The Maharashtra matrix
Though son Uddhav and nephew Raj will try to continue Balasaheb’s legacy by way of promoting his two pet issues — son of the soil and militant Hindutva — they will be operating in a different Maharashtra; a Maharashtra that has lost the enigmatic and powerful Bal Thackeray.
It is not only the Shiv Sena and the Maharashtra Navnirman Sena (MNS) led by Raj Thackeray that will have to come to terms with the reality of not having Balasaheb amidst them, but other major political parties as well who are closely watching the political scenario as it evolves.
It is too early to say whether the Shiv Sena and the MNS will come together or not, or if they will, at least, cooperate with each other behind the curtain to avoid division of Marathi votes.
The BJP, which has the longest surviving electoral alliance of two decades with the Shiv Sena, will be more concerned with the developments within the Shiv Sena. When Balasaheb was alive, the BJP had no option but to endure his often contrarian stand. Balasaheb had freedom of choice, be it his decision to “pardon” actor Sanjay Dutt, or support Sharad Pawar for the prime ministership when the party’s candidate was L.K. Advani.
The question is what will be the BJP’s relationship with the Shiv Sena under Uddhav who will need the BJP’s strong support during his initial days of consolidation. There is a group of local BJP leaders who feel suffocated due to the long coalition with the Sena and think that it is affecting the BJP’s growth in Maharashtra. They feel a tie-up with the MNS may provide more space for growth in the state. However, this view may not find many takers at this juncture as the dominant view within the BJP is not to be seen as partisan and take sides between the two brothers but keep on supporting the Shiv Sena.
The presence of senior BJP leaders like Mr Advani, Sushma Swaraj and Arun Jaitley in Balasaheb’s funeral procession at Shivaji Park was an indication of the importance the BJP gives to its relationship with the Sena. It was the BJP’s Pramod Mahajan who skillfully hammered out the Shiv Sena-BJP alliance in Maharashtra despite some apprehension in a section of the top BJP leadership about the volatile and unpredictable Balasaheb.
In a bid to expand his support base, Balasaheb had made a major shift in his priorities without giving up the issue of sons of the soil and asmita (pride) of Marathi manoos. In the beginning of the 1980s, he advocated strong militant Hindutva and began adding new dimensions to his opposition to migrants. He focused his attention on migrants from Bangladesh to Mumbai and other parts of the state. This paradigm shift in his stance helped Mahajan convince others in the party to tie up with Balasaheb. It remained a very sensitive and at times a troublesome relationship, but it helped the BJP forge similar coalitions with like-minded regional parties and catapult itself to power in Delhi.
Despite being the leader of a regional party, Balasaheb always took care to remain relevant at the national level by taking extreme and controversial stands, like opposing India-Pakistan cricket matches, insisting on action against Dawood Ibrahim, pushing for the hanging of Ajmal Kasab, holding demonstrations before Pakistani artistes etc. With Balasaheb’s death, the BJP may breathe a little more easy, but his shoes are too big to fill.
Union agriculture minister and NCP chief Sharad Pawar was always the main target of acerbic attacks by Balasaheb despite their warm personal relationship. Mr Pawar will also be watching developments within the Shiv Sena as well as its fight with the MNS for supremacy. In fact, insiders claim that floor managers of the NCP are already on the prowl to see whether there are any Shiv Sainiks keen to shift their allegiances.
When Mr Pawar merged the Congress (Samajwadi) with the Congress in the presence of Rajiv Gandhi in 1986 at Aurangabad, many youngsters from Marathwada (one of Maharashtra’s five regions) moved to the Shiv Sena. The NCP will keep a watch and see whether it can attract grassroot-level workers from the Sena in rural parts of Maharashtra without attracting media attention. Also, the NCP has shown its willingness to support the Shiv Sena’s demand of building a Balasaheb memorial at Shivaji Park in Dadar.
The Congress has always had a love-hate relationship with the Shiv Sena. Vasantrao Naik, who holds the distinction of completing the longest tenure as chief minister of the state, was sympathetic to the Sena initially. He used it to an extent to fight influential trade unions controlled by the Communists. Successive Congress chief ministers used the Shiv Sena bogey to scare the party high command to consolidate their own position. This tacit understanding between the Congress and the Shiv Sena was responsible for wiping out non-Congress, non-saffron secular parties, like the Janata Dal, in the last three decades.
The Congress has also never hesitated to induct disgruntled Shiv Sena leaders into its camp. In the ’90s, when Chhagan Bhujbal felt he was suffocating in the Shiv Sena as he did not like the way Balasaheb opposed the recommendations of the Mandal Commission, he shifted his loyalties. Mr Bhujbal had the full protection of the then chief minister, Sudhakarrao Naik, and was immediately inducted as a minister in the Cabinet. After Mr Bhujbal, former Shiv Sena chief minister Narayan Rane also joined the Congress and became the revenue minister. The Shiv Sena suffered heavily due to migration of its leaders to other parties. However, common Shiv Sainiks remained loyal to Balasaheb as they did not differentiate between Balasaheb and the party.
The Congress is uneasy with its alliance with the NCP with which it has to share seats in Lok Sabha and Assembly elections. The party has been wondering whether it can win Maharashtra on its own strength in the near future. And it’s in this context that the Congress will be keen to see whether common Shiv Sainiks shift their allegiance or continue with the Shiv Sena under Uddhav’s leadership.
The political scenario in Maharashtra is going to change drastically as Uddhav and Raj will redraw their strategies and consolidate their positions in the absence of patriarch Balasaheb.
The writer is an artist and journalist who has been observing developments in Maharashtra for the last four decades