The Caste and Politics of Sena’s Rise and Crisis

The political situation in Maharashtra is changing. One of Shiv Sena’s senior leaders and a strong Thane man, Eknath Shinde has defied the party leadership and exposed the weaknesses of Uddhav Thackeray’s leadership. If Shinde is a Sainik in the old form of aggressive street politics, the rebel camp accuses Thackeray of being a weak administrator, inaccessible to his party lawmakers except through intermediaries, unable to hold his own against allies NCP and Congress, biased against his son Aaditya and defensive against the core of the party, Hindutva.

How do you understand this situation?

The Shiv Sena has always been an issue-oriented, reactionary assembly. It takes problems and works on them until they are used up and moves on to the next. The first part of his policy dealt with the rights of the Marathis vis-à-vis the Gujaratis and then the South Indians. It gradually moved towards Hindu nationalism, thus maintaining its relevance.

The Hindutva brand that Uddhav now represents is in some ways that of his grandfather, Keshav Thackeray. Hindutva meant self-government for the Patriarch of Thackay and a strike against the Brahmin priesthood. Keshav was known for his staunchly anti-Brahmin low-caste policies, partly due to the subordination of his caste group in the Varna hierarchy, as a group working as scribes or blacksmiths and bookkeepers. Also Uddhav has lately called the Brahmin into space by pointing out the damage caused by the Brahmanism of the RSS.

Keshav’s participation in the Satya Shodak movement, with roots in the Shudra and Dalit rural base, also helped Bal Thackeray initially by providing him with a ready base. The Sena’s core constituency at the time was the poor, migrant working-class population of western Maharashtra in Mumbai. After the Samyukta Maharashtra movement, among others, it began to make inroads.

While casteless politics helped the Sena, it was also cornered on this issue. One of its most powerful OBC leaders, Chhagan Bhujbal, left the party over its stance on the Mandal agitation for the OBC quota.

The Shiv Sena are also known for their organizational skills. Its network runs from ravines to the heart of the city. However, this does not imply the ability to govern the state as a mature party. Girish Kuber, the editor of Loksatta, rightly commented in his column for

The Indian Express that the Sena is a loose, disorganized social body rather than a responsible, legally mandated political party.

The cadres do not see themselves as capable of self-government; This is after he was in power twice. More than just social action, they are schooled in instant street-level justice, gaining popularity at grassroots level. However, as leaders rise, they find that politics must go beyond.

Then, part of the reason the Shiv Sena was able to spread beyond the Mumbai region was the hope it offered, albeit accidentally, to Marathas uncertain about the rise of a Dalit rights movement. The red-hot Dalit Panthers are believed to have partially inspired the Sena’s aggressive tactics. Even the symbolism of the Dalit panthers was tapped into by the Sena, choosing the tiger as their symbol versus the leaping panther of the Dalit outfit.

If the above was both a blessing and a curse, another downside was the Sena’s gradual transformation into the kind of party (read Congress) that once bitterly criticized Bal Thackeray. As he himself rose to demigod status, somewhat in the mold of the Gandhis, the reins of the party passed first to his son and grandson.

The rest of the Sena leadership is also similar to other parties – most of them are Brahmins, along with Marathas, with some backward caste names. Although the party has a base in the region’s backward castes outside of Mumbai, its leaders are mostly from dominant Mumbai castes.

The difference is more pronounced as Uddhav gave Aaditya a freer hand when he himself was struggling with several diseases. An important piece of the puzzle is Uddhav’s wife Rashmi. She remains an invisible hand in Thackay politics.

So will Uddhav’s Hindutva inherited from Keshav survive the onslaught of Modi’s Hindutva from Savarkar?

This column first appeared in the print edition on June 26, 2022 under the title “The Caste and Politics of Sena’s Rise and Crisis”.

Yengde, the author of Caste Matters, is curating the fortnightly column “Dalitality”.

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