Even those who weren’t overly enamoured of Bal Thackeray‘s distinctive brand of politics have been repeatedly pointing out, since news of his passing came out on Saturday, that he had the “courage of his convictions”. Much of this ’lionisation’ of the ‘Tiger’ may be born of the protocol of propriety that dictates that you don’t speak ill of the dead, but there is of course more to it than just that.
That Thackeray’s politics was rooted in his “convictions”, such as they were, is not in doubt. His convictions, and the focus of his identity politics, may have evolved over time, but they did provide the ideological core for his channelling of, first, Marathi and, subsequently, pan-Hindu angst to which, as Firstpost has noted here, the prevailing political order proved insensitive. Thackeray’s public blunt-speak, which had all the subtlety of a bludgeon, allowed him to tap into this reservoir of outrage – and shift the centre of gravity of Maharashtrian (and, peripherally, national) politics in a way that maximised, for a time, the political rewards that the Shiv Sena harvested.
But as much as Thackeray had the ”courage of his convictions” that has come in for much post-mortem praise, there was also about him a certain rigidity that bordered on an unwillingness – or an incapacity – to respond to the changing contours of politics by shifting the emphasis of his narrative. That too may perhaps be perceived as a manifestation of the “courage of his convictions” and his unbending nature: after all, a Tiger never changes its stripes. But it was also a fatal flaw – to the extent that it meant that even in his time, he would see the Sena’s political influence wane, wracked by high-profile defections that have effectively enfeebled the mothership. More tellingly, the Sena not been able to capitalise on the poor governance in the State: the party has been out of power in Maharashtra for more than a decade now, despite the fact that the Congress-NCP coalition has done a rotten job of governing.
What accounts for the Sena’s failure to build on its record in office for four years from 1995? Why hasn’t it been able to leverage its time in office to completely ‘own’ the State, in the way that the BJP has done in Gujarat, particularly under Narendra Modi since 2001?
The parallel with Modi’s Gujarat acquires relevance in this context: Modi was something of an accidental Chief Minister in 2001, but he consolidated the Hindutva vote base in the 2002 elections, held soon after the Godhra train burnings and the horrendous riots that followed. And, of course, although that hardcore Hindutva vote base has stuck with him, Modi himself has at least attempted to change the narrative in Gujarat away from the communal polarisation rhetoric of 2002. Even by 2007, he had begun articulating a developmental vision for Gujarat that evidently enjoyed enormous traction with Gujarat’s voters.
Today, that developmental vision has become the main electoral plank for Modi and the BJP, and ‘development’ has become the primary element of the political discourse in other States as well as at a pan-Indian level, particularly since perceptions about Gujarat’s developmental experience contrasts sharply with the wholesale collapse of governance in some other States (including BJP-ruled States like Karnataka) and at the Central level.
So much so that even the Congress has abandoned its cynical strategy of harvesting minority votes in Gujarat (in the way that it sought to do in 2007) by harking back to the 2002 riots. It’s main election campaign theme this time around revolves around the development theme: but it is focussed rather more on trying to establish that Gujarat’s record of high growth and relative economic prosperity predates Modi.
In other words, Modi built on the Hindutva vote base that he harnessed in 2002 by decisively changing the narrative to his advantage by frontloading developmental issues.
On the other hand, the Shiv Sena, which was swept into power in Maharashtra in 1995 – largely on the strength of the consolidation of the Hindutva base following the riots of 1992-93 – did not build on that record in office to change the narrative by offering good governance while it was in power or by frontloading developmental themes.
For some time now, there hasn’t been anything close to the Hindutva wave that propelled Shiv Sena to power in 1995, which is why the party hasn’t ever been returned to power. And because the Tiger did not believe in changing its stripes, the Sena continues to play the same identity politics routine, only with different targets; but that strategy is subject to the law of diminishing returns. The split in the party and the high-profile defections from it only accentuated its decline.
In that sense, the Sena today is a victim of Thackeray’s “courage of his convictions”. He was convinced that the core of his politics – rooted in those convictions – didn’t need to evolve, even though it’s been a while since the Sena Tiger has tasted power. He made no concessions to the changing nature of the world around him. Sure, that may be taken to represent fidelity to one’s core beliefs. But it also makes for ideological rigidity and an incapacity to expand on one’s core base that has ill-served the Sena.