Many believe Bal Thackeray's politics made a smooth transition from chauvinism to communalism in later years to utilise opportunities created by both the Congress's soft and BJP's hard brands of Hindutva politics. It was also essential if Shiv Sena had to gain ground outside Mumbai where slogans like 'Maharashtra for Maharashtrians' had limited appeal.
Incidents like Shah Bano controversy and the Babri Masjid demolition provided a perfect platform to the Sena to widen its reach more. Ironically, the rise of Islamic terrorism also gave the Shiv Sena leadership a reason to relish for it also began mimicking Islamic fundamentalism while bashing it.
In the past, Bal Thackeray's supporters dug up a cricket pitch in New Delhi to stop a Pakistani cricket team from playing in India, issued warnings time and again to visiting cricketers and even flayed Indian Bollywood icon Shah Rukh Khan once after the latter lamented the absence of Pakistani cricketers in the Indian Premier League. The Shiv Sena had also slammed Sachin Tendulkar for the latter had said he was an Indian before a Maharashtrian. Such intense is the 'Maharashtrian pride' for the Shiv Sainiks.
Shiv Sena will find it difficult to survive after Bal Thackeray
Bal Thackeray's brand of politics has its own limitation and the Shiv Sena will not be able to ignore that in the absence of the ailing leader. Out of power for 13 years now, the Sena lacks an absorbing political ideology that can out it back into the contention for power in the state. The monolithic structure of the party, which starts and ends with the senior Thackeray, will find it difficult to survive in the future.
Balasaheb's son Uddhav said last year ahead of the Mumbai corporation poll that the party had decided to make development its main agenda and not emotional issues. This is a significant development. Besides, Uddav's own health concerns could give rise to serious succession problems in the Shiv Sena. The death of his elder son and wife devastated the senior Thackeray and in this situation, only nephew Raj Thackeray would have been the ideal successor for the Shiv Sainiks.
Raj Thackeray's exit did not help Shiv Sena
But Raj's exit from the party at the end of 2005 and forming the Maharashtra Navnirman Sena (MNS) also made the 'Son of Soil' issue its main plank. But it is not possible for the MNS to replicate what the Shiv Sena had done in the 1960s-1990s for the ground realities have changed.
The MNS has targetted the north Indians alleging the latter had eaten up local jobs and also showed anti-Hindi sentiments besides bashing up Muslims from Pakistan and Bangladesh. But the MNS is far from emerging into another Shiv Sena for there is little chance of it capturing a base among the middle class today and instead, the division between the Thackerays could allow forces like Congress to fuel differences between the two Senas more for its own gain. Bal Thackeray's successors have made the situation conducive to undermine his own legacy.
Shiv Sena does not have a tradition of internal election or constitutional transition of power and this makes other leaders irrelevant. Senior leaders like Chhagan Bhujbal, Sanjay Nirupam and Narayan Rane had left the Shiv Sena in the last one-and-half decades and autocratic style of functioning, nepotism and corruption were the reasons cited for these exits. The Ramesh Kini murder case and charges of extortion against the Thackerays also hampered the Sainiks.
Politicians like Bal Thackeray are creations of political opportunism. He capitalised on a situation of exclusive development with the help of a symbolic self-assertion but never really succeeded to operate his party on constructivist political lines. Anti-communism, anti-non-Maharashtrians, anti-Muslim, anti-Pakistan, anti-migrants --- whatever the Shiv Sena chief had done was based on opposition, belligerence and antipathy. The high days of Hindutva politics helped him extend his golden run but like all other excesses, Shiv Sena's politics was also bound to fail.
Today, the party does not have a strong relation with the BJP, a close ally in the NDA and also Uddhav Thackeray's quest to win dalit votes by allying with outfits like the Republican Party of India (A) is not to give any profit. The core vote bank of the party comprising the urban Marathas (the Thackerays belong to Chandraseni Kayastha Prabhu, an urban caste) has shrunk considerably and this is primarily because the leaders failed to reinvent the party. Even a national party like the BJP is undergoing similar crisis for these outfits practising hard identity politics need a new alternative today.
The media might have taken a long time to reveal what was actually taking place on Balasaheb's health. But whatever be his condition, the Shiv Sena is surely on the ventilator.