In The Cousins Thackeray, Dhaval Kulkarni pieces together Raj-Uddhav equation, legacy of the Shiv Sena
The most important point that emerges from Dhaval Kulkarni's book, The Cousins Thackeray, is that the Shiv Sena’s brand of identity politics has come to stay, despite its ups and downs, and found a warm home in Maharashtra.
In The Cousins Thackeray, Dhaval Kulkarni draws out the emotional politics of the Sena, as used by its founder Bal Thackeray and also by Raj and Uddhav
The book indicates that the brand of identity politics espoused by the Shiv Sena has come to stay
The other point in the book is that even a firebrand, charismatic orator cannot ensure the future of a political party in the absence of a dedicated cadre
For all the appeal they make to emotions and their unquestionable political standing in Maharashtra, the Thackeray family has been elusive in terms of opening up their lives for public scrutiny. While a few journalists have written authoritatively about the founder of the Shiv Sena, Bal Thackeray, his son Uddhav is a reclusive conundrum and his nephew Raj is cast in the firebrand mould of his late uncle. Few will be willing to speak openly about them.
And so journalist Dhaval Kulkarni’s challenge in evaluating the political careers of the two cousins, Uddhav and Raj, and situating it in the context of the legacy of the senior Thackeray, could not have been an easy one. He fills the breach with interviews from a spectrum of journalists, politicians, and intellectuals to present a contemporary analysis of the two heirs to Bal Thackeray — one alluded to as the tortoise and the other the hare. You can guess which is which; if not, Raj is the hare — the hasty impetuous orator who is now facing political uncertainty, although one wouldn’t write him off. Blood, after all, is thicker than water.
It is Uddhav — cast as a steady, plodding tortoise — who wins the race. It is his quiet work among party cadres which reinstated the Shiv Sena and led the party to rule the state, even if it is in an unequal partnership with the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). The author writes, “By 2014, the slow but steady Thackeray cousin seemed to have outrun the fast yet fickle one. Like the hare in Aesop’s Fables who paid for being complacent and overconfident, Raj too would be outwitted by Uddhav.”. He goes on to add a quote from an MNS member: “The MNS took a lift, went to the top floor, and jumped down. Its rise and fall was so dramatic.”
TRACING SENA’S PAST
Before coming to the present, the author narrates the political trajectory of the Shiv Sena, right from its inception in 1966, and intertwines the lives of Uddhav and Raj, and that of Bal Thackeray and his family, to give it a historical perspective. Those who are familiar with the writing of Prabodhankar Thackeray, the father of Bal Thackeray, will know him for the fairly liberal and inclusive, well- read and articulate disciplinarian that he was. The name Shiv Sena (or the army of Shivaji) was his idea and so was the raison d’ etre of the party. The author brings in a brief history of the Thackeray family (they were migrants to Maharashtra, as is well-known) and narrates the course of events before and after the Shiv Sena was formed, the party’s rise to power, with a bare mention of the communal riots and its divisive politics.
It is the later history of the Shiv Sena that takes up space as that is the time when it started splintering due its own internal problems of leadership, the tensions between Uddhav and Raj, and the ambitions of some leaders. When Narayan Rane and Raj Thackeray exited the party in 2005 (with Raj forming the MNS in 2006), it led many to believe that the Sena was finished, a feeling that intensified when Bal Thackeray passed away in 2012.
NEW DIRECTION FOR SENA?
While in the mid-2000s Uddhav had tried to infuse a broader platform for the Sena and aim for inclusiveness, this changed once the MNS was formed in 2006 and editorials like this one, highlighted by Kulkarni, appeared in Saamna: “In 2008, perhaps in an attempt to outmanoeuvre the MNS, the Shiv Sena’s mouthpiece carried an editorial ‘Ek Bihari Sau Bimari (One Bihari causes thousand illnesses)’, which quoted part of a text message to claim that Biharis were like an affliction.” The editorial was a response to the MNS taking a leaf out of the Shiv Sena’ s book and targeting outsiders — this time, it was the North Indians.
The relationship between the two cousins and their political lives, which is the leitmotif of the book, is examined through the lens of those close to the cousins, neither of whom granted an interview to the author for this book. A typical Thackeray trait. It has anecdotes that the author has shared either from his own experience or that of others. For those covering politics in Maharashtra, one constant theme was the rocky Shiv Sena-BJP alliance which has always made news, and another would be the pre-election alliance which would come perilously close to breaking and then a last-minute patch-up (except in 2014, when it did break up). Once Raj and Narayan Rane left, there would be endless speculation regarding the future of the party, the inability of Uddhav to hold it together and so on. Much space — both in print and air time — has been devoted to the possible reunion of Raj and Uddhav. And so you have anecdotes like this in the book, which the author chooses to include, to make up for any real information [this on the day of Bal Thackeray’s funeral in 2012]: “Raj fuelled speculation when he chose not to travel on the truck carrying the body with Uddhav and other family members but walked alongside it. A few hours later, when the hearse was about to reach Mahim Causeway, he left the procession. This led to conjecture about whether Uddhav had not allowed Raj to board the truck or if the MNS chief backed off fearing ire from Shiv Sainiks after reports from the police… Raj appeared at Shivaji Park only after the procession arrived there and was at Uddhav’s side with Jaidev, when the last rites were being performed with the who’s who of the country in attendance. As his uncle’s pyre was lit, Raj broke into tears.”
LACK OF THACKERAY VOICE
Kulkarni’s book often relies on a long series of quotes from various sources and it is pretty much left to the reader to assimilate all of this and come to a conclusion. In that sense this is a journalistic effort aimed at providing more views than any analysis from the writer himself, for the most part. The afterword too is full of the opinions of other people who know the Thackerays and small anecdotes randomly put together.
So you learn from an interview that “Raj cut his teeth in student politics, which was violent and rough in those days, while Uddhav’s springboard was the party newspaper Saamna. Hence, Raj gradually imbibed Balasaheb’s behavioural style, realising it would be his USP, thus fitting the stereotype of an archetypal Shiv Sainik, whereas Uddhav is more comfortable as a back-room manipulator, diplomat and strategist.”
More than the often hostile relationship between the cousins, it is their different styles of functioning that is evident. For instance, the MNS didn’t live up to its initial promise for various reasons, but the Shiv Sena of whom little was expected, turned the tables under Uddhav. The author writes: “Sena insiders state that between 2008 and 2014, when the chips seemed to be down for the party with even the media and a section of the cadre having a soft corner for Raj, who had pitched himself as his uncle’s natural heir, Uddhav worked hard to strengthen the organisation. He would consult his father on political strategies and oratorical style and also tapped into agrarian distress by mobilising the cadre on the issue.”
In December 2012, a month after Bal Thackeray’s death, Uddhav embarked upon a statewide tour. He refused to be anointed ‘Shiv Sena pramukh’ after his father and was instead appointed as the party’s president.
The book also reveals how the intense sectarianism and identity politics that has infiltrated Maharashtra has cause huge changes in the political mindset. For instance, Raj’s endorsement of Narendra Modi as Prime Minister even before the BJP had announced his name as their candidate in 2014, backfired on his party as MNS workers were uneasy about the increasing assertion of Gujaratis in Mumbai.
The author focuses on micro politics and why every small move or statement by politicians has led to significant developments. In that sense, it is a behind the scenes look at the Shiv Sena and the MNS — known only to those who follow the humdrum of daily politics and have a keen interest in it, but to the rest of the world seems insignificant at best. For instance before the 2019 polls, BJP MP Kirit Somaiya alleged the municipal corporation of Mumbai was in the grip of a ‘powerful mafia’ being controlled by a ‘sahib from Bandra and his PA’( meaning Uddhav and his assistant Milind Narvekar). He also dared Uddhav to make his financial transactions public. While this may seem an allegation, Somaiya lost his ticket for the Lok Sabha, the only incumbent to be dropped, as the Sena opposed it.
The most important point that emerges from the book is that the Shiv Sena’s brand of identity politics has come to stay, despite its ups and downs, and found a warm home in Maharashtra. It has survived without any theory, despite Communist leader SA Dange’s warning that a party cannot survive without a theory. The book also lays to rest speculation about Uddhav’s leadership abilities. Not only has the Sena stayed together but also, in consonance with the BJP, come back to power in the state in 2014. In the Lok Sabha polls, in 2014 and 2019, the alliance almost wiped out the Congress. It has held the cash rich municipal corporation of greater Mumbai for over 25 years.
The book draws out the “emotional politics” of the Sena which was used by its founder and also the warring cousins, and the appeal to asmita or pride, the distaste for outsiders and need for identity. It also narrates how the MNS and the Shiv Sena tried to do outdo each other — often stooping very low in the attempt. Somewhere you get a glimpse of a state with progressive movements and ideas, but that seems to have vanished. The other point in the book is that even a firebrand, charismatic orator cannot ensure a political party's future in the absence of a dedicated cadre.
The Cousins Thackeray: Uddhav, Raj and the Shadow of their Senas by Dhaval Kulkarni | Ebury Press (Penguin India) | Pages: 304 | Price: Rs 399
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