On June 7, Shiv Sena’s Rajya Sabha MP and the executive editor of party’s mouthpiece Saamna — Sanjay Raut — accused actor Sonu Sood of being a prop of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). In his weekly column Rokhthok in Saamana, Raut wondered whether Sood’s continuous efforts to help the migrant workers stranded in Mumbai travel home during the lockdown was a political move supported by the BJP to weaken the Thackeray government.
Later the same night, Sood sought CM’s meeting at the latter’s residence and thanked the state government for its support to help migrant workers reunite with their families.
Was a pleasure. Thank you for all the support offered to help my migrant brothers reunite with their families. https://t.co/nNpAcPYwOI— sonu sood (@SonuSood) June 7, 2020
After the meeting, Raut sarcastically tweeted that Sonu Sood had finally found the address of Maharashtra’s CM.
अखेर सोनु सुद महाशयांना महाराष्ट्राच्या मुख्यमंत्रयांचा पत्ता सापडला..मातोश्रीवर पोहोचले जय महाराष्ट्र— Sanjay Raut (@rautsanjay61) June 7, 2020
With 88,528 total confirmed cases and 3,169 deaths as of June 8, Maharashtra has been India’s top-most affected state. In this scenario, Sood has emerged as an unlikely hero for his ongoing efforts to help Mumbai’s migrant workers travel back to their respective home states on buses, trains and flights. His efforts have highlighted the incompetence of the Maharashtra government to help the migrant workers.
This entire exercise of June 7 — from Raut’s op-ed in Saamna to Sood’s meeting with the CM and the tweets thereafter — hinted at Sena’s attempt to let Sood know who the real boss is. The chain of events points at the slow reemergence of Sena’s traditional political manoeuvers when such tactics were the party’s modus operandi under the leadership of its late supremo Balasaheb Thackeray.
Since the passing away of the senior Thackeray, the Shiv Sena under the father-son duo of Uddhav and Aaditya has constantly tried to repackage the party’s image. They have consciously tried to shift Sena’s primary focus from its age-old Marathi versus the non-Marathi plank to a wider but softer Hindutva ideology combined with progressive and reformist politics.
Whenever the Saamna editorials have raised controversy, the Thackerays have maintained that they are Raut’s views and not theirs. (Photo: PTI)
In this shift, Aaditya Thackeray emerged as the face of the party. He quickly gained prominence as a millennial politician advocating for a vibrant Mumbai nightlife and opposing the cutting down of trees in Aarey Colony for a metro car shed. The latter gained more traction for its indirect opposition to Devendra Fadnavis, who was the CM at that point in the Sena-BJP government.
While the father-son duo indulged in party’s image makeover, the party’s mouthpiece Saamna continued to be its usual self — sharp, sarcastic and sticking to the core ideas of the Shiv Sena and its beloved sainiks. Saamna has always been known to be the voice of the party chief and its words are known to be sacrosanct for the Sainiks.
Thus, Saamna was used to project views which the father-son duo couldn’t utter in the public. So while the duo appeared to be breaking away from their hardliner past to reach out to a new set of voters, Raut-led Saamna was used to keep its core voters intact. According to journalist Haima Deshpande, whenever the Saamna editorials have raised controversy, the Thackerays have maintained that they are Raut’s views and not theirs.
It is this fine balancing which allowed the father-son duo to grab the throne of power in Maharashtra after the state assembly elections of 2019. The Shiv Sena came to power by forming a coalition government under the aegis of Maha Vikas Aghadi (MVA) along with the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) and the Indian National Congress (INC).
The MVA government released a Common Minimum Programme (CMP) — a core principled document that binds the alliance — which emphasises on “upholding secularism”. This denotes Sena’s slow shift away from its firebrand Hindutva politics. Thus, the formation of the Sena-led MVA government concluded the image makeover process started by the Thackeray duo.
The successful image makeover led to Shiv Sena receiving a lot of plaudits from people who seem to have conveniently forgotten the original version of the party. It has received widespread support from country’s opposition parties which have preached the same brand of secular politics and left-liberal agenda and have today conveniently forgotten Sena’s communal past and hardline Hindutva.
Similarly, it has also been celebrated time and again by Bollywood — which the Bal Thackeray-led Shiv Sena once kept under its thumb. A possible explanation of this convenient brain-fade lies in the ‘lesser of the two evil’ principle, which is to choose the Sena over the BJP.
What led to the reemergence?
Currently, the Sena-led state government is facing immense pressure for its handling of the crisis and is fighting constant speculation of weakening of their alliance. Further, there are constant rumours of BJP’s attempt to reboot its Operation Lotus — its strategy to grab power in states where it doesn't have enough seats to form the government, by poaching opposition MLAs.
Sonu Sood sends 200 migrant workers back home to Tamil Nadu from Mumbai.
The BJP-led opposition on its part has been proactive to milk this opportunity. This was highlighted when Sood received appreciation from Governor BS Koshyari, who is mistrusted by the Thackeray government. Sood was also praised by Union Minister Smriti Irani at a time when the Centre was facing flak for its inaction. While the BJP was proactively reaching out to Sood, June 7 was the first time when the Thackerays had a meeting with the actor. After the meeting, Uddhav posted a simple tweet informing about his meeting with Sood without any words of appreciation for the actor.
अभिनेता @SonuSood यांनी आज मातोश्री निवासस्थानी मुख्यमंत्री उद्धव बाळासाहेब ठाकरे आणि मंत्री @AUThackeray यांची भेट घेतली. यावेळी त्यांनी कोरोनामुळे उद्भवलेल्या परिस्थितीत सुरू असलेल्या मदतकार्याबद्दल चर्चा केली. यावेळी मंत्री @AslamShaikh_MLA उपस्थित होते. pic.twitter.com/cmHZItVvcs— CMO Maharashtra (@CMOMaharashtra) June 7, 2020
While Sood might not ever be a political threat to the Thackerays and their government, his actions will be. His proactiveness highlights the incompetence of the state government. Even if the Thackeray administration overcomes BJP’s rumoured Operation Lotus, it is bound to face difficulties in next year’s civic polls of Mumbai. Maharashtra’s realigned politics will witness its first major battle during these polls as the new coalition, named Maha Vikas Aghadi, will face an uphill battle against the powerful machinery of the BJP. In this context, the state government’s dismal handling of the Covid-19 crisis in the state and especially in the city of Mumbai and Sood’s actions will become a part of the electoral discourse. To cover its bruises, Shiv Sena’s recent actions against Sood seem to be a clear case of showcasing who the real boss is.