A few months ago, I went for lunch to the new Maharashtra Sadan in the national capital. The first look was impressive: marble flooring, bronze statuettes, spiral staircases, you could have been in the lobby of a five star hotel. This was no staid government accommodation and the extravagance seemed to confirm reports of how the local contractor had inflated the construction costs well beyond the original sanctioned budget.
Sadly, the food and service didn’t match the décor. I did complain but I certainly didn’t force-feed the caterer. Which is why the recent behaviour of a Shiv Sena MP Rajan Vichare left me more than a little disappointed. If the MP wanted to make a point, surely there were better ways to do it than push a chapatti down the throat of a Muslim catering supervisor who was observing his Ramzan fast. What outraged me was the Sena’s defence in its mouthpiece, Saamna. Adding a disturbing parochial edge to the controversy, the editorial said: “Marathi men have no place in the Maharashtra Sadan. There is no drinking water, no cleanliness, no adequate canteen facilities.. naturally, our MPs have a right to be angry.”
For anyone who has studied the Shiv Sena, the behaviour of its MP would come as no surprise. This, after all, is a party which has believed in the politics of ‘thokshahi’ or violence: toll booths have been vandalised, cricket pitches dug up, journalist offices broken, dissenting voices bashed up. It is almost as if the willingness to take law into their own hands has been the Sena’s USP in a crowded political marketplace.
And yet, I have got the distinct impression in recent months that the Shiv Sena under Udhav Thackeray wants to change. Udhav is temperamentally not his father. Bal Thackeray had a natural militant edge to his politics: it reflected in his demagoguery and his constant search for an “enemy’ figure who could be targeted. The bespectacled Udhav doesn’t strike me as an anarchist. In private conversation, he comes across as sober, well-meaning and reasonable. His son Aditya too, seems forward-looking and keen to present a more modern outlook of the Sena.
And yet, why is an Udhav unable to distance himself from the party’s more ugly, distasteful side? Why could he not, for example, publicly rebuke his MP for his disgraceful behaviour? Why did an Aditya Thackeray have to announce his entry into public life by pushing for the the banning of Rohinton Mistry’s book in Mumbai University? Could he not have taken up the many genuine issues that afflict the city’s students rather than make a book banning a prestige issue?
Sadly, it seems that the Sena’s footsoldiers like to see their leaders as Bal Thackeray prototypes. They like to see their Sena Pramukhs talk tough, stir conflict and incite violence. It is almost as if the politics of competitive chauvinism between the Shiv Sena and Raj Thackeray’s Maharashtra Navnirman Sena necessarily means that it is imperative for each side to out-do the other. When Udhav attempted a more inclusive ‘Mee Mumbaikar’ campaign in 2003, he found himself being marginalised by cousin Raj’s more strident stand against north Indian migrants. The temptation for both sides is to constantly look for a high-profile campaign that will secure their status as protectors of the Maharashtrian identity.
And yet, the remarkable victory of Narendra Modi in the 2014 elections should hold a lesson for both the Senas ahead of the Maharashtra elections later this year. In the 2014 elections, Modi consciously subsumed his Hindu identity to focus on the politics of governance. The BJP’s prime ministerial candidate was astute enough to recognise that he needed an incremental, identity-plus vote to be truly successful at a national level. Now, the Shiv Sena, which is the frontrunner to capture power in Maharashtra, faces a similar challenge: can it make itself electable to a wider constituency beyond the traditional Marathi vote bank?
To achieve that, it needs to shed the baggage of the past that is littered with the near-exclusivist politics of hate and violence. It cannot risk alienating the political middle ground which is looking for a credible alternative to the failed Congress-NCP alliance in Maharashtra. The Maharashtra Sadan incident only pushes the Sena back into an image trap: its cheerleaders may take great delight in the action of its MP, but for the average Maharashtrian, such behaviour is repelling.
Now, the Sena finds itself in another controversy after the party leadership appeared to defend a senior police officer accused of rape by a model. “Accusing people of rape has become a fashion in society and men are being pushed on the defensive for no fault of theirs,’ says the Saamna editorial. At a time when rape laws and gender justice have been the subject of a surcharged national debate, why does a political party need to take a partisan position in a case where the investigation is still on? Why not simply allow the law to take its course?
Frankly, the Shiv Sena needs to spend less time courting needless controversy and start behaving like a mature political party committed to wholesome governance. Mumbai, and indeed, Maharashtra, have enough issues that demand urgent attention, from crumbling infrastructure to a growing agrarian crisis. A more focussed approach on a “Maharashtra model of governance” which emphasises administrative transparency and job-driven growth might be a winning ticket rather than looking to derive media mileage by latching onto sensational stories. After almost 50 years in politics, its time for the Sena to grow up.
Post-script: When I met Udhav Thackeray in June, he indicated that he was open to offering himself as the chief ministerial candidate for Maharashtra unlike his father who preferred to remain the “remote control’. It’s a good sign: one can only hope that with greater power comes the realisation of equal responsibility.