Sena vs Sena: Which is the ‘real’ Shiv Sena in Mumbai and Thane?

This election will be the first after the party split in July 2022.
Sena vs Sena: Which is the ‘real’ Shiv Sena in Mumbai and Thane?
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On the evening of May 8, Mumbai’s blue skies were painted tangerine as crowds waved orange flags in the neighbourhood of Irla. Hundreds walked along, flags held aloft, following a truck bearing a photo of party founder Balasaheb Thackeray.

Three km in Versova, a similar rally was underway, complete with orange flags, truck and photos of Thackeray.

Two rallies, both confusingly similar, but with wildly different messaging. The first rally called for citizens to vote for Modi, the second to vote against Modi. The first stood for Hindutva, the second for a secular India.

Two Shiv Senas – but which will survive?

This is a question plaguing voters across Maharashtra, many of whom are choosing between the two factions of the party this general election. The first is led by current Chief Minister Eknath Shinde who, in January, was declared the leader of the “real Shiv Sena” by his BJP ally and Maharashtra speaker Rahul Narwekar. Shinde’s faction was also allotted the party’s name and symbol of a bow and arrow, leaving behind the second faction led by Bal Thackeray’s son Uddhav.

This is the first general election after the party split in July 2022. It’s a crucial election for both sides – for Shinde to cement his hold over the Shiv Sena, and for Thackeray to try and climb his way back. Which faction has the upper hand? Newslaundry hit campaign trails and party offices, visited voters and constituencies, to find out. Voting will take place on May 20.

A Sena conundrum for Mumbai North West

In Mumbai North West, the candidates from the two Senas have another special connection – to the Enforcement Directorate.

The Shiv Sena (Uddhav) candidate is Amol Kirtikar who, hours after being declared the candidate, received a notice from the ED in the “khichdi scam”. Adding to the confusion is the fact that Kirtikar’s father Gajanan Kirtikar is the sitting MP from North Mumbai but as a member of the Shiv Sena (Eknath). There was speculation that Gajanan would contest against Amol but the senior Kirtikar refused to do so, though he’ll be campaigning against his son.

And contesting against Kirtikar is Ravindra Waikar from the Shiv Sena (Eknath), who was a member of the Uddhav faction  until he came under the ED’s radar in a money-laundering case. He switched to the Shiv Sena (Eknath) in March and has openly said he had to “either go to jail or switch parties”. 

Waikar’s now a regular feature on the streets of Mumbai North West, accompanied by BJP leaders and shouting slogans like “Modiji ki nishani”. Locals told Newslaundry that if they vote for Waikar, it’s because they’re voting for Modi.

“BJP is the one doing the best for us right now,” said Beenal Pawar. When asked if she’s worried about issues like unemployment and inflation, she said, “People in fact have better jobs now and the standard of living has risen. Development too has happened at a faster pace.”

Gulabchant Panchapati, who has sold bhel puri in Andheri West for 40 years, said he’s heard from friends and family that “Modi is doing a good job”. His vote is for the Shiv Sena (Eknath) because of Modi, he said, and he’s charmed by Modi because of the Ram temple in Ayodhya.

“Modi has done some good work. He brought the Ram Mandir for us,” Panchapati said. “He stopped the fighting and separated the temple and mosque. Now our Muslim brothers are happy too.”

One of these “Muslim brothers”, Abdul Rahman in Versova, isn’t as sanguine. When asked which Sena faction he supports, he said, “If I tell you my name is something like Asif, will you have your answer? It’s as simple as that. That isn’t my name but you get the point. The RSS-BJP are changing everything to a level you can’t imagine. And because of limited exposure, people don’t understand this.”

This seat was won by Gajanan Kirtikar with a 60 percent vote share in the 2019 elections and with a 51.77 percent vote share in 2014.

Kirtikar is now in Shinde’s Shiv Sena, but his son has remained in Uddhav’s party and is contesting from this seat.

In 2019, Shiv Sena was an ally of the BJP in Maharashtra and their competitor was Sanjay Nirupam, who recently switched over from the Congress to Shinde’s Sena. Nirupam got a significant 32.90 percent vote share in the last election and is now actively campaigning for Shinde’s candidate.

The runner-up in the 2014 elections from here was the late Gurudas Vasant Kamat from Congress, who received 31.38 percent vote share. He had won the seat in 2009 with 35.91 percent vote share, followed closely by the senior Kirtikar.

The goodwill for Kirtikar and his party might prove to be an advantage for Shinde-BJP, especially since his closest competition in the last election has switched over to Shinde too. But it is, after all, Kirtikar’s son contesting from Uddhav’s side. He may not be a known face in the media, but has been hands-on the last 10 years helping his father in the same constituency.

Uddhav’s Sena has not only the Congress supporters but also, for the first time, the support of Muslim voters, with several vouching to stand by him. Either by circumstances or choice, he has embraced an avatar far more inclusive than his father. His appeal to Muslims this election season is that his Hindutva “strives to light stoves in the homes” while “BJP’s Hindutva works on burning houses”.

Meanwhile, Praveen Balakrishna, a government contractor in Versova, isn’t impressed by central agency action against both Waikar and Kirtikar. “If you don’t support them, they will send the ED after you. How is this fair?” he asked. “Look at the inflation and unemployment rates. But no one talks about that.”

Also in Versova, screenwriter Nikhil R, 27, told Newslaundry that artistic freedom is an “extremely important electoral issue” for him.

“My vote will not be determined so much by constituency-specific considerations but my desire to vote the ruling NDA out of power,” he said. “I will be casting my vote for Amol Kirtikar as I believe that the INDIA bloc, if voted to power, will usher in a freer public sphere.”

Nikhil said that he “ fully recognised the irony of voting for a party with a long chequered history of cracking down on artistic freedom,” and looked at it as a “reflection of the strangeness of the times we live in”.

Government contractor Praveen Balakrishna (left).
Government contractor Praveen Balakrishna (left).

Shinde’s hold stands strong in Thane

Eknath Shinde’s stronghold is Thane, once the fiefdom of legendary Sena leader Anand Dighe, known to run his territory free from interference from Bal Thackeray himself. Shinde is Dighe’s protégé, and the legacy of his late guru stands him in good stead.

Yet the Mahayuti coalition, comprising the BJP, Shiv Sena (Eknath) and Ajt Pawar’s Nationalist Congress Party, took quite some time before it announced Naresh Mhaske, Shiv Sena member and former mayor, as its candidate from Thane last week.

BJP workers were reportedly deeply resentful of the decision, as Sanjeev Naik, elder son of local strongman Ganesh Naik, had been preparing for months to contest as the candidate for BJP.  Several party office-bearers resigned in protest of Naik being treated “unfairly”. But deputy chief minister Devendra Fadnavis stepped in and pacified the party workers, after which they withdrew their resignations and joined Mhaske’s campaign.

Party workers from both the BJP and Shiv Sena complained to Newslaundry that they now have less than 18 days to campaign for Mhaske as opposed to Shiv Sena (Uddhav) candidate Rajan Vichare who was announced on March 27, 35 days before Mhaske.

But they’re hopeful the Shinde wave will help them out in Thane, driven by admiration for both Modi and Dighe. 

One of the most prestigious seats for Shiv Sena, Thane was won by Rajan Vichare in 2019 with a 63.30 vote share, and in 2014 with a 56.46 vote share. NCP’s Anand Paranjpe received a 28.09 vote share in 2019, and NCP’s Sanjeev Naik a 29.78 percent vote share in 2014. 

Paranjpe is with the faction in alliance with the Mahayuti, while Naik too, is with the BJP. 

Vichare’s hold over Thane is good, but the betrayal felt by the voters is of another sort. While many told Newslaundry that he has done good work, they held it against him that he did not join Shinde to uphold Dighe’s legacy. Shinde has clung onto his party being the one where the real Dighe’s supporters will be, and this is sure to reflect negatively in terms of vote share. 

“Wherever supporters of Anand Dighe go, we will go, whether it’s Congress or BJP,” said Jayashree Gangan, 60, a resident of Thane. Recalling how Dighe once visited her home to have sharbat, she said, “When my son was sick too, he would come every evening and meet him. Because Dighe and his supporters did a lot for us, we will support them wherever they are.”

This sentiment was echoed by Prasanna Wagasuka, who has been a party worker with the Shinde Sena in Thane for 43 years. He also spoke vehemently against the Shiv Sena (Uddhav)’s alliance with the Congress. 

“Balasaheb is our god and Dighe is our guru. That’s all we care about,” he said. “Vichare was his student also but he should have come to our side, following his guru’s footsteps. Our Shiv Sena is the path of Hindutva and always will be. The one who leaves Hindutva leaves Balasaheb. Balasaheb said one thing, ‘If Congress becomes my party, I’ll leave my party.’” 

Vichare was, in fact, one of Dighe’s foremost students and an old friend of Shinde’s. In 2001, he famously resigned from the post of group leader of the Thane Municipal Corporation after his mentor asked him to. Dighe wanted to give the position to Shinde, who was traumatised after his children died in an accident; Dighe hoped this would distract him. 

So when Shinde split the party, everyone thought Vichare would go with him. But he was the only MP from Thane district who remained with Uddhav Thackeray. Currently, the campaign for the prestigious seat has reached a level of discourse where Shinde has questioned Vichare’s resignation 23 years ago, saying Vichare is not the “real Dighe disciple”. 

Sujeet Kumar Singh, who’s driven an auto rickshaw in Thane since the late 1990s, said, “Shinde is taking the cause of Hindutva ahead and so I am supporting him. I wouldn’t support him if he wasn’t. There’s just one country for Hindus so why shouldn’t it be a Hindu rashtra? Muslims are more secure here in fact than their own countries, yet they keep asking us for different things forcefully.”

Singh asked why the Ram temple took so long to be built and brushed aside concerns about unemployment. “No one is unemployed. People just have the habit of eating for free,” he said. “If the prices of goods are increasing, isn’t our income too? Eknath Shinde’s Shiv Sena will be good for Maharashtra.”

Yet the opposition is putting up a strong fight. Vichare is the sitting MP from Thane, winning in 2019 against NCP’s Anand Paranjpe by a margin of over 4.12 lakh votes. In his buzzing office in Thane’s Charai, his team sipped tea and discussed strategy for the next 10 days.

Pradeep Shinde, president of the Shiv Sena (Uddhav) unit in Thane, shrugged off questions on Eknath Shinde’s hold over Thane. “Who made Eknath Shinde? We did,” he said. “So we can get him down too. He has kursi and satta now so he isn’t turning back and looking. But he will realise after the elections.”

Pradeep, now 64 years old, joined the Shiv Sena when he was 13. “We are the grassroot workers and have still maintained our roots,” he said. “It is the others who have gone away, some for greed and some for money. But the public knows who the real Shiv Sena is. It is the one with Balasaheb’s son.”

A group of women sitting in the outdoor room of the office explained how they had been going door to door to explain to voters about the new symbol for Uddhav’s Shiv Sena – the flaming torch. 

“We have to awaken those in the dark with the light of the mashaal,” said Jyoti Prabhakar Tendolkar, who has been with the party for 10 years.  

Support for Uddhav Thackeray predominantly came from residents of Mira Road, a Muslim-majority area in Thane district. 

“Uddhav’s Shiv Sena has been there for years. People trust them more,” said Zayed Khan, 48, who lives in Naya Nagar. His faith in Uddhav was cemented after the former chief minister’s handling of the Covid pandemic. “People have seen how he helped people during Covid. Not one person in Mumbai walked home or went in a truck. He managed people well,” Khan said. 

Naser Khan, who lives in Mira Road, told Newslaundry he too would vote for Uddhav’ Sena, but he has his concerns. He referred to a 2014 controversy where Thane candidate Rajan Vichare force-fed a fasting Muslim man.

“Our helplessness is such that we don’t have any other option so we will vote for him,” Naser said. “I am scared though, that after winning he can switch alliances. The utsak for elections has gone now. Parties are just looking for their benefit, no one is looking for the public’s benefit.” On hate speeches by the prime minister against Muslims, Naser added that these were “hurting the heart”.

But just a few kilometres away, another voter from the same constituency said they would vote for Modi. 

“Modi has done some good work in the last 10 years, and we’re hopeful for the next 10 years too,” said Mansukh Jain.

Hanumanta Phoolsundar, a resident of Thane who recently retired after driving an auto-rickshaw for 35 years, sounded much more pessimistic about the future. 

“It’s been so many years but who is doing anything for the poor people? The rich are getting richer, the poor are not getting any better,” he said. “Cylinder rates are increasing. I don’t have trust in anyone now – if it’s Modi or whatever. No one is interested in solving this issue.”

He was interrupted by Ramchandra Bhogle, who told Newslaundry that since he retired six years ago, he watches TV debates “all day” – not just from India but from Pakistan too. Wasn’t there unemployment before BJP, he asked.

“Earlier Manmohan Singh was just standing behind Sonia Gandhi…But now see how Modi is looking eye-to-eye and speaking,” he said. “This whole ED thing is nonsense because these leaders have eaten the money the ED is investigating them for. They’re not investigating people like you and me, right?”

Bhogle then ranted about “those people” with eight children, perhaps echoing Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s recent diatribe on Muslims. 

“The people with more children are paying less taxes as they have no income. The people with more income are getting less benefits and vice versa,” he said, though he had no evidence for these claims. “When people ask about unemployment and inflation, ask why they’re not speaking about getting free ration.”

Not everyone buys this argument. Akhil Arora, a 30-year-old film critic in Thane, told Newslaundry that in an ideal world, he would consider policies, manifestoes and a candidate’s background before voting. But not this time. 

“Given how our country is backsliding into an autocracy more and more every day, it’s unfortunately the case of picking the guy who’s more likely to beat the bigots in power,” he said. “Because making the perfect choice essentially means votes are split, which gives an easier path to victory to the fascists.” 

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