The Thackerays, the first family of the Shiv Sena, do not travel well beyond the borders of Maharashtra. For all his aggressive Hindutva and support for the Ramjanmabhoomi movement through the 1990s, the late Bal Thackeray had never set foot in Ayodhya.
His son and party chief Uddhav Thackeray has journeyed across Maharashtra more than his father ever had but he – and the 52-year-old party – could hardly be said to have had a national profile. This changed over the weekend.
Uddhav Thackeray with wife Rashmi, son and political heir Aaditya, party MPs Sanjay Raut and Anil Desai, and a number of second-rung leaders, made their way to Ayodhya to set a deadline for the construction of the Ram temple.
Two specially requisitioned trains packed with Shiv Sainiks left for the temple town too. The Thackerays did what devout tourists do there: They marked their presence at the Laxman Qila, offered prayers at the Sarayu river, prayed at the disputed site, and sought Ram Lalla’s blessings.
Thackeray had carried soil from Shivneri, a 17th century fort and birthplace of Chhatrapati Shivaji for the site; he presented a symbolic silver brick to Mahant Nritya Gopal Das, head of Ram Janmabhoomi Nyas; and held a rally. The Sena’s large presence did not coincide with the Vishwa Hindu Parishad’s Dharm Sansad in Ayodhya on 25 November; it was planned that way with a keen eye on Lok Sabha and Maharashtra Assembly elections in 2019.
Throughout the two-day trip, Thackeray upped the ante. The BJP, the Sena’s ally in Maharashtra and ideological partner of nearly 30 years, was the singular target of his attack.
Here Are Some of His Statements in Ayodhya:
- “Har Hindu ki yahi pukar, Pehle Mandir phir sarkar.”
- “Those talking about the Mandir have actually kept Shri Ram in exile… I have come to wake up ‘Kumbhakarna’. Earlier, ‘Kumbhakarna’ used to sleep for 6 months, he’s asleep for the last four years.
- “There is a strong BJP government in Uttar Pradesh and a BJP majority government at the Centre. The temple should have already been constructed. Do whatever you want to do – come with a law or bring an Ordinance – but the temple must be constructed.
- “Days, months, years and generations have passed. Mandir wahin baneyenge, par date nahin batayenge.”
- “If you (BJP) had to go to a court (on the issue of Ram temple), then you shouldn't have raked up the matter in your election campaigns and manifestos. You should have clearly said that 'bhaiyyon aur behno’, please forgive us; this is yet another jumla by us.”
For a politician not stirred by the Mandir issue for the most part of his career, those were strong words indeed. They were part of a plan. By all reckoning, there are at least three aspects of Thackeray’s belligerence on the issue.
First, this aggression moves the ‘frenemy’ relationship between the Sena and BJP to a clearly antagonistic one – or so it seems. For the last four years, Sena leaders have been part of the Union and state Cabinets; the parties share power in civic bodies across the state including in the cash-rich Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation.
But Thackeray has been the strongest voice of Opposition in Maharashtra, losing no opportunity to hit out at Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis on a number of issues. He has mounted attacks on Prime Minister Narendra Modi from time to time, including on demonetisation.
There has been great confusion in the rank and file of both parties – especially in the Sena – on whether they are friends or enemies. The Sena would want to contest both the elections independent of its alliance partner. It needs to sharpen its attack on the governments – never mind that it continues to partner them – to establish its independence from the BJP. Embarrassing the BJP on Ram temple is a win-win for the Sena.
Thackeray gets to show that the Sena is challenging its more powerful partner on the latter’s core issue and re-position his party as the challenger to the BJP, not its ally or friend. He can call off the alliance on this issue, if it helps. Alternatively, given the ‘frenemy’ status, he can cite this issue as the emotional bond to ally for the elections.
‘Shiv Sena Signals Clearer Message to BJP Over Ram Temple Issue’
Secondly, upping the ante on the Ram temple issue and appearing to take on the BJP on a subject deeply identified with it for three decades is Thackeray sending out a message to the BJP leadership: I’m more Hindutvawadi than you.
Going to Ayodhya and having the national media cover his trip expanded this to the nation, he hopes. It helps to reinforce his and his party’s Hindutva credentials beyond Maharashtra, and locate themselves as the truest and committed votaries of the temple. This is the Sena seeking a deeper hue of saffron when it seems that the Ram temple construction will be, unfortunately, the pivotal issue in the 2019 elections.
Post-Ayodhya, the Sena is on the same side as the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) and one of its most aggressive outfits, the VHP, all clamouring that the temple be built pronto, that the Modi government bring in law to do this, and that it’s futile to wait for a court verdict.
Thackeray is expected to keep up the temperature – add fuel to it, when possible, by organising maha-aratis and the like – in the coming months to display his “genuine” saffron-ness compared to that of the BJP.
“Jwalant Hindutva” meaning “burning” or “flaming” Hindutva was how the late Bal Thackeray used to describe his brand of political Hinduism. Thackeray Senior often said that he had no patience for Hindus who only had shendi (tuft of hair that upper caste men keep), janeu (sacred thread worn by Brahmin men), and rang bells in temples.
He was the first political leader to claim ownership of the demolition of the Babri Masjid on 6 December 1992 saying, “If my boys have done it, I’m proud of them” when BJP’s frontline leaders had shied away. Political analysts in Maharashtra have said that the aggression had been blunted in Uddhav’s era.
The Ayodhya trip and his harsh words to the BJP on the construction of the temple will help re-establish the belligerent Hindutva of the party, and blunt its anti-north Indian stance a bit.
This is the party whose chief, Thackeray Senior, used to be regularly addressed – even honoured – as the “Hindu Hriday Samrat” before the moniker began to be used for Modi.
A Shift in Sena’s Ideology Ahead of 2019 General Polls
Third, the changing social profile of Mumbai in which Maharashtrians now form less than 30 percent of the population and the law of diminishing returns over the pro-Marathi sons-of-the-soil issue which the Sena flogged for five decades means that it has to stretch beyond its comfort zone. By self-definition, it has been the party of the natives against the “outsiders”. This is no longer enough to successfully contest elections.
Mumbai and Thane have ten Lok Sabha seats together in the state’s tally of 48; the two cities account for 60 seats of the 288 in the state Assembly. Thackeray would have to look beyond the typical Sena voter, or the Marathi vote as it is called, to appeal to the urban electorate especially in these two cities considered its “citadels”.
Taking a strong non-negotiable position on Ram temple, Thackeray hopes, will extend his party’s appeal to the Gujarati, Marwari and north Indian voters who traditionally preferred the BJP. Some voters among them, he believes, will cast their ballots for his party.
Will Ram Temple Be Enough For Sena to Emerge Victorious in 2019?
But will the temple issue help the BJP or the Sena garner seats in Maharashtra? In the 1989 general election, when the Ramjanmabhoomi movement was given momentum by Lal Krishna Advani and others, the Congress had won 28 of the 48 LS seats in the state; the BJP and Sena had bagged ten and four respectively.
In 1991 election, held within six months of Advani’s rath yatra and in the shadow of Rajiv Gandhi’s assassination, the Congress had won 38 while the saffron allies together managed only nine. The BJP had halved its tally to five.
The demolition of the Babri masjid witnessed the worst communal riots in Mumbai, and resulted in the serial blasts, in 1992-93. In the Assembly election two years later, the Sena-BJP triumphed and formed the government. In the 1996 general election, they won 15 and 18 seats respectively, taking the tally to 33; Congress could only manage 15.
So, the jury is out. But the Sena believes that polarising the electorate along Hindutva helps. What better an issue than one which already has an emotive appeal?
When Uddhav Thackeray had thundered in his Dussehra rally in October that the Sena would construct the temple if the BJP could not, a meme went around. It quizzed: If the Sena, despite being in power at the Centre and in the state, and controlling the powerful Mumbai municipal corporation, could not get a memorial built to its late founder in five years, how would it build the Ram temple in Ayodhya? It was also a reality check for Thackeray. But these are surreal times – at a time of social unrest and economic distress, an emotive issue is turning out to be the core election issue and he is more than happy to ride it.
(Smruti Koppikar, a Mumbai-based journalist and editor, writes on politics, urban issues, gender and media. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)
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