The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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The Shiv Sena, like other parties and movements whose antipathy towards pluralism constitutes the core of their ideology, and which are inherently anti-democratic in their functioning, has been the focus of several scholarly works in recent years. Dipankar Gupta’s 1982 study, Nativism in a Metropolis, looks at the “sons of the soil” policy the Sena effectively engaged in to create a niche for itself in the Congress-Left dominated political arenas of the Sixties. Others like Gerard Heuze and Jayant Lele have studied how the Shiv Sena metamorphosed into a saffron party by appropriating for itself popular symbols and traditions. Mary Katzenstein has looked at the party’s preferential policies that assisted it in all elections from the Eighties. Most accounts, such as Thomas Blom Hansen’s Urban Violence in India, have mainly concentrated on the urban-violent nature of the Sena’s politics.

Julia Eckert’s The Charisma of Direct Action builds on these studies and gives us a many-sided picture of the Sena as a movement. The Sena has thrived precisely because of its unique Janus-faced character. It empowers, yet it believes in a strictly demarcated hierarchy. It treats formal governance with contempt, takes to the streets at the slightest provocation but when in government, is able to channel this violence by observing a strict hierarchy in the organization. Its association with violence, Eckert suggests, is precisely what gives the Sena its mutable, enduring character: “Militant enmity keeps the movement going by constructing the conflict — whatever conflict — to be existential”.

The book is also a study of “power in the making” — the Sena’s effective utilization of already existing conditions, amending them to its favour, its ability to monopolize public space, to confer rights of participation and its successful establishment of relations of power by creating simple essential differences.

The ubiquitous neighbourhood shaka, complete with its symbols of tiger and the saffron flag, is a unique Sena institution that ensures accessibility and local presence, while serving as an instrument of quasi-state power.

In the chapter, “Charisma and its underbelly”, Eckert shows how the dichotomy between central and local structures is able to rally cadres effectively in volatile situations; yet it also helps create a distance, which serves to overcome or deflect from internal rifts and tensions. In “Militant Enmity”, Eckert spells out the Sena’s strategy of action —swapping targets of its antipathy as it suits them. This “us versus them” division is also clearly related to spectacles of public violence that the Sena encourages. Public violence helps in the movement’s regeneration, it mobilizes and reestablishes solidarity among members.

The chapter “Vada Pav and Zhunka Bakar”, perhaps the best in the book, is a fascinating account of how Sena unions in the Eighties became entangled in their own contradictions — the more successful the Sena became, the less it could afford to ignore their unions’ interests. Demands by rival unions prompted Sena unions to take up genuine worker causes — wage rise and payment of bonuses.

In the last chapters, Eckert asks whether the Sena has exhausted its capacity for renewal. The party has expanded so much that the contradictions between its movemental logic (the constant creation of enemies) and party structures (where it is now forced to co-opt diverse groups) now appear virulent. The Sena logic of meeting crises is to dismantle established hierarchies, and refocussing hopes and loyalties.

Eckert has correctly analyzed that the Sena has thrived because of its ability to redefine from time to time the “enemy”. However, as she suggests, this could also contain the seeds of the Sena’s eclipse — once it is unable to conjure up any more targets.

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