Someone asked me if the Shiv Sena had either changed or was changing, not so much on the issues that it held dear and acted upon so far but in the manner of expressing itself. Would it continue to resort to the use of muscle power? Would threats and forced bandhs be its sine qua non which helped it to brand itself? Would it move from the culture of violence to one of democratic persuasion?
That question was apparently based on the hope triggered by the manner in which the partymen and sympathisers conducted themselves on the day of Bal Thackeray's funeral, gathering in numbers unprecedented for any funeral of any Maharashtrian leader in the past, or now. They had remained sullen even as people unconnected with the party, but who had sought favours were given opportunities to get close to the body.
They had been denied what they believed was their right, having been exceptionally loyal followers, who would do anything at the behest of the leader who had passed away. Uddhav Thackeray, the anointed successor, was so far only a medium for Bal Thackeray's contact but not a full-fledged leader yet.
That transition from one leader to another has to happen yet and how it develops would be a thing to watch. Uddhav Thackeray is different from his father. He is known to have preferred to take the party cadres off the street but in a style, more clichéd than real, and keep the threat of direct action on issues lingering in the background.
Now let's come to the question that someone asked.
The conduct of the sainiks that day at Shivaji Park, around it, one their way to it and back in grief, was perhaps a single swallow that does not a summer make. The tea leaves to look into its behavioural aspect are to be found in Palghar where the local leadership has not been contrite for having secured the arrests of two girls and then ransacking a hospital. Party spokespersons like Sanjay Raut had even justified it, so easily tarring themselves after the gains made from the peaceful conduct at the funeral.
There was a chance that a party in transit from one leader to another, the latter in mourning and therefore silent, could have been seen to have offered a single isolated case of gross misbehaviour. But Manohar Joshi's talk of need to defy law if it came in the way of a museum of a mausoleum for the late Thackeray underscored the fact that things have not changed.
Joshi has held several constitutional posts: Chief Minister, Lok Sabha Speaker, and recently aspired to the second highest in that rank of protocol - Vice President of India. Ignoring the past, he unbecomingly and vehemently advocated anything to secure the memorial at Shivaji Park. It led to a perception that he was saving some land on which his son's real estate project was taking shape, right across the Sena Bhavan.
That was not the voice of reason or good politics but meshed well with the Sena which has ensured an image where threats work as well as actual action. Its past is replete with street-level action. That, and the emergence of violence in Palghar after securing the arrest of two girls merely exercising normal free speech, not invective which was treasonable, indicate that the tiger — the party's emblem — was not ready to shed its stripes.
That it was not an isolated case but a part of a pattern true to Sena's style is evident from the bandh enforced today in Palghar. It is to protest the transfers and suspensions of police officers who, disregarding law or ignorant of it, just went and arrested the two girls post haste. It is also a protest against the transfer of the mindless magistrate who was equally silly in his knowledge of law.
Horror of horrors, even the local bar association, which would have surely have people who knew law better than the magistrate, also have called a bandh of the courts there, protesting against the magistrate. The High Court had agreed to his transfer, surely, that court obviously knows its onions.
Bandhs are never spontaneous and often, they are announced in advance and cooperation is enforced. The party leadership would have been aware of the Palghar Shiv Sena shakha's plans and have done nothing to prevent it though the government's action has been a bid to correct a patent illegality. It is not as if with Uddhav in mourning, there is none to control and guide the Sena.
Which takes us back to that someone's question: the party has not changed, and is unlikely because flexing of muscle at local levels gives the cadre a sense of being, of being counted as one who matters. With that come lot of benefits including possible political ascendance within the party and then on its behalf. Unless, of course, Uddhav decides to reinvent the party, soften its image.
I ask that someone with the question about the Sena, "But would such a Shiv Sena work?"