I must say Shiv Sena supremo Bal Thackeray is delightfully obtuse. Or else he is deliberately disingenuous. I say this because there are not too many who can condemn the Congress for its dynastic politics while, in the same breath, absolve themselves of a similar infamy in their own party.
I do not know why Thackeray is so critical of Sonia Gandhi's leadership for she does for the Congress what Thackeray himself is doing for the Shiv Sena - act as glue that keeps the party cohesive and partymen together, though there is one important difference: with the Nehru-Gandhis at the helm of the Congress, no one can dare rebel against their leadership. If they do, like Sharad Pawar in 1999, they still end up rallying round Sonia Gandhi as Pawar is now doing. On the other hand, some senior Sena leaders of the past like Chhagan Bhujbal or Narayan Rane have so far shown no desire to return to their old party though Balasaheb's nephew Raj Thackeray might well be inclined to, a la Pawar vis-à-vis the Congress. For, clearly, there can be only so much space for a particular ideology as Pawar soon realised and Raj is now discovering.
However, despite Thackeray's obfuscation of his own party's dynastic leanings - I must add there are a lot of Shiv Sainiks still around from his early days who are very disapproving of how he has handled the issue of succession - I would not dismiss anything that he says out of hand, including the threat to contest the Gujarat assembly elections on his own and not as part of the NDA. Given the handicap of a genuine lack of world vision among the Thackerays, I believe Balasaheb has been greatly underrated as a political strategist all these years. Because he was a cartoonist before he became a politician, people have tended to dismiss him and his sometimes puckish sense of humour as an extension of his own cartooning skills. Even among his confidantes, very few have credited him with the kind of intelligence that allows him to get away with the most outrageous acts under the cover of a cartoonish demeanour because, more often than not, he is genuinely swayed by first impressions or influenced by the latest he may have heard on any particular issue.
So I would add his endorsement of BJP's leader of the opposition in the Lok Sabha, Sushma Swaraj, for prime minister to this category: Thackeray knows that Swaraj, unlike Gujarat chief minister Modi, has no pan-Indian appeal and cannot even win her own seat for herself alone.
However, besides the fact that she clearly impressed Thackeray by her recent visit to Matoshree, endorsing Swaraj while simultaneously planning to contest Gujarat on his own is a very clever strategy to regain some of his lost ground by appearing to be more secular than Modi without quite losing his Hindutva appeal.
All things being equal, Thackeray detests Modi for two reasons: one personal and the other political. He hates the fact that Modi is appropriating unto himself the title of `Hindu Hriday Samrat', an appellation that was coined by Thackeray and has belonged to him for years. Politically, Thackeray has lost much of the Muslim support that had been with his party even after the Sena's involvement in the 1992-93 Bombay riots for his continuing association with a `Modi-fied' BJP. He, perhaps, sees this opposition to Modi with a simultaneous support to Swaraj as the best means of regaining that vote in his own home state - for the first time in 2009, the Sena has gone below the BJP's tally in the Maharashtra assembly and Thackeray is shrugging the BJP off those very shoulders that the party hopes to stand on in 2014 again.
So, unlike Nitish Kumar of the Janata Dal United, who is aiming straight for an obvious constituency by similarly planning to contest Gujarat on his own, I would say Thackeray is the cleverer political strategist of the two. The tiger may be ageing and losing some teeth but clearly his claws are as sharp as ever.
Thackeray has lost none of his wit and acumen of yore and now redefines the British colonial tenet of `divide and rule' in his own way. He has always preferred a Congress government at the Centre to one headed by the BJP to reinforce his own importance within the saffron family. He might just be able to pull it off again.