The Shiv Sena’s enemies are Modi-Shah, not the BJP: Congress parliamentarian Kumar Ketkar

12 December, 2019

Maharashtra has been springing surprises ever since its assembly election results were announced on 24 October. To begin with, the state’s electorate denied the Bharatiya Janata Party–Shiv Sena alliance a two-third majority in the 288-member assembly, as had been predicted by Home Minister Amit Shah. Then, the Shiv Sena split from the BJP, with which it had been in an alliance for over three decades. The third surprise was the swearing-in of Devendra Fadnavis as chief minister, in stealth, during the early hours of 23 November. Fadnavis’ second stint in power lasted for about eighty hours.

These surprises paled in comparison, at least politically, to the emergence of the Maha Vikas Aghadi, an alliance between the Shiv Sena, the Congress and the Nationalist Congress Party, to form Maharashtra’s new government. The Sena’s decision to join the alliance was unprecedented—for the first time in India’s history, a party subscribing to Hindutva switched to the side of parties adhering to composite nationalism. Did this realignment suggest an ideological churning in Indian politics or the undermining of secularism? Or was it more a case of the three parties pooling their resources to ensure the BJP does not gobble them up? Why were Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Shah unable to win the support of the Marathis, in the same measure as they had in the 2019 Lok Sabha election?

Ajaz Ashraf, an independent journalist, met Kumar Ketkar, a former journalist and a Congress member of the Rajya Sabha, on 3 November, to discuss these issues. Ketkar also spoke about the many metamorphoses that the Shiv Sena has undergone since it was founded by Bal Thackeray in June 1966. Ketkar identified the electoral campaign by Uddhav Thackeray, the Shiv Sena president and Maharashtra chief minister, as a means of summoning the memory of the movement to establish the state of Maharashtra. The movement had a strong anti-Gujarati undercurrent, which he linked to the rejection of Modi and Shah, both Gujaratis, by the Marathis. “When Uddhav alludes to Gujarati domination, he taps into the subterranean anger and worries of Marathis, in much the same way that Thackeray, with his talk of jobs for the Marathis, did into the reservoir of angst existing into the 1960s,” Ketkar said.

Ajaz Ashraf: The Shiv Sena has entered into an alliance with the NCP and the Congress, which are classified as secular parties. Does the Sena think it is time to forsake Hindutva?
Kumar Ketkar: The Sena does not think. It is a spontaneous organisation, which has a knee-jerk reaction to situations. It does not plan or strategise. The Sena was not born out of the debate over secularism, which was taken as a given of our political life. Few remember that the socialists, led by Madhu Dandavate, allied with the Shiv Sena, in 1967, although he broke the alliance a year later. Even [the former prime minister] Indira Gandhi’s insertion of secularism in the preamble of the Constitution, in 1976, was not opposed.

Secularism emerged as a political issue in the backdrop of the formation of the Janata Party, which included the Jana Sangh, the earlier incarnate of the BJP. Secularism became a hot-button issue only after the Supreme Court’s verdict in the Shah Bano case [in which Bano, a Muslim woman, was awarded the right to receive alimony after divorce] was reversed by Rajiv Gandhi, in 1985–1986, and the BJP launched the Ram Janmabhoomi movement.

The Sena, in fact, was born out of the frustration and anger of the youth.

AA: What was this frustration and anger about?
KK: Maharashtra was formed in 1960, the Sena in 1966. During these six years, the frustration among the Marathi youth grew because there were no jobs. Even those of us who had a degree had no choice but to work as salesmen, which entailed going from door to door to sell products. My friends and I belonged to the lower-middle class, lived in chawls or working-class colonies, or houses of less than three hundred square feet.

All of us wondered why we could not get jobs, even though the Samyukta Maharashtra Movement [an organisation established in 1956 that demanded the creation of a new state on linguistic lines] had led to the creation of Maharashtra. The working class backed the idea of having a state for the Marathis.

AA: Are you mentioning the working class to emphasise the class dimension of the demand for a separate state?
KK: There was indeed the dimension of a class war to that demand. The ownership of the means of production—textile mills, factories, retail and wholesale trade—predominantly belonged to the Gujaratis or the Marwaris. The Samyukta Maharashtra Movement was led by leaders like SA Dange, SM Joshi and Acharya Atre, who were either communist or socialist. They campaigned against the capitalist ownership of production. Since the working class was primarily Marathi, the Samyukta Maharashtra Movement developed an undercurrent of anti-Gujarati sentiment. Although the movement did not dub the Gujaratis as migrants or outsiders, the Marathi people, nevertheless, described them as exploiters and profit-mongers.

AA: It would seem the Sena was born because neither the Congress nor the communists and socialists could meet the aspirations of the Marathis.
KK: The Congress’ response to the isolation of Marathis was that its Gandhi-Nehru legacy was to represent India [and not parochial interests.] On the other hand, the Samyukta Maharashtra Movement did not have a blueprint for the economy.

AA: There was space then for a new entity to emerge.
KK: Balasaheb Thackeray, in 1964, launched a magazine, Marmik, which was the first cartoon weekly in Marathi. The magazine’s message was that it was fighting for the Marathis, to promote the Marathi identity, culture and language and, of course, better their lives. All of us were attracted to the magazine. The Marmik published a form, asking people to fill it to join the Sena. I was perhaps among the first hundred people to do so and join the Sena. I attended the Sena’s rally in June 1966, in Mumbai, where Balasaheb Thackeray said that politics was not his mission, because no party truly takes the common man, or Mumbai’s Marathi manoos, into account. The Sena sought to become the Marathi people’s voice.

AA: It was more a nativist movement than anything else?
KK: Between 1960 and 1970, anyone who was Marathi, jobless, hapless and helpless, was drawn to the Shiv Sena. Thackeray’s logic was that before Maharashtra was created, Morarji Desai [a Gujarati] was the chief minister of Bombay State. Later YB Chavan [who was Maratha by caste] replaced him and, after the new state was carved out, became its first chief minister. Yet, there were no jobs and, worse, the Congress was seen to be supporting the capitalist class. In those days, the Sena employed the Samyukta Maharashtra Movement’s lingo and sounded almost like the communists.

AA: Except that the Shiv Sena, unlike the communists, attached ethnicity to class.
KK: Correct. The ethnic identity of the class was evident to all. In those days, there were 63 textile mills in Mumbai, each of which was owned by either a Gujarat or a Marwari. These mills employed roughly 2.5 lakh workers, most of whom were Marathi migrants from rural Maharashtra. The working conditions in the factories and mills were pathetic.

The communists and the socialists, however, said they were internationalists. The Marathi youth’s response was that the communists talk of the toiling people, but do not want to represent their interests. The [ideological moorings of the] left wing disabled them from understanding the Marathi sentiment, which was not reactionary. By contrast, the Sena supported the Marathi working-class.

AA: For how long did you stay with the Sena?
KK: Not even one year.

AA: What made you leave the Sena?
KK: My roots were in the leftist campaign of the Samyukta Maharashtra Movement and the working-class movement. When the 1967 Lok Sabha elections came, Dange and Atre and George Fernandes, a militant trade-union leader then, contested. The Sena opposed them, ironically, at the behest of the capitalist class led by [Congress leader] SK Patil. This class had started to use the Sena to break strikes. VK Krishna Menon, a well-known fellow traveller of the communists and a Nehruvian, too, was in the fray as an independent. We, the student activists of the Left, supported him, but the Sena opposed him with the support of the Congress Right. The Sena had already started to target the [south Indians]. So, I and others left the Sena.

AA: By the late 1960s, therefore, the Sena had started to shift to the Right.
KK: The Sena had started to shift to what you can call the rowdy Right. This was symbolised by Sena activists murdering Krishna Desai, a communist leader, on 5 June 1970.

AA: Why did the Sena turn anti-Congress?
KK: When Indira Gandhi split the Congress in 1969, the Sena supported the Congress Right, which was led by SK Patil, who was in the Congress (O), the group opposed to her. Patil had supported and financed the Sena. During the Emergency, however, the Sena turned around to supporting Indira Gandhi. This was because [Bal] Thackeray was smitten by the idea of dictatorship and he thought she was showing the mettle for it. I suppose he also feared he could be arrested. Thackeray was not arrested during the Emergency.

AA: What prompted the Sena to embrace Hindutva?
KK: It opted for Hindutva, which never constituted its core identity, when it realised that its plank of Marathi identity could not help it grow any further. After all, what can the Marathi identity mean for farmers? Since 95 percent of farmers are Marathi, both the landlord and the agriculture labour largely belong to the same social group. The Sena did not have an ethnic faultline to exploit. The issue of joblessness was not the issue in rural Maharashtra. The Sena could not become a regional party because it lacked a pan-Maharashtra base.

The Sena opposed the Jana Sangh until it embraced Hindutva. Thackeray had a slogan, “Jana Sangh hawa tang” [Jan Sangh is gasping for breath]. His argument was that the Marathi identity, not Hindutva, mattered. In 1980, after the collapse of the Janata Party, the BJP was formed. In 1984, it won only two Lok Sabha seats. Both the Sena and the BJP were in wilderness. The Sena wished to emerge from the margins of politics, by wearing a new dress. They hit upon the Marathi-Hindutva identity and entered into an alliance with the BJP. But they did not get much traction.

AA: When did the Sena start getting traction?
KK: They started to get traction after the Babri Masjid was demolished on 6 December 1992.

AA: How deep is the Sena’s commitment to Hindutva?
KK: The Sena realised that by chanting the slogan of Hindutva, it could get a segment of the BJP’s votes. Obviously, they think they have helped the BJP grow. This is why Chief Minister Uddhav Thackeray, today, keeps saying that even when the BJP had two seats, the Sena supported it. His suggestion is that the BJP has grown in Maharashtra because of the Sena. The BJP, however, claims to be the elder brother, or senior partner, in the alliance. When Uddhav took oath as chief minister, he taunted that he planned to go to Delhi to meet the elder brother [Prime Minister Narendra Modi].

Let me ask you a question: Why do you think the Sena decided to confront Modi and Shah when they are so powerful?

AA: Uddhav was afraid that the BJP wanted to gobble up the Sena.
KK: That possibility existed in 2014, too. Uddhav’s fear, however, was enhanced manifold because of Modi’s return to power in 2019. In 2014, the Sena and the BJP fought the Lok Sabha election together. But they fought the 2014 assembly elections separately. This was because Modi had won the majority on his own. The BJP took to claiming that they were the senior partner in the alliance. The Sena felt humiliated, yet continued with the alliance.

But the Sena also tweaked its strategy between 2014 and 2019. It publicly appreciated Rahul Gandhi’s slogan “Chowkidar chor hai” [The watchman is a thief] and supported the campaign against the Rafale deal. Its leaders never abused Rahul or Sonia Gandhi. The Sena’s strategy was anchored in the realisation that the only way to check the BJP is to support the opposition’s campaign against Modi, without openly siding with the Congress. The Sena made fun of Amit Shah by caricaturing him as Afzal Khan, who was killed by [the Maratha king] Shivaji.

AA: Was this portrayal also about replaying the memory of the Samyukta Maharashtra Movement?
KK: Yes, the realisation dawned upon the Sena that all what they had fought for during the Samyukta Maharashtra Movement—from creating the Marathi identity to opposing the Gujarati’s ownership of resources—was in danger of being obliterated by Modi and Shah. This realisation was present, even though subliminally, in Maharashtra’s population consciousness because of certain developments.

AA: Like what?
KK: Take the bullet train, which is to connect Ahmedabad to Mumbai. The rapid-rail link between the two cities became a symbol of restoring the Gujarati hegemony of the 1960s. According to a five-year-old figure, the Bombay Stock Exchange has about seven thousand five hundred share brokers, of whom nearly seven thousand are either Gujarati or Marwari. The rest include Marathis, Bengalis, Sindhis, et cetera.

Why do you think the Bombay Stock Exchange is booming even though the economy has slowed down? Maharashtra’s suspicion is that the Gujarati lobby in the stock market wants to ensure that Modi and Shah don’t weaken. The bullion and commodity trade and the real estate market are under the sway of Gujaratis and Marwaris. Even the Adani-Ambani [referring to the industrialists Gautam Adani and Mukesh Ambani] connection with Modi-Shah is not just about capitalist connectivity. It is as much about ethnicity.

AA: Is this suspicion plain paranoia or has substance to it?
KK: After Modi announced the bullet-train project in 2014, those Gujaratis, who wished to maintain connectivity with Mumbai, began to buy land and flats all along the bullet-train corridor, in Vasai, Borivali and Andheri. They bought land from Marathi peasants and apartments from the Marathi middle-class owners, both of whom have shifted, over the last five years, to other belts in Maharashtra. When Uddhav alludes to Gujarati domination, he taps into the subterranean anger and worries of the Marathis, in much the same way that [Bal] Thackeray, with his talk of jobs for the Marathis, did into the reservoir of angst existing into the 1960s.

AA: By breaking the alliance with the BJP, doesn’t the Sena run the risk of losing the votes of those aligned with the former?
KK: Yes, they do. For instance, the middle-class Marathi voted the Sena only because it was in alliance with the BJP. But the BJP also loses a chunk of the lumpen, lower-middle-class Marathi votes and of the working class that would come to it because of the Sena.

AA: What does the Sena gain by aligning with the Congress and the NCP?
KK: Nothing except power.

AA: Couldn’t the Sena use power to build itself?
KK: Obviously, the Sena will try to use power to expand its base. But the Congress and the NCP will not allow it to grow strong beyond a point. The political situation in Maharashtra is such that all the four players are extremely weak.

It is hard to tell which of the four is the weakest. The Congress and the NCP belong to the same political culture, which is essentially Maratha in its ethos. The Marathas, in substantial numbers, joined the BJP because of the appeal of Hindutva.

AA: Why does Hindutva appeal to the Marathas?
KK: It began to appeal to them after 1995, when the first Sena–BJP government was formed. The Marathas thought the state power had started to shift from the Congress to the BJP. They became anxious about retaining their fiefdoms.

AA: When you say fiefdoms, I suppose you mean the cooperative sector.
KK: I mean all those who possess resources, including land. But their fate is dependent on the attitude of those who wield state power adopt towards them. Ajit Pawar, the NCP leader, who controlled the Maharashtra State Cooperative Bank, shifted to Devendra Fadnavis because he was afraid of losing his empire, in case the BJP was able to stitch together a government. Take Radhakrishna Vikhe Patil, who switched from the Congress to the BJP in June. In his fiefdom of Pravaranagar, he has 72,000 employees in the various institutions that his family controls.

When the state power started to shift to the BJP, because of the frenzy unleashed by Hindutva, the Marathas too began to move out from the Congress and the NCP. They had to protect their empires. Their shift is an important reason why the BJP could get 105 seats.

AA: The BJP, however, was not able to bag as many seats as was expected of it.
KK: The 2019 assembly election results are a manifestation of the fragmentation in the Maharashtra psyche. This is why people have been unable to understand these results. For instance, Maharashtra isn’t the first state where a coalition government of three parties has been formed. There were coalition governments, in certain states, as early as 1967.

For the first time, however, Maharashtra has provided an anti-BJP coalition, which has seen the Sena to join hands with two parties that are essentially the old Congress. This has confused the commentators, who were habituated to an alliance system in which one front was against the Congress and the other pro Congress. They did not realise that the ground had changed. They remain stuck in anti-Congressism. The Congress and the NCP together had nearly 100 seats. Yet they offered the chief ministership to the party having 56 seats. This was because all of them are so weak that their top priority was to define their enemy first. Who is the enemy?

AA: It is the BJP.
KK: No, Modi-Shah. Even Sonia Gandhi’s recent speech to the Congress parliamentary party, which I, too, attended, did not mention the BJP once. She only spoke of the Modi-Shah government. The Sena is not opposed to the BJP. The Sena welcomed the demolition of the Babri Masjid. The Sena is opposed to Modi-Shah.

AA: What about NCP leader Sharad Pawar?
KK: Pawar has had a strong association with Modi. He, like the Sena, realised that Modi-Shah were not interested in being friendly with him, but wanted to ensure that he did not retain an independent power base in the state. It was to demolish his base that the Enforcement Directorate was sent against the Pawars and Praful Patel, the NCP’s warlord, so to speak.

AA: Will the anti-Modi and anti-Shah plank prevent the government from collapsing?
KK: As long as the partners in the coalition government are weak, they will remain together. If one of them becomes stronger than the other two, then there will be a crisis. Unfortunately for them, none of the three has a chance of becoming stronger, not as of now.

AA: Doesn’t the Congress joining hands with the Sena mangle the idea of secularism?
KK: Among the three alliance partners, the Congress believes in secularism. For this coalition government, secularism is a wrapping, a packaging material. For the Congress, the secular wrapping mattered and that is why a formula was evolved. [The alliance’s common minimum programme spoke of secularism.]

AA: Yes, but how does the Congress reconcile with the Sena’s role in the Mumbai riots of 1992–93?
KK: The Congress, of which the NCP was then a part, cannot, ever, forget the communal orgy of 1992–93. The wound of 1992–93 will not heal. The alternative to the Congress not supporting the Shiv Sena was to allow the Modi-Shah regime, either through President’s Rule or by resurrecting the BJP–Sena alliance, to strengthen their hold over Maharashtra and India. The BJP, today, has a national appeal and a national vote-bank. Its idea of Hindutva has a national, albeit passive, support. By contrast, the Shiv Sena has a limited expanse; its skulduggery is also limited.

Didn’t [Joseph] Stalin and [Winston] Churchill come together to defeat the evil of Hitler? Even in India, the Congress briefly supported [the former prime minister] Charan Singh, in 1979, to topple the Morarji Desai government. The scenario in Maharashtra is not comparable to that of 1979, except that the Congress’ rival or enemy, the BJP, is infinitely more vicious than the Janata Party. This is why the Maha Vikas Aghadi has been welcomed from Mamata Banerjee to MK Stalin, from Akali Dal to Janata Dal (Secular), to even Janata Dal (United)—either privately or publicly. Their insecurity lessens, even melts, in the security of a larger grouping. The split in the Hindutva front in Maharashtra could lead to alliances with the regional parties and neutralise Hindutva’s sting.

AA: The Sena has been othering one social group after another. Now in power, who do you think the Sena will other next?
KK: They will other Modi and Shah. But this othering does not have social connotations.

AA: Soon after the Maha Vikas Aghadi government was formed, Sharad Pawar had said that the death of the judge Brijgopal Harkishan Loya should be re-investigated. Do you agree?
KK: I do believe Justice Loya was murdered or at least died mysteriously, as so many media persons and even legal luminaries believe. Politically, the reopening of the Loya case will also be a check on Shah. It will keep him and Modi on their toes. I was quite surprised to see Pawar, in his recent interviews, so intensely opposed to Shah. Perhaps, Pawar senses a contradiction of power between Shah and Modi, as I do too. Shah knows he can’t become an heir apparent with Modi’s approval. He can become an heir apparent only by flaunting his power.

This interview has been edited and condensed.