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Can divided Sena survive loss of commander?

How long can Shiv Sena survive after the passing away of Bala saheb Thackeray? In the party’s life of almost half a century, this question is not new – though it has become more relevant in the aftermath of Bala saheb’s demise. The same question was asked when the Sena was isolated in the late seventies. Bala saheb transformed the Sena into a state-wide party around 1990 and then led it to power in 1995 at the state level.

The reason of his success was his mass appeal and powerful oratory. Therefore, his death makes the question – wither Shiv Sena – not only legitimate but also urgent for the party, which has not been in good health lately. But it must not be forgotten that Bala saheb was mostly out of action for last few years because of bad health; he did not campaign in 2009 elections. For sometime now, his son, Uddhav, has been nominated the executive President of the party and most of the party functionaries and candidates have been handpicked by him. But Uddhav lacks the leadership and mass appeal of his father.

As a matter of fact the transition in the Shiv Sena, which many think is to start now, had already taken place without public taking notice of the changeover. Even during his lifetime, threat to Bala saheb was not from outside but from within. At one time, his staunch supporters – like Chagan Bhujbal and Narayan Rane – left the party. Bhujbal and Rane were his strategists and operation managers; others, like Raj, were blood relatives. None of them felt they had a future in Shiv Sena.  

The biggest setback to Shiv Sena and Bala saheb was the rivalry between Uddhav and his cousin Raj Thackeray with Raj breaking away from the parent party and forming a new outfit – Maharashtra Navnirman Sena (MNS). So the challenge that Uddhav now faces is from the rival Sena and his estranged cousin Raj. When the next election takes place, the alliance between the Shiv Sena and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) would have completed 25 years. Currently it is under severe strain.

The Shiv Sena was the more popular partner in the coalition till 2009. That has now changed. The BJP is now impatient with Shiv Sena. Sensing that Uddhav does not have the popular image of his uncle, the BJP will be looking for excuses to wriggle out of coalition. The Raj Thackeray factor will be crucial here. Sections of the BJP have already discovered of that virtues of Raj and have been arguing that the Shiv Sena allow the MNS to enter the coalition. In the event of the BJP dumping Uddhav-led Sena in favour of the Raj-led Sena, tremendous problem will be created for  Uddhav. One related issue is to do with the strategy the Sena adopts on its ties with MNS. It is hotly debated whether the two cousins will make up. A more realistic line of enquiry is, who will attract the workers of the party. Without the towering personality of Bala saheb, the Shiv Sena runs the risk of loosing its more vociferous following in Mumbai to MNS. This will be true test of Uddhav’s political acumen.

Will he unveil a programme of collective action – that was hallmark of an earlier Shiv Sena – in order to retain the faithful or will he have the skill to divert their energies to more routine work? He may not take calculated risk of losing some diehard vigilantes in order to keep the party on the road that he has charted for sometime now.

But the biggest challenge for the Shiv Sena will be in handling the inheritance Bala saheb has left behind. The inheritance consists of a pro-Marathi agenda (in cultural terms as well as in terms of employment demands) and the politics of demagogy.

At the moment, MNS appears to be more adept at both. To be sure, the Shiv Sena had experimented with the mix of regional pride and Hindu nationalism along before Narendra Modi. But the brand Shiv Sena has always been identified with regional pride. The party will now have to redefine that identity, particularly because it now realises the need for a broader agenda to retain its hold beyond Mumbai and Thane.

But can there be Shiv Sena with demagogy? The Sena’s rise in the nineties owed a great deal Bala saheb’s ability to reshape Maharashtra’s political culture and public reason. The feat appears beyond the ability of the Shiv Sena now. But a party nourished on sumptuous doses of demagogy could find it very hard to settle down to politics as usual – all the more so when the MNS thrives on that very demagogy. [IPA]
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