Once an undisputed ruler of Maharashtra, the Shiv Sena girds itself for a do-or-die electoral battle, reports Rana Ayyub
COME POLL time and Navi Mumbai and the suburbs of Thane are hotly contested by the Shiv Sena and the NCP. In the run-up to the October 13 polls this year, however, a visit to the Sena shakhas in these areas reveals just how charged up the party is. It’s Ganeshotsav and most shakhas have colourful pandals with Ganesh statues. The festival finery hides a startling truth: life for the Sena is nothing like it was, five years ago. One shakha in the central Mumbai’s suburb of Dadar — a Sena stronghold — is anything but a picture of celebration. Shakha registers which record the entry and exit of workers list just a couple of names for the last month. Those few present talk of the cricket match they plan to play at the neighbouring Shivaji Park – the same Shivaji Park where the Sena holds its Dussehra rally every year to reunite the Marathi manoos. After tasting failure with issues such as the Marathi manoos and farmer suicides, the Sena tried to gain popularity and visibility by selling commodities such as tur dal and vegetables at subsidised rates. The common man gave this measure a thumbs down. A local from the area tells us, “The dals were full of stones and rice. The Shiv Sena should find better ways of tricking us.”
Thane boasts of a swanky Sena office, as befits its status as a stronghold of the party. The office should be bustling with activity at 11am on a Sunday, but only a handful of members can be seen sitting around, reading newspapers. The few locals present happen to be people who have come to ask the corporator for recommendation letters for admissions to a local college. Another shakha in Navi Mumbai has the same atmosphere. A shakha pramukh (local leader) we meet tells us, “There is no motivation, madam. What issue is left? Balasaheb is not there. And our party is just aping whatever issue the MNS is taking up and then making a noise about it. We either talk about farmer suicides or the issues Raj Thackeray takes up.” In fact, local leaders from both the Shiv Sena and the MNS insist that the only reason that the Sena has been winning elections in the district is because of the residual goodwill towards a local leader, Anand Dighe, perhaps the only person seen as an equal to Sena supremo Bal Thackeray. Dighe died a decade ago.
UDDHAV THACKERAY has been seen to be working hard of late, trying to consolidate his party’s position by touring extensively in the drought-affected regions of Vidarbha and Marathwada in a bid to consolidate the rural votes. However, the delimitation of electoral constituencies is likely to affect his party’s prospects as new seats have been created in urban areas. Nikhil Wagle, editor of IBN Lokmat says, “The urban areas of Mumbai, Navi Mumbai, Thane and Pune alone constitute around 80 seats. Anyone who controls 80-odd seats out of the 288 will have a say in government-formation. The tragedy for the Sena is that it’s not concentrating on the urban centres, which Raj Thackeray is targeting.”
The Sena, which has been allied with the BJP for the last 25 years in Maharashtra could not have asked for a worse time for the elections. The dissidence-ridden BJP is at perhaps its lowest ebb and the turmoil has also affected its state cadres. While the BJP leaders are putting up a brave front, it is glaringly obvious from talks with party insiders that the controversy has hit party workers badly. A senior party leader told TEHELKA, “Jaswant talks of ideological differences and so do leaders like Arun Shourie and Advani. If the party is not sure about its ideology, what will you go to the voter with? When the party itself does not know who its leader is, it’s a terrible time for the BJP to go to the polls.” However, an embarrassed Nitin Gadkari, the BJP’s state president refused to answer questions about dissidence in the party at the national level and replied, tersely, “[Jaswant Singh’s expulsion] is a disciplinary measure taken by the party, which will have no effect in the state. Maharashtra faces serious issues such as a drought and price rises.”
However, the BJP, which has had strained relations with the Sena on various issues — such as a new state of Telangana or the issue of reservations for Marathi manoos— will just have to swallow the big-brother attitude of the Sena. However, the Sena did not lose any opportunity to criticise the BJP even before the elections. In a strongly worded critique in the party mouthpiece Saamna, Bal Thackeray wrote, “There seems to be a competition within the BJP to shower praises on Jinnah.” Senior Sena leader and Saamna editor Sanjay Raut told TEHELKA, “We have been a big brother in the state and therefore we will decide the fate of the coalition and, of course, the distribution of seats. We will give them 117 seats out of 288.” He also stated that the seats will be chosen carefully and that the Sena will ensure that it gets its due. Sena-BJP relations have been declining ever since the death of the BJP’s Pramod Mahajan, whose excellent rapport with Bal Thackeray ensured that contentious issues were resolved in private. While the Sena talks of a big brotherly attitude towards the BJP and Saamna editorials clamour for the BJP to set its house in order after the Jaswant Singh expulsion, it is also clear that the Sena itself is trying to do major damage control for its oldest trump card, Bal Thackeray. The party released a DVD of an interview of Bal Thackeray with a carefully chosen Marathi journalist to major news channels for primetime broadcast. Insiders say the interview was recorded to squash rumours of the Sena chief ’s ill health and boost the sagging morale of Sainiks who are feeling increasingly disenchanted with Uddhav, someone they think lacks the charisma to replace Thackeray.
With the Sena still grasping for core issues and BJP still debating its leadership, both will have to work out a magic poll formula to survive. The BJP is in no position to bargain about seats and will meekly accept what the Sena doles out. As Wagle points out, “The BJP is desperate for a win in Maharashtra, which will not only boost party morale but also give it an edge nationally by providing the ruling hand over the coveted western region.” However, as political pundits predict a neck-and-neck fight, it will be interesting to see how the Sena and the BJP manage to hold their ground.