The unravelling of the Balasaheb ‘brand’ of Shiv Sena in the Indian state of Maharashtra constitutes a fascinating political tale in recent Indian history. It is also undoubtedly one of the most intriguing ones since the emergence of the late Indira Gandhi-led Congress (I), a breakaway faction of the mother party later legitimised by the Election Commission of India as the real Indian National Congress.
Given Maharashtra’s significance in demographics within India and the western Indian state’s economic prowess, the political drama in one of the largest states is likely to impact national politics soon. In that sense, the rather ‘layered’ Maharashtra story has a huge lesson for many regional parties in India, as much as it allows Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) a much wider bandwidth to play and propagate its tune to perfection with an all-India pitch.
Voices of protest and derisive commentary
Ever since the initial group of ‘rebels’ under a breakaway Shiv Sena faction led by Eknath Shinde, now the chief minister of Maharashtra, deserted the Uddhav Thackeray-led camp, there were voices of protest and derisive commentary all around about BJP trying to overrun a democratically-elected government and thereby desecrating constitutional propriety. But, those who found the ‘co-opting’ of Shiv Sena as an affront to democracy weren’t conscientious and courageous enough to question the blatant opportunism that saw unnatural political ‘bedfellows’ join hands for the sake of power after the assembly elections in 2019.
We will only be kidding ourselves to say that chalk-and-cheese entities like Shiv Sena, on the one hand, and the Congress and Nationalist Congress Party (NCP), on the other, came together just for the sake of good governance in Maharashtra! If that unnatural coalition in 2019 was political par for the course, then so is this Shinde-led rebellion in 2022.
That’s the first point that needs to be clarified here. We must be honest enough to admit that debating the Maharashtra cauldron on premises of ‘ideology’ and ‘ethos’ – no matter the academic interest – can only lead us to an inconclusive ‘your-word-against-mine’ diatribe because what has just transpired in this western Indian state is politics at its transactional best and nothing else! And in that sense, the Shiv Sena churn in Maharashtra is a classic case of ‘brand dilution’.
Eknath Shinde, a non-Mumbaikar and yet a true-blue Shiv ‘Sainik’ (soldier), served as the perfect antidote to counter Uddhav Thackeray’s sole-proprietary claim to ‘Brand Shiv Sena.
There is no doubt that under the late Balasaheb Thackeray, Shiv Sena emerged as not just a regional political force to reckon with, but it had indeed earned its stripes as a muscular, robust rendition of Marathi identity. In that sense, Shiv Sena’s identity politics in Maharashtra went far beyond its obvious ‘Hindutva’ pitch, thereby giving the party plenty of heft at the hustings and the leverage to play hardball — even with an ally as imposing as BJP when it came to seat or power-sharing arrangements. These in turn helped ‘brand’ Shiv Sena emerge as a monolith in its claim to Marathi asmita (pride).
But the party had two deep-rooted lacunae: Firstly, in terms of organisational strength, Shiv Sena’s growth beyond its strictly Mumbai-centric loyal support base was always suspect. Secondly, given its strong affinity to being a closely-knit, family-based entity, ‘Shiv Sainiks’ within the rank and file were used to diktats only from the Thackeray family. A Shiv Sena power centre outside the Thackeray fold was unheard-of and untested. Even when Balasaheb’s nephew Raj Thackeray walked out of Shiv Sena and launched Maharashtra Navnirman Sena (MNS), it turned out to be nothing more than a feeble attempt at claiming a slice of the ‘Sena’ pie, which found little electoral traction in the absence of any affiliation to the Balasaheb fold.
This is precisely where BJP found its ‘entry’ point to dissect the Shiv Sena narrative and establish its writ in Maharashtra.
Catapulting Shinde as the de-facto leader of Shiv Sena was a BJP masterstroke that helped ensure the ‘brand dilution’ of Shiv Sena in the most definitive terms in one of the most culturally-sensitive states in the country. Shinde, a non-Mumbaikar and yet a true-blue Shiv ‘Sainik’ (soldier), served as the perfect antidote to counter Uddhav Thackeray’s sole-proprietary claim to ‘Brand Shiv Sena’.
In one fell swoop, BJP has not only succeeded in creating a parallel Shiv Sena power centre outside the Thackeray household but has also ensured that in the days ahead, the once-combative regional force will be mired in a likely legal battle to prove who the real Shiv Sena is — the current dispensation under CM Shinde or the group that is still loyal to former CM Uddhav? The more long-drawn and bloody this battle for ‘ownership’ is, the greater the ‘fatigue’ will be in an average Maratha over ‘Brand Sena’. That’s precisely what’s required for the BJP’s bargaining chip to go front and centre in a state where Balasaheb’s party has always stonewalled its political ambitions.
In this current scenario, the BJP will be able to keep the idea of a Sena legacy intact for the average Maharashtra voter without having to play hardball with the Sena.
And that’s game, set and match!
By anointing Shinde as the CM and asking its leader and former CM Devendra Fadnavis to play second fiddle to him, BJP sprang more than a surprise. It was a clear message to other regional parties that if factions within the parties can pull off the kind of rebel MLA numbers that Shinde managed in Maharashtra, then even at the cost of sacrificing its generals, BJP may be ready to install a regional leader at the helm.
From that perspective, the Maharashtra storyboard could well be part of a master plan for a new political chess board, wherein regional players will no longer be seen as mere pushovers but as vital cogs in the wheel and key stakeholders in a nationalist party’s (read BJP’s) pan-India ambitions.