To retain his army, Uddhav Thackeray must deliver. He is counting on a BJP wave
Shiv Sena President Uddhav Thackeray is an angry man. He is angry at the ambitions of his partymen, at his cousin Raj Thackeray for upstaging him, and at Maharashtra’s Deputy CM and NCP leader Ajit Pawar for masterminding a high-profile defection and whisking away one of his trusted lieutenants, Rahul Narvekar. As polls approach, Uddhav is fast running out of supporters within the Shiv Sena, the party founded by his late father, Bal Thackeray. As many as four current MPs have deserted the party: Gajanan Babar has switched to the MNS, Bhausaheb Waghchoure and Ganesh Dudhgaonkar to the Congress, and Anand Paranjpe—son of the late Prakash Paranjpe, a close aide of Bal Thackeray—to the NCP.
Meanwhile, in Maval, a seat that Narvekar is set to contest on an NCP ticket, some 45 Sainik office-bearers have quit the Sena. Uddhav seems alarmed as much as angry about it. This is a fight between Sena ‘loyalists’ and ‘traitors’, he has said, urging Sainiks at a rally in Navi Mumbai to defeat the latter. According to sources, he has also been in touch with Narendra Modi, with observers wondering if the Sena chief wants the BJP leader to convince Raj Thackeray—who is said to share a certain cosiness with Modi—to withdraw candidates against the Sena. In a pointed move, Raj’s party, the MNS, has fielded candidates against the Sena in every constituency the latter is contesting.
With seven stents implanted in his chest to clear artery blockages, anger is not an emotion Uddhav can afford. With barely a fortnight left for the Lok Sabha polls, he needs to stay calm. In any case, it may be too late for him to do much. Uddhav’s emphasis on moderation, ever since he took charge, has long doused the fire in many a Sainik belly. In the old days, say Sena watchers, Narvekar would not have dared roam freely in Mumbai after his defection. In 1991, when Chhagan Bhujbal defected from the Shiv Sena to the Congress with 18 others, he needed police protection for several years, fearing a threat to his life. Under Bal Thackeray’s leadership, Sainiks had vowed to avenge Bhujbal’s ‘betrayal’; Narvekar may consider himself lucky that he needs no extra security cover.
Uddhav Thackeray’s moderation has thrown a chunk of his party into an existential crisis. Under his father, the party thrived on aggressive street politics that played on identity issues; it grew into a formidable power partly because of the fear it evoked among those it labelled ‘outsiders’. Under Uddhav, the party has more or less abandoned its agitational methods, leaving large numbers of Sainiks looking to parties with fiery leaders, such the MNS and NCP, to keep their political careers going. For these Sainiks, Raj Thackeray and Ajit Pawar are the icons to look up to.
Though Uddhav’s coterie—wife Rashmi, man Friday Milind Narvekar and some others—has always grated senior party leaders, the recent posturing of his son Aditya as his successor-in-turn has alienated them even further. “Aditya copies Rahul Gandhi, and, like him, wants only the youth in important roles. I have helped shape this party along with his grandfather, and today I am told that there is no place for me. Raj will benefit sooner than later,” says a senior Sena leader who was refused a Lok Sabha ticket.
Uddhav’s abilities and acumen have been in question for many years now. Since the time he was installed as his father’s second-in-command, he was written off more by people within his party than by those outside it. Yet, as his father’s deputy, it was he who commanded the Sena to victory in Mumbai’s 2007 civic polls. Credit for it never came his way, with the victory attributed to the charisma of Bal Thackeray.
What assured Uddhav of his leadership was the civic polls five years later. In January 2012, he steered his party to victory in local polls for control of the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corp. Then too, the MNS was in play as a ‘spoiler’, but the Sena still romped home. For these Lok Sabha polls, the BJP-Sena saffron alliance wants to repeat that 2012 triumph.
Since the Sena’s 2012 victory, Uddhav’s body language has gained a distinct confidence: his voice is now authoritative and his shoulders appear squared rather than droopy. Working only behind the scenes, he now realises, does not work in politics, where public postures make or break a party’s prospects. Party workers have also slowly begun to accept their new leader for what he is. “Shiv Sainiks have realised that Uddhavji cannot be Balasaheb. There can only be one Balasaheb. He is a very good organiser. He is not interested in making a noise about what he does,” says an aide of Uddhav, “Politics is all about noise now and Uddhavji has to start connecting with Sainiks and taking a harder stand with the MNS and others.”
Meanwhile, the Thackeray cousins’ tug-of-war for Sainik loyalty goes on. Raj is said to be aware that Uddhav’s faltering health is a worry for Sainiks. Two years ago, when Raj rushed to Uddhav’s bedside as he underwent his stent implant, it raised eyebrows across the city’s political spectrum. After that meeting, observers felt that the MNS chief would keep out of his cousin’s way. That display of fraternal affection now appears to have been part of an elaborate MNS plan to impress and lure Sainiks away.
With no agitations to keep their fists clenched, many Sainiks are restless. The thwarted aspirations of senior leaders complicate matters for Uddhav as well. Former Lok Sabha Speaker Manohar Joshi and senior Thackeray’s confidant Subhash Desai find no role in the party under Uddhav. While Joshi has voiced his resentment, the sidelined Desai maintains a gloomy silence. The party’s women leaders are also chafing. “There is only Neelam Gorhe. Do you see any other woman leader in our party?” asks a woman leader who was a Lok Sabha aspirant.
Several others feel let down by Uddhav. “We cannot let the MNS win,” says a party worker, “Either Uddhav saheb has to align with the MNS or take it on aggressively. Workers don’t know whether Uddhav saheb and Raj saheb are friends or enemies.” Uddhav failure to clarify the state of his relations with his cousin has created confusion within the ranks.
The leader also faces other family challenges. Uddhav’s elder brother Jaidev has initiated court proceedings against him, raising questions over Bal Thackeray’s will. The Sena founder passed away on 17 November 2012, and Jaidev has sought legal means to block Uddhav’s takeover of all the Thackeray properties, including Matoshree, the leader’s Bandra residence. Under the will, Uddhav inherits not just Matoshree, but also a plot of land in Bhandardara and a farmhouse at Karjat. In his defence, Uddhav has filed a probate petition at the Bombay High Court, which is being contested by Jaidev.
In his petition, the Sena chief has stated that the properties and bank deposits willed by his father are worth Rs 14.85 crore. Jaidev contends that Matoshree alone is worth Rs 40 crore. He also believes there were several other properties, bank deposits, ornaments and so on, worth several crore, which find no mention in his brother’s probate petition. Under the will, Thackeray did not leave a paisa for either Jaidev or the family of his late third son Bindumadhav, who died in a car accident.
Jaidev dubs the will in question—purportedly signed by Bal Thackeray on 13 December 2011 in the presence of Dr Jalil Parkar, a lung specialist who attended to the leader for several years, and lawyer Flanian D’Souza of Bandra—a ‘fake’. Jaidev argues that their father could not have signed the will, given his alleged ‘cognitive dysfunction’ caused by the multiple ailments he suffered before he passed away. Further, he says, it is unlikely that their father, who fought so vehemently all his life to promote Marathi, would have dictated his will in English and only signed it in Marathi.
Jaidev is not known for his verbal diplomacy and has been at loggerheads with his younger sibling for a long time. According to sources, he blames Uddhav’s wife Rashmi for the frosty state of fraternal relations in the family.
The ongoing court battle will have an impact on the Shiv Sena beyond its leader’s public image, for Jaidev is also seeking a division of Sena Bhavan and the party mouthpiece, Saamna, both in control of Uddhav. This court battle could turn ugly.
Despite Uddhav’s woes, the BJP— the Sena’s ally in the state for over two decades—is confident of bagging at least 33 of Maharashtra’s 48 Lok Sabha seats. Though the BJP is contesting 22 of them, four less than the Shiv Sena, it expects the latter to perform well, too. “The anti-incumbency factor is very strong. People want Modiji to become PM,” says Vinod Tawade, BJP leader of the Opposition in the Maharashtra Legislative Council, “It will definitely be an advantage for the Shiv Sena-BJP-RPI combine.”
According to Tawade, the Sena president’s personal woes will not disturb electoral outcomes, for the party’s vote bank is secure. Sainiks also know that this is probably their last shot at victory. The party has been out of power since 1999. A failure now could result in an exodus in the months before the state’s Assembly polls, slated for later this year.
With the MNS having hijacked the Sena’s ‘Marathi manoos’ agenda, Sainiks are desperate to ride the BJP’s resurgence. In the past, the BJP owed its success to the Sena. This time, they hope, advantage BJP will spell advantage Shiv Sena.