Amid the ongoing political tussle in Maharashtra between the two Shiv Sena factions, symbols have become the currency of power and festivals have become the new arena for parties to flex their muscle and cultural capital. And ahead of the important Hindu festival of Dussehra, former Chief Minister Uddhav Thackeray seems to have, for now, got the upper hand in this ideological face-off.
After days of bickering between the Thackeray and Eknath Shinde-led factions of Shiv Sena, the Bombay High Court has granted permission to Thackeray to hold the annual Dussehra rally at the iconic Shivaji Park in Dadar in central Mumbai, giving it a clear moral edge over the Shinde-led faction.
Both factions had applied to the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) for permission to hold the rally at the said venue. Sensing a possible law and order situation and pointing out the fact that Shivaji Park fell under the silent zone category, the BMC rejected both applications. However, the Thackeray faction had petitioned the court before the Shinde faction.
The jubilation of the Thackeray faction celebrating its "moral victory" is proof of the importance of symbols in Maharashtra where the Sena vs Sena battle to prove who among the two factions is the real Shiv Sena and the keeper of Bal Thackeray's legacy is being waged through political artfulness and astute one-upmanship.
Battle for symbols
It was in Shivaji Park that Sena founder Balasaheb Thackeray held his first political rally on the day of Dussehra, 56 years ago, an event that would recur every year thereafter. He was also cremated here. While the importance of "winning" Shivaji Park is not lost on anybody, both the Senas have been locked in a battle of symbols ever since the Shinde faction broke away from the older Shiv Sena and formed government with support from the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). Despite allegations of MLAs being bought off, Shinde has been quick on his feet to appropriate the legacy of Sena.
Shinde’s industry was on display during the recently concluded Ganesh Chaturthi celebrations when he was seen hopping pandals and juggling administrative duties with well-crafted ease.
The Vidhan Bhawan, the centre of the state administration and another symbol of political power, is also being used by both fcations as the foreground to their political attacks. In August, for instance, the Shinde faction hung a banner against Aditya Thackeray on the steps of the Vidhan Bhavan with the words "Yuvrajanchi disha chukli" (the prince missed his path)" amid the then-ongoing legislative assembly session.
Not just metaphorical symbols, the two Sena factions are also fighting over literal symbols as well. Shinde has staked claim to Shiv Sena’s party symbol, claiming his faction is now the ‘real’ party.
The Thackeray faction had in July moved the Supreme Court against the proceedings of the Election Commission on the plea of the Shinde-led group for recognition as the real Shiv Sena after the poll panel asked the rival factions of the Shiv Sena led by Thackeray and Shinde to submit documents by August 8 in support of their claims on the election symbol —bow and arrow— of the political outfit.
Thackeray, on the other hand, has been relying on its trusty mouthpiece "Saamana" to discredit the Shinde government. Recently, the faction raised the issue of the Vedanta-Foxconn project in an editorial in which it accused the Shinde government of being capable of "trading Mumbai" one day. The attack came after the Taiwanese electronics giant Foxconn and Indian conglomerate Vedanta announced they would set up a semiconductor plant in Gujarat's Ahmedabad instead of Maharashtra. It would be India's first semiconductor plant and would also be one of the largest ever investment at Rs 1.54 lakh crore. In a city that is known as the business capital of India, trade matters and Thackeray knows that.
The faction has also been making overtures to Hindus. On June 15, Aaditya Thackeray visited Ayodhya with senior Shiv Sena leaders, sending an apparent message to the BJP that his party had not abandoned the Hindutva plank. The visit was significant in more ways than one. Not only was it an attempt to convince its vote bank that Shiv Sena remains the sole custodian of the legacy of Aaditya’s grandfather but also to tell Aaditya’s uncle Raj Thackeray, the chief of the Maharashtra Navnirman Sena (MNS), that the Shiv Sena could match his attempts to appropriate the party’s legacy.
With the Dussehra victory, Uddhav Thackeray and his backers may have a reason to smile. They may have won this round. However, the battle for the title of 'Real Shiv Sena' is yet to play out.