Eknath Shinde rebelled against Shiv Sena supremo and Maharashtra Chief Minister Uddhav Thackarey and joined hands with the BJP to form the government and become the Chief Minister of the state. This was followed by more than bitter war of words between Shinde and Thackarey. The rebellion of Shinde reached the pinnacle, when he claimed stake over the party and the election symbol. This event reminds old timers about Indira Gandhi splitting the Congress and formation of Congress (R) and Congress (O) with the election symbol “Hand” being frozen by the EC. The freezing of the Shiv Sena’s election symbol days before Andheri East Assembly seat’s bypolls has send tremors across the Uddhav Thackarey faction of the Shiv Sena.
In this case, political parties will hurl accusations and counter accusations on each other. However, it will not really matter a lot. What really matters is how people who connect with the symbol and are not fully aware of politics, vote during elections. This is where the Uddhav Thackarey faction of the Shiv Sena will be first hit in the immediate term, when Andheri East Assembly seat bypolls are slated to be held on 3 November 2022. This freezing of election symbol must also be seen in the wake of an extremely weak and disappointing performance by the Uddhav Thackarey faction of the Shiv Sena in the recently concluded gram panchayat elections. Local body elections are fought on multiple grounds, ranging from local level performance and delivery of governance by the party to policies and sentiments impacted the public perception about the candidates on the ground. However, state and national elections have one more potent factor that impacts results. Many committed voters of the party don’t know the name of the candidate, but blindly vote for the symbol. This behaviour is driven by the fact that while local level elections will be contested on local governance issues, state and national elections will be driven by party loyalty along with governance issues.
This freezing of “Bow and Arrow” election symbol of the Shiv Sena will hurt the Uddhav Thackarey faction. It is pertinent to note that the Eknath Shinde faction is not fielding any candidate in the Andheri East Assembly bypolls. The Uddhav Thackarey faction is fielding the widow of Late sitting MLA of Andheri East. Against her, the BJP is fielding a candidate. With the Uddhav Thackarey faction not able to use their regular election symbol till the matter is settled by the EC, candidates of the Uddhav Thackarey faction will have to contest on a different temporary symbol. This is similar to Congress (O) and Congress (R) getting “Women Spinning Charkha” and “Cow and Calf” symbols respectively, when the “Hand” was frozen.
In this situation, many committed voters of the party, who don’t even know the name of the candidate, but have registered the election symbol in their minds, get confused. The electioneering campaigning is also done in a manner to instill the election symbol in the minds of the masses. This strategy works with a large section of voters. With the Uddhav Thackarey faction of the Shiv Sena losing its trademark election symbol, it remains to be seen how the candidate from the Uddhav Thackarey faction will be able to communicate the new symbol to that section of committed voters, who don’t know anything other than the election symbol.
The problems for the Uddhav Thackarey camp don’t end at this Assembly bypolls. It is certain that the election symbol of the Shiv Sena will remain frozen for a foreseeable period of time. This is due to the EC procedure subject to which the election symbol will be unfrozen and given to the faction that has support of the majority of the party office bearers and ground cadre. Here it is imperative to know that right now, only 50 plus legislators from the state Assembly and the Parliament have rebelled against the party leadership i.e. Uddhav Thackarey and joined Eknath Shinde camp. The Eknath Shinde and the Uddhav Thackarey factions will have to conclusively prove to the EC that majority of the members in the party organization are with one of them. This is a detailed and an extended process, which the EC will undertake to determine which faction has more ground level support within the organization. Based on those findings, the EC will allot the party’s election symbol to the faction that has maximum support on the ground and in the party organization structure. In the meantime, both the factions will have to contest on temporary symbols. In all probabilities, the “Bow and Arrow” symbol would remain frozen till 2024 General and State Assembly Elections are concluded.
This would mean that many traditional voters of the Shiv Sena who knew nothing other than “Bow and Arrow” will not be confused about which button must be pressed on the EVM. This is a huge setback for the Uddhav Thackarey camp, because they lose their traditional election symbol. Now they will have to communicate the new symbol to the voters even more aggressively. This is a litmus test for the Uddhav Thackarey faction on all counts, from mass reach out to the voters and communicating the temporary election symbol to them. Amid weaning popularity and damp squid election results, it remains to be seen whether Uddhav Thackarey is able to do this successfully and how he will do it. His performance will be compared to that by the rebel faction led by Eknath Shinde, who will also be marketing their temporary election symbol. 2024 election results will tell us which faction has performed better in reaching out to the voters and instilling their election symbol in their minds.
Sumeet Mehta is a close watcher of Maharashtra politics. He tweets from @sumeetnmehta