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The sainiks’ dilemma: After Balasaheb Thackeray what?

The sense of dignity and composure with which the normally volatile sainiks conducted themselves at Balasaheb Thackeray’s funeral was touching indeed. It was a fitting farewell to the dear departed leader from his diehard devotees. For the sainik,– it’s not easy to come to terms with the loss of someone who has been part of your existence for close to half a century – and it could have dulled their inclination for passionate reactions.

The love of the sainiks for Balasaheb was blind, total and with no inhibitions attached. They proved it once again by pouring into the funeral procession in lakhs and by refraining from aggressive, emotional reactions. The city shut down for close to two days, more out of fear than respect for the man himself some would say, but it’s only the reflection of the power the man and his large troop of sainiks wielded. The dedicated army of the sainiks is part of the legacy he leaves behind. Now that the original leader is gone, what happens to the sainiks?

Shiv Sainiks at the crossroad. PTI

When we talk of sainiks here, the reference is to a common resource pool created by Thackeray. The crowd at the funeral comprised not only Shiv Sena activists and followers but also those from the breakaway Maharashtra Navnirman Sena, led by Raj Thackeray. The lay followers of both the outfits and their leaders have one thing in common: the undivided loyalty to Bal Thackeray. Till he was alive the sainiks lived in the secret hope that he would work out a compromise formula and manage to bring warring cousins Uddhav and Raj together at some point. Now, they stand confused.

They identify themselves with the Balasaheb a kind of leadership which is aggressive, irreverent, unconventional and loaded with the devil may care attitude. He would not have been the mass leader he was without all these attributes. Uddhav, his chosen successor in the party, doesn’t fit into the mental construct of a leader the lay Shiv Sainik is comfortable with - he’s too suave, too controlled, too non-combative and, thus, uninspiring. Raj is the leader in the mould they would relate to easily.

However, defecting to Raj would raise a moral dilemma. The act would amount to betrayal of their original leader who in his last interaction with them before his death, had made an impassioned appeal to them to stand by Uddhav. It is possible a few leaders in the middle rungs are already contemplating a switch but they would be acutely aware of the possible resistance from the grassroots followers. The moves from the sainiks in future would make it clear whether their love for Bal Thackeray was more about personal loyalty or about their preference for a particular style of leadership.

The dilemma would get bigger for them once Uddhav initiates the process for an ideological shift for the party. The Shiv Sena has been on the decline for some time now and the departure of Raj Thackeray and many of the old guard from the party is not the strongest reason for it. It has lost the ideological plot and it has to find new ways to connect to people and expand its base.

Identity politics has its limitations, the biggest is it can run out of steam. Parties revolving around identity need to discover new areas of conflict which they can tap into. The Shiv Sena’s guiding theme so far has been `the disadvantaged us vs the inimical others’. The party has identified new enemies at different phases of its growth to keep the cadres motivated. It was Gujaratis first followed by South Indians and migrants from UP and Bihar. In late 1980s, the party included Hindutva in its agenda to increase its base across the state. It is obvious that Hindutva has run its course and the party needs to find new issues.

Uddhav is aware of the fact that the party cannot survive only on an exclusive agenda; if it wants to increase its popular appeal it has to be inclusive with new sections of the population in its fold. His `Mee Mumbaikar’ call was a hint towards that effort. But will the lay sainik accept the shift? It would be something akin to a culture shock to him.

Will he stand by Uddhav when he is so different in his leadership style and ideology from Balashaeb? That will be something keenly watched by political watchers.

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