It is natural that the question would be asked in most earnest after the death of Bal Thackeray. Thackeray senior founded the Shiv Sena, transformed it into a statewide party around 1990 and then led it to power in 1995 at the state level. He enjoyed huge mass appeal based on his personal image. So his death makes the question not only legitimate but also urgent for the party, which is not believed to have been in very good health of late.
But we must remember that for the last few years, Bal Thackeray was mostly out of action; he did not campaign much during the 2009 elections; for some time now, his son Uddhav, has been designated as “executive” president of the party, and most party functionaries and candidates have been handpicked by the executive president himself. These details suggest that the transition of power within the party, which many think is about to start now, has already happened. In fact, that was the main bone of contention between Raj Thackeray and Uddhav, leading to Raj leaving the Shiv Sena and forming the Maharashtra Navnirman Sena (MNS). Thus, the change of guard in the Shiv Sena had happened much before the actual passing away of the key leader. So the challenges Uddhav now faces are those he has inherited along with the stewardship of the Shiv Sena. Some of these challenges are worth noting.
Two of them involve the survival of the Shiv Sena. One is about the coalition with the BJP and the other is about the MNS. When the next elections take place, the alliance between the Shiv Sena and the BJP would have completed 25 years. Currently, it is under severe strain. The Shiv Sena was the more powerful partner in the coalition until 2009. That has now changed. The BJP is now impatient with the Shiv Sena. Sensing that Uddhav does not have the popular image his father enjoyed, the BJP would be looking for excuses to wriggle out of the coalition. The Raj Thackeray factor would be crucial here. Sections of the BJP have already discovered the virtues of Raj Thackeray and have been arguing that the Shiv Sena allow the MNS to enter the coalition. Should the BJP dump the Shiv Sena in favour of the MNS, it could add tremendously to the Sena’s problems.
One related issue is to do with the strategy the Sena adopts on its ties with the MNS. It is hotly debated whether the two cousins will make up, a scenario that sounds more suited to a Bollywood film. A more realistic line of inquiry is, who will attract the workers of the other party. Without the towering image of Bal Thackeray, the Shiv Sena runs the risk of losing its more vociferous following in Mumbai to the MNS. This will be the true test of Uddhav Thackeray’s leadership and patience. Will he unveil a programme of collective action — that was the hallmark of an earlier Shiv Sena — in order to retain the faithful or will he have the skill to divert their energies to more routine party work? He may take the calculated risk of losing some diehard vigilantes in order to keep the party on the road that he has charted for some time now.
But the bigger challenge for the Shiv Sena would be in handling the inheritance Bal Thackeray has left behind. This inheritance consists of a pro-Marathi agenda (in cultural terms as well as in terms of employment demands) and the politics of demagogy. At the moment, the MNS appears to be more adept at both. To be sure, the Shiv Sena had experimented with the mix of regional pride and Hindu nationalism long before Narendra Modi. But brand Shiv Sena has always been identified with regional pride. The party will now have to redefine that identity, partly because the MNS has practically taken over that agenda and partly because it now realises the need for a broader agenda to retain its hold beyond Mumbai and Thane. But can there be a Shiv Sena without demagogy? The Sena’s rise in the nineties owed a great deal to Bal Thackeray’s ability to reshape Maharashtra’s political culture and public reason. This feat appears beyond the ability of the Shiv Sena now. But a party nourished on sumptuous doses of demagogy could find it very tiresome to settle down to “politics as usual”— all the more so when the rival MNS thrives on that very demagogy. So, ironically, two of Bal Thackeray’s most crucial inheritances can prove to be stumbling blocks for the new Shiv Sena after him.
But the real challenge lies in the party’s self-image. For too long, the Shiv Sena has operated in the space between a party and a vigilante movement. It has always been infatuated with its image as an organisation that can turn on adversaries. Such organisations find it very difficult to change their image, because hidden in that change is the possibility of losing face. Will the Shiv Sena revert to that self-image and rely on street action or will it make the transition to a regular political party? One thing is certain: it will be difficult for the Shiv Sena to continue to be both a vigilante movement and a political party. Yet it seems the current leadership wants to ride a vigilante psyche while running a routine party. That is where the Shiv Sena will face its greatest challenge.
The writer teaches political science at the University of Pune, firstname.lastname@example.org