(Note: This story was originally published in February 2023 and is being replugged now in light of recent developments in Maharashtra)
When Eknath Shinde had rebelled against the Shiv Sena and walked out of the party with 40 MLAs and 13 MPs, the Shiv Sainiks held on to the belief that the saffron party founded by Balasaheb Thackeray on 19 June 1966 would continue to have the Thackerays at the helm of the party.
However, the decision of the Election Commission (EC) to grant the name ‘Shiv Sena’ and the 'bow and arrow symbol' of the party to the Balasahebanchi Shiv Sena faction headed by chief minister Eknath Shinde has now moved the Thackerays out of the party. The other faction – Shiv Sena Uddhav Balasaheb Thackeray – headed by the late founder’s son and former chief minister Uddhav Thackeray is faced with the tough prospect of holding to the fast-dwindling base of the faction held on to by them.
The Thackerays also face the tough challenge of holding on to power at the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) which the party has been ruling for over three decades. After the split in the Shiv Sena, both factions had staked claim to the name and registered symbol of the party. In the interim period, while the decision had been pending, the EC had frozen the registered symbol and the name (Shiv Sena) of the party and had allotted the flaming torch (Mashaal) symbol to the faction headed by Uddhav Thackeray. The two swords and shield symbol was allotted to the faction headed by Eknath Shinde.
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The fight between both factions has been about the custodianship of the political legacy of Balasaheb Thackeray. Despite the claims made by Shinde that the Shiv Sainiks at the grassroots have been with his faction, the lowest rung of the party has always pledged its loyalty to the Thackerays. For the Shiv Sainiks, the Shiv Sena is an emotion and they are emotionally attached to the party and the Thackerays. Therefore, the fact Uddhav Thackeray is now only a faction head and the party chief may not go down too well with the Shiv Sainiks at the grassroots.
The first challenge before the Thackeray-mukht Shiv Sena, is the BMC polls which are likely to be announced soon. Street fights between the Thackeray and Shinde factions, and the Thackeray faction and the BJP in the run-up to the BMC polls may become commonplace in Mumbai. The 227-seat-strong BMC with its Rs 52,619 crore budget (2023-2024) is the richest civic body in the country. Prior to the 2019 tie-up of then unified Shiv Sena with the Congress Party and the Nationalist Congress Party to rule Maharashtra as the Maha Vikas Aghadi Government, the Shiv Sena was in a political alliance with the BJP. Following a political fallout between Uddhav Thackeray and the BJP, the Shiv Sena aligned entered into a tripartite agreement with its ideological opposites, the Congress Party and the NCP.
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Time and again Uddhav Thackeray faced accusations of abandoning the Hindutva agenda propagated by his father. Uddhav Thackeray, a leader whose politics of inclusion did not go down well with the upper echelons of the Shiv Sena, will now have to hold on fast to those who support him. Those who stand by him today will have to accept his inclusive and moderate political outlook, as it is unlikely that Uddhav Thackeray or his son, Aaditya, will go back to an aggressive Hindutva agenda.
If the Thackeray faction loses power in the BMC it will bring to the forefront the question of their political survival. According to political sources, a former BJP chief, who is an important functionary of the Central Government, had told his partymen to ensure that the Thackerays are marginalized in Mumbai and reduced to single digits in the BMC polls.
A sizeable number of Shiv Sainiks believe that there is a BJP hand behind the breaking up of the Shiv Sena. “The BJP is out to finish the regional parties. The Shinde faction will merge with the BJP. Eknath Shinde will be projected as the Bahujan face of the BJP. This is the gameplan of the BJP to reduce the clout of former chief minister Devendra Fadnavis,” said a former Congress party chief minister. Political circles are abuzz with talk of a merger of the Shinde faction with the BJP.
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Tales of Uddhav Thackeray’s inaccessibility have become a part of the Shiv Sena folklore. Ministers, corporators and elected representatives of the former unified Shiv Sena have instances to narrate the time they spent waiting for an audience with Uddhav Thackeray. It was probably his inaccessibility that fueled the anger and saw the exodus from the Shiv Sena when Shinde raised the banner of revolt. Even NCP chief Sharad Pawar, who had sensed Uddhav Thackeray’s increasing disconnect with his partymen, had advised Uddhav Thackeray to establish a warmer connection with the Shiv Sainiks. Since the split in the party, Uddhav and his son Aaditya have become very accessible to the public.
The Shiv Sena which has an emotional connection with the Marathi Manoos (sons of the soil) is considered to be a party that delivers their aspirations. However, since the split within the party, the energies of both factions have been concentrated on retaining their elected representatives with not much focus on the problems of the Marathi Manoos.
“Our mashaal is burning bright. We will appeal against this decision in the Supreme Court and carry on the battle. The Shiv Sena is ours and will remain so. We are prepared for a long fight,” said Uddhav Thackeray in a press conference hours after the EC decision.