Shiv Sena needs to go the extra 'rural' mile

Last Updated: Sat, Oct 25, 2014 02:17 hrs

So the Shiv Sena has contested its first election without the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and Bal Thackeray, both: and the results are frankly comme ci comme ca.

The Shiv Sena has, under admittedly difficult circumstances, come a very poor second to the BJP, getting 63 seats out of 288, to BJP's 123. And the BJP's flipping the bird at Uddhav Thackeray tells its own story about what they think of him as a leader.

It isn't just that because of competition both the erstwhile allies lost seats. What should worry Uddhav Thackeray is that the Shiv Sena was the bigger loser no matter how you look at the results: the BJP took away 12 seats that belonged to Shiv Sena in the previous Assembly; and out of 52 seats where the Shiv Sena and BJP were in direct competition, the BJP won as many as 32.

So not only does the Shiv Sena have to review its supposed strongholds, it also needs to prepare itself for assaults by the BJP in areas where the Shiv Sena is supposed to have been unassailable.

The conventional wisdom is that the Shiv Sena was born on the plank of Maharashtra for Maharashtrians slogan, offering to protest the interests of "local" Maharashtrians from the tentacles of migrant communities such as the UP and Bihari "bhaiyas", the Gujaratis and the Kannadigas, especially the Shettys.

The fact is that from 1966 (when it was born) to about the mid 1980s, Maharashtrians outside Mumbai and neighbouring Thane never saw outsiders as a threat. So the Shiv Sena's influence was limited to these two areas, maybe in some urban centres such as Pune, Nagpur and Solapur but much later.

Actually, in the 1980s, Shiv Sena saw its influence decline even in Mumbai: until the Congress helped to resurrect it by spreading rumours that Mumbai could be separated from Maharashtra. The 1985 Bombay Municipal Corporation (BMC) elections were won by the Shiv Sena with a thumping majority - a majority that it was not able to achieve even at the height of its anti-South Indian agitation.

If evidence was needed that the Shiv Sena was an urban party, it was there. With the BMC under its belt, the Shiv Sena's strength defined its political growth: Mumbai and surrounding areas were the first to outsource and privatise development activity. The state had to be bypassed in providing many services.

The Shiv Sainik filled this breach, stood between the citizen and corruption, made things work and offered protection in a variety of ways. Nothing is free, so petty criminalisation and extortion lubricated the vast and complex shakha machinery. With swelling collections, the BMC was a useful animal to control.

In years past, the "remote control" was said to be in Bal Thackeray's hand. Despite the relentless references to and demonstrations of the supreme command of Bal Thackeray, the shakhas of the Shiv Sena were given a degree of autonomy in the activities and services they offered.

Noted expert on the Shiv Sena Julia Eckert observed in an article that it was left to the shakhas to create their clientele through the services offered locally. Moreover, shakhas were responsible for the funding of their respective activities - the collection of donations and protection money.

The diffusion of command did not mean that the organisation's ability to act as a close-knit network was ever impaired. The shakhas functioned autonomously in their everyday activities, guided by a certain general directive concerning the types of activities, their overall intent and the line of justification and explanation given out through Saamna and through Thackeray's speeches.

This enabled them to create structures of power, control revenue, and the command over a local clientele that was mobilised when the party demanded it.

Later, Shiv Sena changed and so did the Maharashtra society. It found some traction in Marathwada: gaining from the space vacated by Sharad Pawar who had merged his Congress (S) and returned to the Congress fold in 1986.

The youth from Marathwada who joined the Shiv Sena were mostly from upper caste Maratha or other backward classes, lumpen youth who were left out or marginalised by Congress' politics of co-operative institutions.

Aggressive posturing on Hindutva and the active role played by the Shiv Sena in the 1992-93 Bombay blasts helped it to revive and extend its support base in Mumbai. Many non-Maharashtrian communities such as Gujaratis, North Indians and Kannadigas helped the Shiv Sena to win 31 Assembly seats out of 32 in Mumbai during the 1995 elections.

Now cut to the 2014 elections. Uddhav Thackeray's wielding of the "remote control" is not being questioned by his party - yet.

 But obviously, he is nowhere near Balasaheb in the relationship Shiv Sena has with the BJP. Not only this. The Shiv Sena has lost in unexpected constituencies and has won in unexpected constituencies as well. This suggests the party's base is changing. If it doesn't keep pace with this change, it could become irrelevant.

For example, in Pune, Nagpur and Nashik, considered the state's three biggest urban areas, the BJP won all eight seats in Pune and all six in Nagpur. It won three out of four seats in Nashik. The Shiv Sena was nowhere.

Local newspapers quoted BJP sources as saying that of the total 92 seats in Maharashtra's urban areas, 52 had been won by the party. In Mumbai, the BJP won 15 seats as against the Sena's 14. Out of 16 core urban seats in Thane, a majority (six) were bagged by the BJP, while four were won by the Shiv Sena.

So if the Shiv Sena did not win from the urban areas, where did it get its seats from?

Anecdotal evidence suggested it was from rural areas, a relatively new frontier for the city-based Shiv Sena. If it wants to hold on to its new base it has to listen to the voices and sounds coming from rural Maharashtra much more carefully, whether it is the issue of a frequent ban on onion exports or the politics of cotton pricing.

The Shiv Sena needs to change. By emphasing in the manifesto that through telemedicine the Shiv Sena proposes to address the health needs of a rural populace, Uddhav Thackeray is taking cognisance of the fact that he needs to grow beyond cities.

But it will need more than telemedicine.