Maharashtra witnessed a subtle yet decisive shift in its polity on the 94th birth anniversary of Bal Keshav Thackeray. Shiv Sena, the party founded by the late firebrand leader " who was fondly called the 'Hindu Hruday Samrat' by his followers " had to reiterate its commitment to saffron, while Maharashtra Navnirman Sena, a splinter group formed and headed by Thackeray's nephew Raj, rebranded itself to close in on the space perceivably abandoned by Sena after it joined a 'secular' alliance with arch-rivals Congress and NCP.
For MNS, the shift is practically indistinct as Raj had been dabbling with hardline Hindutva ideology in between breaks from his 'son of the soil' Maratha politics. The rebranding " launch of a new all-saffron flag " in itself is mere posturing on Thackeray's birth anniversary, as the ideologue's legacy is claimed by both parties.
However, bring in perspective a subdued Shiv Sena, now part of a precarious alliance held together by a common minimum programme that binds it to secularism, and, MNS' repositioning acquires a different meaning.
The preamble to the CMP reads: "The alliance partners commit to uphold the secular values enshrined in the Constitution. On the contentious issue of national importance as well as of state importance especially having repercussions/consequences on the secular fabric of the nation, the Shiv Sena, the NCP and the Congress will take a joint view after holding consultations and arriving at a consensus."
File image of Uddhav Thakeray and Sharad Pawar. Twitter@PawarSpeaks
Dawn of a 'new', 'secular' Sena
To Hindu supremacists in Maharashtra, Sena had always been the party that unabashedly furthered their cause even if at the cost religious and linguistic minority groups in Maharashtra. The interests of the Hindu Maratha were foremost for the party. By contrast, NCP flourished on inclusive and pro-agrarian image among the rural population of the state. These were the only two poles in Maharashtra's regional politics, and national parties like Congress and BJP played between the two ends.
However, after BJP outgrew Sena to the extent of becoming the major partner in the decades-old alliance, Sena, that hitherto flourished on chauvinistic politics, felt slighted and stifled. Fast forward to November 2019 and the party, driven by its ambition, joined hands with the other pole, cheating BJP out of its chance to power. But power comes at a price, and for Sena, the price was its so far unrestrained hardliner stance and ideology.
Media and more liberal voices in the country were quick to point out the irony of the fact that the maximum-ever representation of Muslims in the state's Cabinet ranks was achieved under a Sena chief minister and a member of the Thackeray clan.
Call it the price of opportunism but Sena did appoint Nawab Malik and Hasan Mushrif of the NCP and Aslam Shaikh of the Congress as Cabinet ministers; it also gave a berth to its MLA Abdul Sattar who had recently defected to Sena from Congress. This, coming from a party that often demonised Muslims and had even spoken about disenfranchising the community while sharing power with the BJP, could have hardly been expected to slip unnoticed.
Furthermore, the Maharashtra government's handling of the anti-CAA protests was noted and lauded by those who were critical of BJP-led states for cracking down on protesters. The Shiv Sena, held responsible by a judicial commission for much of the violence in Mumbai's 92-93 riots, was helming the government when thousands flooded Azad Maidan and Bandstand to protest the citizenship act. It was almost an unbelievable change.
An earlier piece in Firstpost highlighted the change in winds for Mumbai's Muslims who openly took to streets to protest without fear of retribution or crackdown.
"The damage done by Bal Thackeray's portrayal of Shivaji as anti-Muslim was huge, but he's no longer around. His son's personality, described as 'sober and willing to listen', is a third factor for the hope Muslims have in the Sena," the article reads.
It is also interesting to note Sena's cautious response to the CAA, which is apparently finding support of fervent Hindus who perceive 'outsider' Muslims as a threat.
The party first supported the law in the Lok Sabha but later backed off in Rajya Sabha and stayed away from voting, stating it wanted some amendments in the law. Albeit the pretext of withdrawing support was not that the bill discriminated against Muslims (as Congress and NCP) but that it left out Sri Lankan Tamils living as refugees in India since decades.
MNS seeking to gain relevance, counter Sena
The electoral fortunes of Raj's 14-year-old party have been far from impressive. In the recently conducted polls, MNS won a single seat. In the 2009 Assembly elections, the MNS won 13 seats. In 2014, it won just one seat out of the 101 it contested. Sena has always towered over it as the original 'Maratha' party as both parties seek a piece from the same pie. However, it is unlikely that Sena's metamorphosis could have also transformed all of its core voter base. It is this section of Maharashtra's residents that Raj seeks to appeal to with his thunderous demand to throw 'illegal infiltrators' out.
He also went one step further and suggested the government stops Samjhauta Express before starting National Register of Citizens (NRC) and asserted that the Maharashtra Police needed just 48 hours to flush out illegal immigrants. He also did not forget to mention that 'Hindutva is in his heart and his DNA' while saying that if 'Hindutva is attacked he will come out with the full force to defend it'.
He has taunted Uddhav Thackeray indirectly for diluting Sena's ideology by embracing Congress, NCP and the barb was strong enough for Uddhav to retort and re-assert his commitment to the saffron ideology on Balasaheb's birth anniversary.
"I have chosen a new political path by taking along old political rivals as allies. I have not changed my colour, my core (antarang). It continues to remain saffron," he said, apparently countering criticism that he forsake Hindutva for the sake of power. Uddhav's remark also followed a barb from his estranged cousin, who, speaking at his party's function on Thursday evening, said, "I don't change the colour of my party to form the government."
Contrast this to the Uddhav-led government's decision to re-open the investigation into Bhima Koregaon riots that saw a bloody clash between the dominant Maratha community and Dalits during an event on 1 January 2018. The caste riots were triggered after upper caste people clashed with Dalits, who were celebrating the British victory against a Maratha ruler as the cavalry that defeated the native ruler was predominantly Dalit. However, the Pune Police had said the riots were a result of inflammatory speeches at Elgar Parishad, and that the conclave was funded and supported by Maoists.
Sena had, at the time compared the activists at Elgar Parishad to Al-Qaeda. In an editorial in the party mouthpiece, Saamana, the Sena said attacking the credentials of police, administration and judiciary, raising doubts about the state government and demoralising people was a strategy adopted by Al-Qaeda. "People supporting Elgar Parishad also have a similar strategy," the editorial said.
NCP chief Sharad Pawar, meanwhile, has said that the people accused by the previous Maharashtra government were, in fact, reputed social activists. Unsurprisingly, Sena has assured him that the government will consider re-investigating the incident from scratch as the case has been politically charged, with the BJP facing allegations of jailing activists who were opposed to its ideology and branding them as "Urban Naxals".
Meanwhile, reports of the Raj-led party joining hands with the BJP have been doing the rounds after former chief minister Devendra Fadnavis met Raj recently. The meeting further fuels speculations that MNS is toying with the idea of claiming the 'Hindutva' space vacated by the Sena.
MNS has also released two videos, where it has shown the map of Maharashtra in saffron colour and said that it will engage in new politics with a new ideology.