Maharashtra polls: Seven years after taking over as Shiv Sena chief, Uddhav Thackeray emerges from the shadows
Uddhav’s challenges in politics began with his rise in the Shiv Sena — the party feared a split after senior leaders like Narayan Rane and Raj Thackeray quit and took MLAs with them, challenging Uddhav’s leadership
Uddhav Thackeray, today, is the man at the centre of Maharashtra’s politics and holds the key to the corridor of power.
So much so, that Uddhav, if his plans go well, could even go on to occupying the chief minister’s chair in the next five years.
For the BJP, the sense of irony is heavy and unmissable
Mumbai: Five years ago, shortly after the Lok Sabha results were announced, the Shiv Sena leadership was excited, having notched up its highest-ever tally with 18 seats. Being the second-largest party in the National Democratic Alliance, the Sena leadership was certain of a plum role in the government.
Buoyed, Sena chief Uddhav Thackeray, facing the first major election after father Bal Thackeray’s death, decided to fly to New Delhi for the swearing-in, a move unexpected for a Thackeray.
Till hours before the ceremony, the BJP refused to disclose details of how many Cabinet slots and portfolios were to be allotted to the Sena. Uddhav was incensed and wanted to pull out of the ceremony. “The BJP had trapped him — it brought him to Delhi and put him in such a spot that he was forced to attend,” a Sena insider recounts. The BJP gave the Sena’s Anant Geete the Heavy Industries portfolio, an uninspiring berth about which the Sena was publicly unhappy, but powerless to do much about.
That incident, the aide says, woke Uddhav up to the new dynamics that would mark the Sena-BJP relationship.
Five years after that snub, Uddhav, today, is the man at the centre of Maharashtra’s politics and holds the key to the corridor of power. So much so, that Uddhav, if his plans go well, could even go on to occupying the chief minister’s chair in the next five years.
Pure arithmetic tells you that this is far from the Sena’s best performance. If anything, the Sena lost seven seats, despite being in alliance and mounting an aggressive campaign to project Yuva Sena chief Aaditya Thackeray as a leader. But then, Uddhav has never had a perfect story to tell and yet, he has been the right man at the right moment.
Uddhav’s challenges in politics began with his rise in the Sena — the party feared a split after senior leaders like Narayan Rane and Raj Thackeray quit and took MLAs with them, challenging Uddhav’s leadership. Sena patriarch Bal Thackeray’s death and the rise of cousin Raj’s Maharashtra Navnirman Sena (MNS) meant that the political obituaries were perennially on standby for the Sena. Many feared that the party would split after Bal Thackeray’s death.
“Uddhav might not have a public persona as strong as his father or his cousin, but he’s a very effective leader and a man-manager; both, abilities that no one gives him credit for,” says a former Sena MLA from Mumbai.
Many believe that even his political shrewdness is underrated.
At the height of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s popularity wave, Uddhav fought against the BJP in the Assembly polls of October 2014, invoking issues of regional pride, alluding to Modi and his leaders as “outsiders”. The strategy worked wonders — the Sena grabbed 20 more seats than its 2009 tally to emerge with 63 MLAs fighting against the dominant BJP. His narrative even found an echo with many other regional Opposition leaders who went on to mount a similar campaign against Modi and Co, albeit with varying levels of success.
In the past five years, the mild-mannered Uddhav, aides say, has had many hard realisations. "The BJP has repeatedly made him realise that he won’t get the respect that was accorded to his father,” said a party Member of Parliament. One way the BJP did that was to publicly snub Uddhav, repeatedly, during major ceremonies involving Modi — whether it was during the inauguration of the ‘Make in India’ expo or during the groundlaying ceremony for the Navi Mumbai airport, both occasions where Uddhav was left off the list of invitees.
Opportunism or strategy?
These snubs along with realpolitik made Uddhav adopt an often-confusing strategy of attacking his ally, while sharing the fruits of power, through the past five years, a strategy that has been ridiculed by opponents as rank opportunism.
That, Sena insiders, on the condition of anonymity, say was a conscious step to distance itself from what they saw was a purely BJP government. “Yes, we were given some ministerial berths but we soon realised that we didn’t have a real say in the government. Hence, if that is the case, why should we bear its liabilities?,” explains a Sena leader.
The allegation against Uddhav, of being opportunistic, gained ground last month again, when the seat-sharing pact between the Sena-BJP meant that the Sena would contest on its lowest-ever number of seats at 124. Even now, many within the Sena believed that the party would have gained a higher tally had it contested on more seats.
But, a section of the Sena believes that the party chief did the right thing and that decision of his will soon bear fruit. Sena insiders insist that the party was focussed on increasing its ‘strike-rate’ rather than merely contesting seats, a feat it managed to achieve — the Sena won 45 percent of the seats it contested, the highest-ever ratio followed by its 1995 strike-rate of 43 percent, when it won power.
Buoyed, the Sena is now unlikely to let the opportunity go.
Uddhav, himself, addressing a press conference on Thursday while the results were pouring in, made it amply clear that the Sena was likely to bargain hard on government formation with the BJP. “When we finalised our alliance for the Lok Sabha polls, it was decided that the power-sharing would be 50:50. I had understood their problems and settled for less seats to contest. But if their problems are going to multiply now, then I am not going to compromise any further,” said Uddhav.
For Uddhav, this is time to extract sweet revenge from frenemy BJP. For the BJP, the sense of irony is heavy and unmissable.
Through the past five years, BJP leaders would privately tell journalists that the Sena risked being split into two if it dared to walk out of the government, hinting at possibly poaching its ally's MLAs. That sentiment remained in the air even through the campaign in the last one month, with multiple BJP leaders hinting that the BJP was looking at a simple majority so that they would not need the Sena.
Neither of the two possibilities have taken shape. Instead, now, Uddhav and his Sena will dictate their terms and possibly, even pip the BJP to take the chief minister's chair.
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