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.