Manohar Joshi cuts a sad and lonely figure. In the autumn of his life and political career, he must make difficult decisions between continuing in the Shiv Sena, switching political parties, and extending his career. He may have seen the transition in the party heading his way, but he did little to re-invent his politics to remain relevant to a generation that sees him as yesterday’s man.
If Joshi continues in the Shiv Sena, the party that he built together with the late Bal Thackeray in June 1966 and one that gifted him all the major designations that he carries next to his name, he will be increasingly irrelevant. Outside the party, he will become a totem of Uddhav Thackeray’s leadership skills, or lack of them, depending on the inclination of the interpreter. If he joins another party, it will hardly stir the political pot in Maharashtra the way Chhagan Bhujbal and Narayan Rane – two of the most hard-core Shiv Sena strongmen – did when the former left the party in 1991 and the latter was expelled in 2005.
But this isn’t about Joshi’s political career, it’s about his politics. The Sena wrested political space in the working class dominated central Mumbai after bloody battles with the Communists in the late 1960s and 70s. Joshi came to represent a large part of this area not because of his affinity with or empathy to then new Sainiks; he would have won from any Marathi-dominated constituency then, because he mattered in the party and displayed leadership qualities.
Thackeray groomed him and Sudhir Joshi as the suave Brahmin front of a party with a strong lumpen streak. He became the Sena’s first mayor, Maharashtra chief minister, and Lok Sabha Speaker before settling down to a Rajya Sabha membership.
The last decade really tested Joshi’s politics as never before; he seemed to not measure up. When he was voted in to power, whether at the local or state or national level, he was carrying the Sena vote. In the last few years, his voters as well as his second-tier leaders began to complain about his lack of interest in their issues, his unwillingness to represent them in public forums, his withdrawal from local matters that did not concern his own political career or his son’s flourishing real estate business.
Sena leaders tell stories of how he often pulled rank to refuse seeking an appointment with a public official in Mumbai and Delhi. To the Sainik, Joshi sir became all but inaccessible even as the party’s core area – and his constituency – Dadar-Parel-Lalbaug and its Marathi-speaking citizens found themselves being edged out in the major socio-economic transition that was underway.
Sena leaders, particularly Joshi given his family’s real estate business interests, had much to gain by participating in the mills-to-malls transformation of the area; the Sena rank-and-file pulled in the other direction. After the debacle that Sena candidates faced in the 2009 general and assembly elections, and again in the 2012 civic election, it became apparent that Joshi was hardly representative of the area or its people.
A key qualification of being a Sena leader has always been the power and clout that comes from being a mass leader. Joshi had enjoyed that clout for decades drawing support from the Sena cadres; most of it has been eroded. A section of the middle-class Sena supporters are upset with the treatment that Uddhav meted out to him at the Dassehra rally but within the party, a young and pushy Rahul Shewale appears a better bet than Joshi in the next election.
What Joshi now stands for, who he represents, who he now speaks for is hardly what will get Sena its vote. Joshi seems to represent himself, not the party or its cadres any more. A lonely man, indeed.