Maharashtra Elections: Why the Shiv Sena Leads an Unlikely Coalition

The Shiv Sena in Maharashtra has proved that its political ambitions are greater than its ideological commitments.

On 28 November 2019, Uddhav Thackeray was sworn in as the chief minister of Maharashtra more than a month after the election results were declared. Thackeray heads a coalition government formed with Sharad Pawar’s National Congress Party (NCP), and the Congress. Even though the Shiv Sena and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) had a combined strength of 165 in the 288-seat assembly, they were unable to form the government in the state. 

Pawar had said that the election results were a mandate for the NCP to sit in opposition, and even claimed that the BJP and the Shiv Sena would form the government “sooner or later. ” 

Instead, an unlikely, and seemingly ideologically incompatible coalition of the Shiv Sena, Congress and NCP now governs Maharashtra with an agreed-upon common minimum program to uphold “the secular values enshrined in the Constitution.” 

What is secularism for the Shiv Sena, and in the current coalition government, will the party remain wedded to its ideology? This reading list looks at the formation of the Shiv Sena as a political movement and its ideological underpinnings in its search for power. 

 

1) A Party for Maharashtrians

R S Morkhandikar writes that despite the Shiv Sena’s claims of safeguarding the interests of Maharashtrians, the party is an expression of subnationalism that seeks to impose a “Maharashtrian” identity on the basis of language and history.

The definition of "Maharashtrian" according to the Shiv Sena "not only includes Marathi-speaking Maharashtrians, but extends to all those of all castes, creeds and religion, who look upon Maharashtra as their homeland, who have been living here for generations together carrying on trade or business, contributing to the welfare and prosperity of Maharashtra and above all co-mingling their weals and woes with those of the sons of the soil" … This definition seems to divide the residents of Maharashtra into three categories: i) sons of the soil; ii) those who regard Maharashtra as their homeland and mingle their weals and woes; and, iii) "outsiders." One feels that according to the Shiv Sena there cannot be any mobility between the three categories. 

Morkhandikar further argues that this subnationalism has emerged due to a “westernised” mode of nation-building employed in postcolonial India.

It has not been sufficiently realised by Indian leaders that the approach to nation-building in India has to be on a basis different from that in the West. In the West, nations were built on the basis of language and history. In India, however, the attempt to seek in language, history or religion the factors for national or sub-national identification will spawn movements like the Shiv Sena and will divide society instead of integrating it. Movements like the Shiv Sena instead of facilitating "communications" which, as Karl Deutsch24 points out, is a must for nation-building, would only help in fragmentation of society.  

2) A Working-class Party

Juned Shaikh writes that the Shiv Sena expanded its social base by tapping into the discontent of the working class in Mumbai during the 1960s, and channelled the grievances of mill workers in the city into political action, by invoking the idea of cultural (Maharashtrian) unity. 

The main instrument for mobilising the masses, at the level of the neighbourhoods, was the Shiv Sena shakha (the local branches) ...  the Shiv Sena’s call for ethnic solidarity could only become viable in a democratic Indian state, where capitalist competition in Bombay put jobs under pressure. The Shiv Sena used shakhas to mobilise the masses on the emotive appeal of identity and used violence as a means of attracting followers and intimidating its opponents.

The Shiv Sena, by promoting cultural identity, was able to occupy the space created by the ineffectiveness of the prevailing labour unions. Shaikh contends that the left was unable to understand the Shiv Sena’s appeal, and how cultural identity meant that workers ignored the semi-fascistic tendencies of the Shiv Sena, who clearly maintained relations with the capitalist class.

In the mill districts of Bombay, the surplus labourers, ie, the potential workers that could be recruited from the plebeian class were the staunchest supporters of the Shiv Sena. They made up the foot soldiers of "Shivaji’s army" during riots or during confrontations with communist unions. This was also the votebank that catapulted the Shiv Sena candidates into the state’s assembly and the city’s municipal corporation. The inability of the communist unions to mobilise this segment of the population was an obvious drawback of their organisational strategy. The oversight (in mobilising the surplus labourers) may have been due to the fact that leftist unions restricted their actions to the workplace. The Shiv Sena, on the other hand, had established its hegemony over the neighbourhood where the underemployed surplus labourers stayed. From the point of view of the plebeians, it made economic sense to support an organisation that promised them employment, not just as cadres but as badli workers in mills.

3) Commitment to the Hindutva Cause

Suhas Palshikar argues that while Hindutva symbols and comments are used at public gatherings and events, the party is not necessarily wedded to the ideology. Rather, the Shiv Sena oscillates between Hindutva and espousing a Marathi identity depending upon political expediency. While Bal Thackeray was more radical, Palshikar writes that the Shiv Sena, over time, has become more “normal” and accepting of diverse opinions.  

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. 

Palshikar further contends that the Shiv Sena employs Hindutva more as an electoral strategy to gain a competitive edge, rather than in governance. 

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.

4) Reclaiming its Relevance

Suhas Palshikar argues that the Shiv Sena, under Bal Thackeray, expanded its reach into new areas by propagating anti-Muslim and anti-Dalit sentiments. However, with the “normalisation” of the party through its participation in the electoral space, these tendencies have somewhat waned. Palshikar writes that now, under the leadership of Uddhav Thackeray, the party needs to rediscover its relevance as a party of “direct action,” while also offering an alternative brand of politics to those of the national parties.

Shiv Sena has a double life: as a political party operating in the arena of competitive politics and as a social force representing and exacerbating the anti-democratic tendencies prevalent in the society. These two “avatars” of Shiv Sena are not exactly mutually exclusive. Its electoral avatar benefits from the mobilisation gained from its anti-democratic avatar and its anti-democratic avatar gains legitimacy from its electoral achievements …  the political economy of the state has produced anxieties and uncertainties in which anti-democratic appeal holds an attraction across classes and castes. In a sense, therefore, just as the Shiv Sena has been a factor shaping state politics in the 1990s, the social and politico-economic conditions prevailing in Maharashtra have made it possible for the Sena to ride the two horses without falling between. At least so far.

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