As Shiv Sena chief Uddhav Thackeray took the stage at a massive rally in the city recently renamed Dharashiv, formerly known as Osmanabad, a striking and unprecedented scene unfolded.

The rally on Saturday saw a remarkable shift in its audience demographics. Amidst the sea of attendees, a significant number of Muslims proudly waved the flaming torch—the election symbol of Uddhav Thackeray’s party. Draped in saffron gamchas around their necks, they cheered passionately, marking a dramatic departure from the typical composition of Shiv Sena gatherings. The energy was electric, the air thick with the promise of new alliances, as Uddhav Thackeray’s voice resonated through the crowd, bridging divides with his words.

“They (BJP) instigate Hindu-Muslim riots as elections draw near. Muslim brothers come to me saying that I am their last hope. I tell them about my avowed Hindutva ideology. They find my version of Hindutva acceptable. My Hindutva is about lighting the chulha in every home, unlike the BJP’s, which is about setting homes ablaze in riots,” he stated, drawing cheers from the crowd.

‘Reformist’ Hindutva

Uddhav criticized the BJP’s version of Hindutva as one obsessed with cow urine and temple rituals, yet neglecting basic human dignity. He invoked the legacy of his reformist grandfather, Prabodhankar Thackeray, and Dr BR Ambedkar, asserting that they fought against such regressive ideologies. “We are Hindus, but our faith goes beyond just ringing temple bells,” he remarked. He also spoke on the issue of caste discrimination, suggesting that those adhering to upper-caste ideologies are troubled by the fact that Dr. Ambedkar, a lower-caste leader, authored the Indian Constitution, and thus, they seek to change it.

“This is a new Shiv Sena, a new Thackeray,” declared Sayyad Mulani, a septuagenarian attending his first Shiv Sena rally. “I connected with every word he said; it made me feel valued and recognized,” he added, reflecting on the transformative experience.

Muslim Votes

As Uddhav Thackeray strives to establish his faction as the true Shiv Sena, he has significantly shifted its focus by actively reaching out to Dalit and Muslim communities in Maharashtra. This marks a notable departure from the stance of his father, Bal Thackeray, who was a prominent Hindutva leader known for his exclusionary statements, including public declarations that he did not seek the votes of Muslims and even advocated for their disenfranchisement.

As the constituencies of Dharashiv and Latur in the Marathwada region head to the polls this Tuesday, with Jalna, Chhatrapati Sambhajinagar, and Beed voting on May 13, the substantial Muslim population in these areas is poised to play a significant role. Maharashtra’s Muslim community numbers around 1.30 crore, making up 11.54 per cent of the state’s total population of 11.24 crore. Their influence is critical not only in Marathwada but also in Mumbai and Thane, where Uddhav Thackeray’s Shiv Sena is engaged in a fierce contest with the BJP and the Eknath Shinde-led Shiv Sena faction. This region will go for polls in the last phase on May 20. 

As the elections approach their final phase, the tension is palpable in Marathwada, a region with a history of Hindu-Muslim and Hindu-Dalit unrest. Local journalists suggest that a consolidation of Muslim and Dalit votes could bolster Uddhav Thackeray’s Shiv Sena’s grip on the region, despite the recent split within the party.

Loyalty Matters

However, some staunch Shiv Sena members who still endorse Bal Thackeray’s aggressive stance against Muslims remain skeptical of Uddhav’s more inclusive approach. Nonetheless, they maintain unwavering loyalty to Uddhav, recognizing him as the sole leader of the Shiv Sena due to his lineage.

Raju Nikam, a devoted Shiv Sena supporter, exemplifies this sentiment, stating, “During his final days, Balasaheb instructed all Shiv Sainiks to stand by Uddhavji. I am following Balasaheb’s directive and will support Uddhavji.” When asked about Uddhav’s stance on Muslims, Nikam simply replied, “I have nothing to say. But one thing is clear: I obey my leader, and Uddhavji is my leader.”

BJP leaders including PM Narendra Modi and Home Minister Amit Shah have been targeting Uddhav saying that his Shiv Sena is ‘ nakli’ and Eknath Shinde’s Shiv Sena is following Bal Thackeray’s ideology.   

In Dharashiv, the sitting MP and Uddhav Thackeray loyalist, Omprakash Rajenimbalkar, is facing a strong challenge from NCP’s (Ajit Pawar) Archana Patil. Prime Minister Modi has campaigned for the region’s Patil and other BJP-led alliance candidates in Marathwada.