They came from humble backgrounds - a vegetable vendor, a clerk, a teacher and a small-time trade union leader - and worked their way up to the top political echelons in Maharashtra. Having joined politics enamoured by Shiv Sena chief Bal Thackeray's personality, they were handpicked after he saw a 'spark' in them to lead the party.
While industries minister Narayan Rane and former Lok Sabha speaker Manohar Joshi became chief ministers of the state during the Sena-BJP regime, public works minister Chhagan Bhujbal has been the state's deputy chief minister twice and excise minister Ganesh Naik has held a cabinet rank for more than a decade.
One of the finest judges of political talent, Thackeray had the ability to pick the right people from a pool of commoners. This in part explains the love and respect that the masses had for the Sena patriarch. No other political party in Maharashtra, other than the Sena, picked people off the streets and made them into leaders.
It's not just prominent leaders like the Ranes, Joshis, Bhujbals and Naiks who have a rags-to-riches story to tell, but also most of the party's cadre. A majority of Sena corporators and legislators are from the lower-middle class and middle-class section of the society.
Sena legislator Ravindra Waikar, who was an assistant at a medical shop when he joined the Sena, rose up the ranks and Thackeray virtually made him in-charge of the party's affairs in the BMC for seven years. "I was a nobody when I started off in the Sena. I would write blackboards outside the party's shakha [local office] at Jogeshwari. I believed in the Sena philosophy and Balasaheb noticed that I was always in the forefront of protests. He showed faith in my capabilities," said Waikar, now a legislator from Jogeshwari.
Political analyst B Venkatesh Kumar feels Thackeray always chose candidates who he thought would follow the Sena's philosophy. "When he saw a spark of leadership - good oratory, connect with the masses, organisational skills, clout - he gave that person an opportunity. Thackeray didn't choose candidates dictated by caste or community politics," said Kumar.
Bhujbal, an OBC leader, was a vegetable vendor while studying to become an engineer, but it was Thackeray's charisma that pulled him towards politics and the Sena. He was the blue-eyed boy of the Sena chief, who picked Bhujbal for his daredevilry and mass connect and even made him the mayor of Mumbai twice. Ironically, Bhujbal left the Sena to join the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) after Thackeray opposed the Mandal commission's recommendations over reservations for backward classes.
Not just Bhujbal, but even Rane and Naik had difference with the Sena chief and moved over to the Congress and NCP respectively. However, both Bhujbal and Rane have in the past said that Thackeray 'changed their lives'. "I continue to have utmost respect for Balasaheb and can never deny that in many ways he made me the person I am today," Rane told HT.