From Sena to party
Uddhav Thackeray’s ascent to the chief minister’s office in the most extraordinary of circumstances marks a moment of rupture in Maharashtra’s political history. The mandate in the October election was, arguably, for the Hindutva alliance comprising the BJP and the Sena. However, the two ideological and political allies for over a quarter century could not agree on government formation and the events thereafter forced a realignment of political forces. The contingencies of managing a coalition that includes the NCP and Congress, long-standing foes of the Sena, have propelled its chief, who has no prior legislative or administrative experience, to chief ministership. The Thackeray family has controlled the levers of government in 1995-99 and 2014-19 from the outside. Interestingly, that power this time seems to be vested, most of all, in Sharad Pawar, the architect of the Sena-NCP-Congress government in Mumbai. His presence will loom large over the alliance the Sena leads, a situation the party is not used to. Moreover, as leader of the coalition, the Sena may also have to recalibrate its politics and accommodate the interests of its allies if the government is to last the full term.
It is an irony of the current situation in Maharashtra that the Sena, infamous for using unconstitutional and strong-arm methods, has been seen to speak for the Constitution and its principles in the past few weeks, even as its former partner, the BJP disregarded constitutional propriety in its pursuit of power. Yet, even in this moment and especially in this moment, the Sena’s inglorious past cannot be glossed over. Since Bal Thackeray founded it in 1966, it has come to symbolise some of the worst tendencies in Indian politics, including regional chauvinism and anti-minorityism. In its early years, the Sena was seen as a lumpen outfit that championed ethnic pride and targeted the Left trade unions in Bombay. As it grew and Bombay ceased to have an organised working class movement, the party came closer to the BJP, embraced the Hindutva ideology and joined the Ram Janmabhoomi movement. The virulent anti-Muslim edge of its mobilisations and the vanguard role it played in the 1992 Bombay riots, documented extensively in the Justice Srikrishna Commission report, transformed the Sena from being a regional chauvinist outfit to a majoritarian and communal group.
The Sena under Uddhav seems conscious that its nativist agenda is losing its appeal among even its traditional voters and that the Hindutva space is now fully occupied by the BJP. Whether or not it feels compelled to refashion and reinvent itself as a ruling party, it can be said that it now has the opportunity. Both the Sena and its chief will be watched closely for how they use, or misuse, it.