As Shiv Sena celebrated its 50th Dasara rally at Mumbai’s iconic Shivaji Park this week, the gathering of Shiv Sainiks reflected only a shadow of what the famed Dasara rallies were known for. From the time when the party was formed in 1966 till the demise of Balasaheb Thackeray four years ago, Shivaji Park was used to witnessing a mammoth gathering of Shiv Sainiks thronging the ground to hear the words of their “Hinduhrudaysamrat”. The number swung between 400,000 to 60,000 people. This year though, only 22,000 came, reflecting the waning glory of this once crowd-pulling event. On the background of the party’s hype about a huge number of Shiv Sainiks from across the country thronging the ground for the first time, the expectations were already high.
“According to our estimate, a crowd of 20,000 to 22,000 people had gathered at Shivaji Park for the rally,” Ashok Dudhe, Mumbai Police spokesperson, told The Sunday Guardian.
“This was the lowest attendance till date for any Dasara rally of the Shiv Sena I have covered,” a senior political journalist from a Marathi newspaper said. “The past glory of Sena’s Dasara rallies can barely be expressed in words. Every inch of this huge ground used to be occupied by people for hours even before Balasaheb Thackeray came on stage. He used to regale people with his aggressive and catchy oratory. The Sainiks used to cheer, laugh, shout slogans, whistle and clap several times during the speeches,” he said.
“No comparison should be made between Balasaheb and Uddhavji. Balasaheb never prepared his Dasara rally speech. He always spoke extempore. People felt he was talking to them. That is why they were so involved in his speeches. His speeches were a conversation between him and his followers. During the first rally held at Shivteertha (Shivaji Park is called Shivteertha by Shiv Sena) in 1966, a crowd of 400,000 people had turned up. All the roads, lanes and bylanes of Dadar were blocked with people. Nobody had expected that kind of response,” Arvind Nerkar, a senior Shiv Sena activist told The Sunday Guardian.
Traditionally, the party cadres have been imparted a line of thought and action by the party leadership during the Dasara rally. The crowds cheered, laughed, whistled and clapped, as the late Balasaheb Thackeray talked aggressively in his trademark style. He provoked people, guided them, entertained them and directed them to follow his words. “He would tell us to not just listen to his words, but read between the lines,” Nerkar said.
He added that the number of Sainiks attending the rally has always been high in the past. An average of 60,000 to 80,000 people would vie for every inch of space on the open ground. “The rallies were different in those days. They shouldn’t be compared with today’s rallies. It is also true that our sponteneous outbursts have reduced in the past few years. I can tell you one thing, if Balasaheb would have been alive today, the BJP would not have dared to talk to us like that,” an old guard of Shiv Sena said.
The sting in the hearts of the Shiv Sainiks about the secondary treatment meted to it by the BJP, was palpable in conversations with many of them. Unfortunately, Uddhav Thackeray could not address these concerns completely during his speech. At a time when the crowds had gathered primarily to know Sena’s stand on the fate of alliance with BJP in the coming Mumbai municipal corporation elections, the Sena scion refused to take a call on it. The MCGM (Municipal Corporation of Greater Mumbai) elections are crucial, and will decide the fate of many other electoral issues in the state. The budget of MCGM is Rs 40,000 crore, making it the richest municipal corporation in the country.
During his speech, Thackeray merely put the ball in BJP’s court and dared them to break the alliance. “If you have the guts, break the alliance today and attack us from the front. We will also show you our surgical strike then. You will see how a tiger gives a befitting fight,” he said in the rally. The disappointments in the hearts of the Shiv Sainiks with the speech didn’t end at this point alone.
“I am not worried about the number of people who attended the rally. Today, the TV channels and the social media have made sure that the speech reaches many households without people leaving their chairs. But yes, the rally was flat, it was a flop. The crowd barely responded. Also, more baffling was Uddhav’s address,” said Prakash Akolkar, senior political journalist and analyst who has written a book on the Shiv Sena.
“Apart from the surgical strikes, he didn’t speak anything new. If the surgical strikes would not have happened, you could have said that he repeated his June 2016 speech, which was given during the golden jubilee celebrations in Goregaon. Also, he contradicted himself at many points. In his speech, he appeared helpless and powerless. People think, Shiv Sena acting like opposition despite being in power is a strategy. I don’t agree. I think it is their helplessness,” Akolkar said.
The puzzle in the heart of the Shiv Sena leader on whether to be a part of the alliance with BJP or not, was clear in his speech. He started by targeting the BJP for “backstabbing” them despite a friendship of 25 years. Then he went on to tell them to treat the Sena well. On the background of recent incidents of Shiv Sainiks attacking a BJP leader and the BJP leadership calling Shiv Sena corrupt, the Sainiks expected a clear stand from Thackeray. “I do not want to speak about the MCGM elections today. If you (BJP) want to walk with us, do so happily. But if you expect us to beg to you for our rights, we are not going to do that. We will take what rightfully belongs to us. My dear Shiv Sainiks, behold your saffron flag. Don’t let it waver,” he said. He gave contradictory statements on various issues including Maratha reservation, alliance with BJP, stand on the Union government and Narendra Modi.
While the late Balasaheb Thackeray had stood strongly against caste-based reservation during the peak of the Mandal commission report, Uddhav Thackeray could not take a stand. “Though there were many Shiv Sainiks from the OBC background, it was to the credit of Balasaheb that he took a stand against such reservations, and stood firmly by his views. He did not want casteist politics. This was one of the reasons why Chhagan Bhujbal left Shiv Sena,” Akolkar said.
But as Maharashtra continues to simmer due to Maratha rallies seeking reservation for Marathas, Uddhav Thackeray did not take a strong stand.