Around 8pm on February 19, a group of Shiv Sena workers loyal to Maharashtra Chief Minister Eknath Shinde tried to take control of the party’s central shakha office at Neral, a sleepy town located 85km southeast of Mumbai. Using sickles and hammers, the workers broke into the office controlled by the rival faction led by former chief minister Uddhav Thackeray.
As news spread, workers loyal to Uddhav swarmed into the office premises, stormed the building, and threw out the Shinde loyalists. A day earlier, a similar clash had taken place at Dapoli, a coastal town in Khed assembly constituency in Ratnagiri district. Khed is represented in the assembly by Yogesh Kadam, who supports Shinde.
The clashes happened after the Election Commission recognised the Shinde faction as the official Shiv Sena and allowed it to retain the iconic ‘bow and arrow’ symbol. The Uddhav faction was given the name ‘Shiv Sena (Uddhav Bal Thackeray)’ and the symbol of ‘flaming torch’.
The EC said it had applied three tests to resolve the matter―the test of aims and objects of the Sena constitution, the test of the constitution itself, and the test of majority. It said the results of the first two tests were “inconclusive”, while the third test, when applied only to organisational strength, “was not satisfactory”. But the EC said the third test did give a “clear answer” when applied to the legislative wing of the party. In short, the EC weighed the strength of the factions in the assembly to come out with the verdict. It said 40 of 55 Sena MLAs supported Shinde.
The ruling has pushed Uddhav to the wall like never before. “Nivadnuk aayogane shen khalle (The EC has eaten cow dung),” an angry Uddhav told Shiv Sena (UBT) workers after news of the verdict broke. “Even if theft is given public approval, a thief will always be a thief. We will have to fight till the last breath. We have decided to challenge the EC decision in the Supreme Court.”
Soon after the verdict, the jubilant Shinde went to Shivaji Park to pay tribute at the memorial of Shiv Sena founder Balasaheb Thackeray. “The EC decision is very important because it shows that we are the real Shiv Sena, the inheritors of Balasaheb Thackeray’s thoughts, ideology and legacy,” he told supporters.
Sanjay Raut, MP and editor of the Shiv Sena (UBT)’s mouthpiece Saamana, alleged that the Shinde faction spent 12,000 crore to get a favourable verdict. He said he would soon give evidence supporting his claim. Clearly, Uddhav does not take Raut’s allegation seriously; there is no mention of it in the petition filed by the party in the Supreme Court.
The Shinde group now occupies the Sena office in the state legislature. The iconic Shiv Sena Bhavan in Dadar is in the name of the Shiv Seva Trust, headed by party veteran and Uddhav loyalist Subhash Desai. So, technically, the Shinde group cannot stake a claim as the property is not owned by the Sena.
Shinde loyalist and Vidarbha MP Kripal Tumane said fence-sitters who were waiting for a clear signal would now switch over to the “real Shiv Sena”. According to him, “five-six legislators in the Uddhav camp would be ready to join Shinde. A couple of MPs would also make the move, said Tumane.
Naresh Mhaske, Shinde loyalist from Thane, told THE WEEK that leaders across the state were in touch with them. “I can’t tell you their exact number, but many people are in touch with us and they will make the move at the right time,” he said.
Topmost in Uddhav’s list of options would be to escalate the tactic of playing the victim card, and garner as much sympathy as possible to retain cadre strength and vote base. He will now have to build a systematic campaign that portrays him as being hounded by Central agencies including the EC, and the BJP as a powerful force that is out to destroy the Thackerays and the Shiv Sainiks who remain with them.
Senior Congress leader and former minister Balasaheb Thorat said that a Sena sans the Thackerays was unimaginable. “How can anyone separate these two? The EC seems to have given a one-sided decision, but the Sainiks are with Uddhav only,” he said.
NCP president Sharad Pawar has reportedly reassured Uddhav that the loss of the name and the symbol does not matter as long as he commanded cadre support. He promised the NCP’s full support, and reportedly cited a similar crisis that the Congress faced during Indira Gandhi’s time. The split in the party had forced Indira to forgo the original symbol (a pair of bullocks) and choose a new one (a cow with a calf). There was again a change to the current hand symbol. The changes, Pawar said, did not affect the Congress at all.
Amit Samant, NCP state secretary who oversees the Konkan belt, told THE WEEK that district level units in the region have been told to extend all help to the Sena (UBT). “Konkan is the Sena’s bastion,” said Samant. “Shinde had thrice come to Sindhudurg district in the past one month, but only a handful of people accompanied him. Mark my words, Deepak Kesarkar, Shinde’s minister from Sindhudurg, will be defeated in the 2024 assembly polls. The Sainiks here fully support Uddhav, and we will give them all possible help.”
State Congress president Nana Patole said Uddhav should study how Indira revived the Congress after she lost the party symbol. “It is clear that the EC was under pressure when it gave this decision. Had that not been the case, the EC would have waited till the Supreme Court gave its ruling in the dispute-related case that is being heard by its five-judge bench,” said Patole. “So the only option before Uddhav is to fight back like Indira ji did. This is a battle to capture people’s minds.”
Political commentator Prakash Akolkar, who has written a book on the Sena, said Uddhav and Congress leader Rahul Gandhi were in a similar situation. “Most of the anti-Congress, anti-Indira Gandhi forces are now with Rahul Gandhi in opposing [Prime Minister] Narendra Modi and the BJP government. This was visible during the Bharat Jodo Yatra,” he said. “Similarly, most of the old anti-Shiv Sena forces such as the Congress, the communists and the liberals have sided with Uddhav in his fight against Shinde and the BJP. It is now up to Uddhav to capitalise on this.”
According to Akolkar, Uddhav cannot keep playing the victim card indefinitely; he would have to fight the battle in people’s court even as the legal battle in the Supreme Court drags on. “He should start from scratch,” said Akolkar. “The only way to fight this battle is to come out of Matoshree (Uddhav’s residence) and hit the road. Gone are the days when he could relax in the warmth of Matoshree and issue diktats to the Sainiks. He must now go to where the Sainiks are, to every village and tehsil of Maharashtra. He could learn a lot from Jagan Mohan Reddy of Andhra Pradesh. If he is unable to travel because of health reasons, he should ask [his son] Aditya to take it upon himself.”
Veteran journalist Sandeep Pradhan, who has been tracking the Sena since the mid-1980s, said Uddhav is fighting a do-or-die battle. “To survive, he will first have to identify the key people who will remain with him till the end, and empower them. Through them, he can rebuild his Shiv Sena across the state,” said Pradhan. “Secondly, he will have to maintain smooth relations with key allies like the Congress and the NCP, and not hurt them in any manner.”
He said the BJP, which had earlier considered the Congress-NCP coalition as its main enemy, now wanted to finish off the Thackerays politically. “This is not just to occupy the hindutva space fully, but to avenge the way Uddhav ditched the BJP to form the Maha Vikas Aghadi government [with the Congress and the NCP]. So the only option before Uddhav now is to emerge as the pivot around whom the anti-BJP coalition can be built in Maharashtra. In order to become that pivot, he will have to be proactive, and much more accessible and communicative,” said Pradhan.
He pointed out that Shinde, much like the BJP leadership, approaches politics as a 24x7 vocation. “There is a crowd at Shinde’s residence even after midnight, and he meets as many people as he can despite being chief minister. Uddhav will have to be one step ahead. He will have to completely change his style of functioning. Only then will people continue to back him,” said Pradhan.
Elections to the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation and other Sena-dominated urban civic bodies are likely to be held before the onset of monsoon. They will be the first test of the Shinde-BJP strategy to finish off the Thackerays.
The Sena’s first family has already begun preparations. Sources said Uddhav would hold a grand public meeting in Mumbai in March. With Sharad Pawar’s help, he is planning to invite Chief Ministers Mamata Banerjee of West Bengal, Nitish Kumar of Bihar, M.K. Stalin of Tamil Nadu, and Arvind Kejriwal of Delhi.
“Uddhav strongly feels that the BJP is posing a very serious threat to democracy, and that what has happened to the Shiv Sena in Maharashtra can happen to other parties as well, if the BJP is not stopped by a united opposition,” said a source close to Uddhav. “There is also a plan to organise Shiv Sampark Abhiyans across Maharashtra, wherein our senior leaders will travel to tehsils across the state in the next one month.”
Both Uddhav and Aditya are set to address the Abhiyan rallies. The place that Uddhav has reportedly picked as the venue of the first rally is especially interesting. “The rally will be held on March 5 at Khed, where Yogesh Kadam has joined Shinde’s Sena,” said the source. “Uddhav will address the rally.”
Surely, the weeks ahead in Maharashtra politics are going to be interesting.