand within Maharashtra and beyond the Mumbai–Thane belt. This marked the beginning of the Sena’s second life. If notoriety was at the heart of its rise in Mumbai, the same characteristic adorned its rise to power in the rest of the state. While it gained, Mumbai paid the price in the form of communal violence.

Communalising Mumbai

In this new (second) life that is linked and yet farther from its “Marathi” life, the Shiv Sena successfully communalised Mumbai in the course of the last leg of the Ram Janmabhoomi agitation. The 1992–93 riots were a testimony to this. The bomb blasts that shook Mumbai in 1993 further helped the Shiv Sena convince a large section among Hindus that the key division in India is between Hindus and Muslims and an assertion of Hindu identity is a necessary ingredient of (Hindu) nationalism. The period 1992–93 was the one when huge crowds would regularly gather to perform maha-aratis in many parts of Mumbai. Many Shiv Sena stalwarts actively organised these performances that adroitly mixed religion, nationalism and Islamophobia. The Sri Krishna Commission report has compiled evidence of the involvement of many key leaders of the Sena in both communalisation and more direct participation in the events of January 1993. In this “second life” the party underplayed its pro-Marathi claims and showcased its Hindutva. During the same period, it also became a statewide party stepping out of the Mumbai–Thane belt. It was handsomely rewarded for these two moves when state elections took place in 1995.

While election outcomes are always a complex result of multiple factors, the Shiv Sena’s rise to power in the state assembly elections of 1995 was certainly closely linked to its Hindutva stand. It systematically identified itself with Hindutva through communal propaganda and involvement in the riots and through Thackeray’s provocative demagoguery during the campaign and his claim that he was out to save Hindu national interests. The years 1992–93 constitute the peak of its Hindutva mobilisation with Mumbai as the capital of its communalism. Of course, the Shiv Sena also exploited the deep-seated anxieties among the Hindus of Marathwada vis-à-vis Muslims given the memories of the Razakar atrocities during the Nizam rule. So, besides Mumbai, it could also make deep inroads in Aurangabad city and many parts of Marathwada.

But once in power, it only mildly pursued Hindutva, mainly relying on slogans, threats, claims and symbols. It chose to intermittently present itself as a party of Maharashtrians, a party of Hindutva, a nationalist force, a non-Congress force and so on. It did not give up Hindutva nor did it give up its regionalist–nativist stance but it also did not pursue either of these earnestly when in power (Palshikar 2004). It was probably not much interested in introducing any serious nativist policies or in communalisation of the policy space. (We shall return to this aspect later.) When the next assembly elections came, Shiv Sena did not adopt the same aggressive Hindutva campaign. It failed to return to power and though it actually slightly improved its vote share, its legislative strength was depleted from 73 to 69 seats. From 1999 till 2014, the party had to sit in the opposition benches maintaining both regionalist and Hindutva identities.

What is remarkable however, is the continued survival of the Shiv Sena in the post-1999 period. For almost two decades since then, it has been a key political player in the state and occupies an important social space in Maharashtra. In 2004, it polled almost 20% votes (62 seats) and dropped to 17% in 2009 with a larger loss of seats (winning only 45 seats). In 2014 (assembly elections), for the first time contesting on its own since after 1990, it polled 18% votes. Thus it appears that the party consistently polls in the range of 17% to 18% votes. Today the Shiv Sena, since 1999, could be seen as passing through its “third life.” Old-timers—both from the Shiv Sena and even from its critical observers—are apt to say that the party at present is far too different from its previous “avatars.”

Changing Leadership

The most remarkable change that has happened is about its leadership. Any party relying exclusively on a single leader who is given to drama, demagoguery and acquiring a huge emotional following always faces a crisis of transition. From 1966 when the Shiv Sena was formed, till his death in 2012, Bal Thackeray occupied an extraordinary position in the minds of his followers. Those who have witnessed that popularity would obviously feel that today’s Shiv Sena is vastly different from the time of the senior Thackeray because of the leadership factor. In fact, many (sympathisers and opponents) expected that after his departure, the party would disintegrate and/or fade into oblivion. However, the moment of departure from second to the third life is not occasioned by the passing away of the founder leader. The argument here is that the transition took place in the lifetime of the founder leader; it commenced much before his death and therefore the transition was implicitly approved by Bal Thackeray himself. This is not to underestimate the challenge for the party thrown up by Thackeray’s death.

It is necessary to also note the limits of dramatics in competitive politics. Thackeray shot to fame because of his skills of demagoguery and rabble rousing. The Shiv Sena under him came to be identified with fiery speeches often nearly inciting violence. While the new leadership that succeeded him could inherit the mechanism of systematic organisation of local strongmen, no one—not even the estranged nephew—can easily claim to have inherited the demagoguery that Thackeray both possessed and cultivated into a political tactic. But, perhaps, he knew that even during his own lifetime too, those skills could be diminished and may not always guarantee electoral dividends every time. He certainly continued to be the crowd puller but how long he could convert crowds into votes was indeed a critical question. In the 1998 Lok Sabha elections, the Congress could wrest a large number of parliamentary seats despite having previously lost in many assembly segments in those constituencies in 1995. Thackeray also could not save the Shiv Sena from losing power in 1999.

In such circumstances, it was advisable that the party decided to shift gears having once reaped rich dividends from the senior Thackeray’s ability to post public performances. Instead, it began to shape itself as a “normal” political party and its founding family focused on transferring the reins of the party to Uddhav Thackeray. This led to the dramatic exit of Thackeray’s nephew Raj Thackeray who was believed to have considerable clout and close similarity to his uncle’s demagogic style. Since Raj Thackeray’s exit took place while Bal Thackeray was still alive, the adverse impact of that development remained somewhat limited. The party did not split vertically, though it was seriously dented in parts of Mumbai and Thane besides Nashik city.

Ideology and Style

But apart from the leadership factor, what else has changed? It is possible to say that the Shiv Sena has become moderate in its ideology and style. In its attempt to retain its hold across different regions of the state, it has become more accommodative of local leaders of many hues regardless of their commitment to its core ideology. In other words, in this third life, Shiv Sena has become much more like most other parties—it has almost become a “normal” political party, trying to exploit cleavages and at the same time trying to overcome them in order to build broader coalitions locally to win elections and to become a viable political force. It has almost moved away from notoriety to respectability owing to becoming a normal political party. So much so, that when it severed links with the BJP in the 2014 state assembly elections and won a substantial number of seats (63), many anti-BJP elements must have been tempted to imagine a Sena–Congress–Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) alliance to keep the BJP away from power. So has the tiger been tamed? Or, perhaps, changed its stripes?

It is true that the Shiv Sena has not mobilised the masses anywhere in the state on an explicitly Hindutva platform since after the mid-1990s. Nor has it done so on the regionalist platform. And yet, the unmistakable imprint of both Hindutva and Marathi identity is evident in the symbolisms and public utterances of the party and its key functionaries. In fact, whenever justification for any decision or legitimisation of any action is required, the party takes recourse to the twin ideological resources of regional identity and Hindutva. So, even while actual mobilisations do not hinge on these two, arguments do. In combination, these two resources betray the fundamental exclusionary streak in the party. And to the extent that the streak is invoked and kept alive, the party has not changed much. In the future, the party can quietly switch to appeals on these exclusionary bases. This was evidenced during the last elections to the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) when the Shiv Sena was engaged in a bitter confrontation with the BJP. It chose to go back to the “Marathi” agenda accusing the BJP of being pro-Gujarati.

This strategy was a result of the foundational nature of the party—that it not only originated but thrived through the idea of exclusion and constructing identities based on suspicion of some community or the other. The party has nurtured this tendency not only among its active workers but also among the electorate. By exploiting this tendency, the party can always try to improve its electoral prospects and at the same time protect itself from internal criticisms and challenges to its unity.

In the same manner, its other foundational feature, which it has never given up, is the style of functioning of the party’s active workers—the sainiks. It always relied upon the networks of sainiks for all sorts of objectionable activities and in return, extended them prestige and protection in their activities either directed towards imagined enemies or personal rivals. Scholars have variously described this as “direct action” (Eckert 2003) or “dashing” action (Bedi 2016). This style of functioning involves an emphasis on masculinity as a virtue, use of force as legitimate and vigilantism as form of democratic expression. Just as exclusion is the ideological basis of the Shiv Sena, vigilantism is its key approach to political activity.

Right from its inception, it thrived on its ability to blackmail and arm-twist the government by threatening to “set Mumbai afire.” If in the recent past, not many have complained about its propensity for street action, it is because others are also adopting the same style of political activism. Increasingly, the Shiv Sena (and other organisations similarly disposed) have successfully contaminated popular understanding and the practice of democracy by instilling the element of street action and rowdy vigilantism as important constituents of democracy (Palshikar 2017a: 169–70). As a result, the street action of Sena workers does not become “news” any more. Nonetheless, the Shiv Sena continues to fall back upon its workers’ orchestrated anger and outbursts.1 It is not merely the frequency of resorting to such action, but the justification of it that remains an important continuation of its past lives.

Two Critical Questions

In spite of these continuities, two critical issues need attention as far as the party today is concerned. The first is: Why does it not follow militant Hindutva on a regular or full-fledged basis anymore? A cynical answer would be that it only used (appropriated) Hindutva for purposes of expanding its base. At least one ex-MP of Shiv Sena would have us believe in this (Bharatkumar Raut, quoted in the DNA 2014). While political cynicism cannot be entirely ruled out, it is also necessary to remember that Thackeray did have a strong pro-Hindutva inclination right from the beginning of his career though that was overshadowed by his politics of Marathi regionalism. Thus, cynical politics was limited to switching on to one or the other of the ideological inclinations. As already indicated, once political gains were made out of the politics of Hindutva, that component was underplayed.

This tallies with the experience of Hindutva when it is in office and in opposition. Hindutva in opposition is more about mobilising one community against another. Though many Hindutva outfits do have ideas of how to change Indian society, those ideas require a systematic policy approach. While the practices of many BJP governments in different states vary, the halting march of communal nationalism marks much of our experience of Hindutva when it is in office. Partly, this has been due to electoral compulsions as was the case with the first version of the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) and the Vajpayee government. It made suitable noises about Hinduising education, etc, but did not go much beyond that.

Many state governments ruled by the BJP in the past also stopped short of fully Hinduising the policy space (the Shekhawat government in Rajasthan is a case in point). So, the question thrown up by the Shiv Sena’s post-1995 journey is whether Hindutva is primarily aimed at dividing the public for electoral purposes—as a strategy to acquire competitive edge—rather than at implementing the divisive policies, that is, as a governance strategy. From Gujarat, the BJP has shown its ability and inclination to bring in divisive policies when in power. But at least in the case of the Shiv Sena, Hindutva was/is seen mainly as a strategy to construct a constituency and evolve a social base instead of a systematic policy tool. It is also not clear if the Shiv Sena had in the past, or has now, any concrete road map for implementing the Hindutva policy. Its Hindutva is hazy—opposing Valentine’s Day one year, threatening to disrupt an India–Pakistan cricket match another, disrupting Ghulam Ali’s concert at another period in time. Of course, it would be a mistake to forget that at one point the Shiv Sena was responsible for communalising Mumbai and much of Maharashtra. If today, it operates mostly as a “normal” political party, that normalisation is at the cost of also making Hindutva a normal component in the politics of the state. Yet, what Hindutva policies it might adopt remains uncertain besides the propensity to engage in communal mobilisation.

The other critical question in regard to today’s Shiv Sena is this: what does it imply as far as the arena of party competition is concerned? As the Shiv Sena began to behave as a “normal” party, it has lost the capacity to dramatically uproot the Congress as it did in 1995. But this is no reason for the Congress to rejoice. Over the past two decades, the Shiv Sena has quietly but surely made inroads into many of the bastions of the Congress and the NCP; initially in Marathwada and more recently in western Maharashtra. This has allowed the BJP to occupy a central place in state politics since 2014. In the aftermath of the 2014 assembly elections, the Shiv Sena is engaged in acting a “double role” in state politics as a partner in government and also as opposition (Palshikar 2017b).

This means, that at least in the near future, it would be the main opposition to the BJP. That may be an irritation, but does it necessarily weaken the BJP? Today, opponents of the BJP are indeed happy at the turn of events because the Shiv Sena is increasingly distancing itself from the BJP. This should be a worrying scenario for two reasons. First, the Shiv Sena has been long unable to make up its mind whether it wants to remain in the opposition and wait for its turn to come or it would rather prefer to play the more complicated game of being a ruling party and an opposition party simultaneously. This prevarication gives more space to the BJP for both its expansion and also for the consolidation of its policy agenda. Second, and more importantly, even if the Shiv Sena were to occupy the position of a full-fledged opposition party, it would mean that both the ruling and oppositional spaces in Maharashtra would be occupied by forces that believe in and practice exclusion. Such a scenario portends further expansion of sub-democratic politics. Therefore, whether the Shiv Sena actively pursues Hindutva in its third life or not becomes less pertinent.

The most crucial issue is whether, in their reincarnations, parties can substantially give up on the characteristics inherited from the time of their foundation. The example of the Shiv Sena suggests that moderation and normalisation do take place but the predominant tendency is, as pointed out at the beginning, to convert notoriety into normal. It is not easy for parties to give up on their foundational features unless the party acquires truly visionary leaders who do not want to live off inheritances of power, family or ideology.


1 Street violence is often claimed to be caused by instantaneous anger of the workers or the mobs. However, many have always suspected that such acts are planned and orchestrated. This suspicion is strengthened by a case filed by Pune police in 2010 after wiretapping conversations between two Sena leaders allegedly planning to cause effective violence during a “bandh” in the city. The case has now been withdrawn by the state government. See Pune Mirror (2017). This instance shows how Shiv Sena continues to still engage in violent street action and how that is not extempore but probably always planned.


Bedi, Tarini (2016): The Dashing Ladies of Shiv Sena: Political Matronage in Urbanizing India, New York: SUNY Press.

DNA (2014): “Bal Thackeray Turned to Hindutva in 1985 to Win Elections,” 7 July,, accessed on 26 October 2017.

Eckert, Julia (2003): The Charisma of Direct Action: Power, Politics and the Shiv Sena, New Delhi: OUP.

Hansen, Thomas Blom (1996): “The Vernacularization of Hindutva: BJP and Shiv Sena in Rural Maharashtra,” Contributions to Indian Sociology, Vol 30, No 2, pp 177–214.

Palshikar, Suhas (2004): “Shiv Sena: Tiger with Many Faces?,” Economic & Political Weekly, Vol 39, Nos 14–15, 3–16 April, pp 1497–1507.

— (2017a): Indian Democracy, New Delhi: OUP.

— (2017b): “Shiv Senecha Double Role (Shiv Sena’s Double Role),” BBC Marathi, 2 October,, accessed on 3 October 2017.

Pune Mirror (2017): Pune Court Withdraws Case against Sena’s Gorhe, Narvekar,” 27 October,, accessed on 2 November 2017. (2009): “Skipped Ayodhya as Hindutva Forces Did Not Unite: Thackeray,”, accessed on 17 October 2017.

Swami, Praveen with Anupama Katakam (2001): “The Shiv Sena’s Games,” Frontline, 4 August,, accessed on 17 October 2017.

Updated On : 4th Dec, 2017


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