Shiv Sena’s symbol rift:The fight over the iconic bow and arrow 

The unprecedented fight between Uddhav Thackeray and Eknath Shindey over the Shiv Sena's symbol, bow and arrow, and legacy, has deeper political ramifications.

Shiv Sena’s symbol rift:The fight over the iconic bow and arrow 

The Maharashtra political crisis that began in June 2022 has taken a riveting shift of late as the Election Commission of India (ECI) allotted the “Shiv Sena” name and the iconic “bow and arrow” election symbol to the faction led by one of the belligerents and Maharashtra Chief Minister Eknath Shinde. The Shiv Sena’s symbol saga has stirred a new controversy in the state.

A three-member committee of the ECI, hearing a six-month-old petition filed by Shinde, unanimously decided to allow the Shiv Sena faction led by former Maharashtra chief minister Uddhav Thackeray to retain the name Shiv Sena (Uddhav Balasaheb Thackeray) and allocated the “flaming torch” poll symbol to it. While the faction led by Shinde was allocated the name “Balasahebanchi Shiv Sena” and the party’s poll symbol, the “bow and arrow”. 

Anguished by the ECI’s decision, Mr Thackeray’s faction, claiming itself to be the torchbearer of the party’s founder late Balasaheb Thackeray, decided to move to the Supreme Court, however, with little relief. The apex court didn’t stay the ECI’s decision and agreed to hear the matter in the first week of March.

The tug of war over Shiv Sena’s symbol, bow and arrow, has a larger political implication, which is why the battle over it is taken seriously by both warring sides. Although the party’s logo has been a roaring tiger, political experts claim that a large section of its rural Maratha voters are acquainted with the Shiv Sena’s symbol, and whichever side has it, can have a competitive leverage against the other.

Although the Shiv Sena fought the 2019 Maharashtra Assembly elections as a partner of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), Thackeray quit the alliance and joined hands with the party’s bete noire, the Congress party (INC) and the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) in lieu of the chief minister’s seat. They formed the Maha Vikas Aghadi (MVA) alliance that ruled the state between late 2019 and mid 2022.

However, in mid-2022, Shinde led a group of legislators and switched camp. He joined hands with the BJP and toppled Thackeray’s government. Shinde became the new chief minister with the BJP’s support and claimed the Shiv Sena’s symbol, bow and arrow. Shinde claimed that he represents the original Shiv Sena founded by Balasaheb and showed the support of the majority of legislators in Maharashtra Assembly and the Parliament.

Soon after the ECI gave the original Shiv Sena’s symbol to the Shinde faction, the Opposition slammed the move as one that reeks of partisan attitude and accused the BJP of pulling the strings. Although there have been several splits in Indian political parties, never before did the factions fought so intensely over the original poll symbol. 

The split in the INC under Indira Gandhi, or later when the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) was founded by Sharad Pawar, didn’t turn into a battle over the party’s poll symbols. Ms Gandhi’s Congress (I) and her opponents under the banner of Congress (S) fought polls using different symbols. Similarly, Mr Pawar’s NCP fought polls using its symbol – a clock.

But the case with the Shiv Sena has been different due to its typical vote bank and the legacy of the poll symbol. The Shiv Sena was founded in 1966 by Balasaheb, who was deeply influenced by Indian mythology but used different poll symbols at different times. The party had even fought an election using the lotus symbol, which is now the BJP’s poll symbol.

In Hindu culture, the Shiv Sena’s symbol, bow and arrow, connotes strength, courage, and the ability to defend oneself against enemies. The Thackeray clan saw the bow and arrow as a symbol of the party’s Hindutva identity. At the onset of the Ram Mandir movement mobilised by the BJP’s ideological parent Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), the Shiv Sena started using the bow and arrow as its poll symbol from 1989 onwards.

Although the Shiv Sena under Uddhav retains its Hindutva fanatic legacy, it has slowly transformed into a moderate force with a knack for liberal ideas under the influence of its new political allies. However, the party still commands the loyalty of a large Hindu vote bank in Maharasthra’s hinterland, where it plays the “son of the soil” card to rally support. If the Shiv Sena’s symbol is handed over to Shinde, it will confuse the voters and can have fatal electoral consequences for the Shiv Sena.

Seizing the opportunity, Shinde played the emotional card of ‘Marathi Ashmita’ (Marathi pride) after the ECI’s decision and announced that he got the bow and arrow symbol and the ‘Shiv Sena’ name due to the blessings of Shivaji, the medieval era popular Maratha king.

The fight over the Shiv Sena’s symbol doesn’t seem to be over with the ECI’s decision. With greater ramifications awaiting Thackeray’s faction, if Shinde usurps the legacy during the forthcoming general and assembly polls in 2024, it’s expected that the bitter antagonism between the two factions will only intensify in the days to come until one of them manages to garner the traditional votes of the party using the legacy symbol.

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