File photo: Shiv Sena supremo Bal Thackeray attends Maharashtra Day celebrations with his son Uddhav Thackeray in Mumbai. AP
On the night that Bal Thackeray died, Sharad Pawar educated me about who — and what — made a true Shiv Sainik.
“I suppose you know who a Dada used to be in Bombay?” he asked as a preamble to some twisted praise of the Sena tiger — Bal Thackeray was the only leader in the country who could pick up neighbourhood baddies from nowhere and turn them into political leaders overnight.
In an era before crime became truly associated with guns, drugs and the underworld, such neighbourhood baddies, small time smugglers and musclemen, were given tickets by Thackeray to the municipal corporation and ended up as standing committee chairpersons and soon evolved as politicians in their own right, “Only Thackeray had the capacity to wean them away from crime and make leaders out of them,” Pawar said in seeming praise.
The names of such neighbourhood baddies-turned-politicians hung in the air, though at that delicate moment in time, Pawar would not name them. But it is true that the Shiv Sena, though comprising large sections of musclemen and anti-social elements — was not quite bereft of intellectuals and gentlemen — Manohar Joshi, Pramod Navalkar, Ramesh Prabhoo, Suresh Prabhu and Rahul Narvekar at different times.
In fact, Narvekar was the most credible face of the Shiv Sena in television studios and did a credible job of cleaning up — with his words — some of the more lumpen acts of the Shiv Sena over the past few years. It is sad to see his exit from the party — the abandoning of Joshi, the betrayal of Dr Prabhoo, the sidelining of Prabhu have now left the Shiv Sena looking like neither fish nor fowl nor even a good red herring and in some serious trouble just before the Lok Sabha polls.
I know as a matter of fact that BJP leader Nitin Gadkari did not meet Raj Thackeray to draw him into an alliance with the Shiv Sena (he had other fish to fry in that regard) but the very act of not taking Sena president Uddhav Thackeray into confidence over the issue only goes to prove that even the BJP stays with the Shiv Sena only out of compulsion — and that compulsion might soon be over if the BJP does well at the Lok Sabha polls.
The Shiv Sena has seen many exits from the party this season and it cannot help that these men (or at least a couple of them) are getting party tickets from rivals while others, clearly disgruntled, could add to the damage at the grassroots. I am also surprised that Uddhav did not see this coming — I was told nearly a year ago by someone very high up in the Congress that between them and the NCP an effort was on to wean away as many Sena MPs as possible to their side so that the Shiv Sena is left with virtually no credible candidates by the time the polls come around.
Even if this is not happening exactly as I was told it would, it is definitely playing as close to the script as I can see and though Shiv Sainiks might protest those exits and vandalise offices, I can see it is not the same as when Chhagan Bhujbal exited the party in Bal Thackeray’s time — and the Sena still came back with a bang.
In the past I have applauded Uddhav’s efforts to gentrify his father’s party, even if it was difficult for a large section of Shiv Sainiks to accept the fact that they could no longer take to the streets and spill blood with abandon. However, mainstreaming a party like the Shiv Sena requires considerable effort and crucial to this is the visible demonstration of regard for the gentlemen in the party, which clearly has been lacking this season in the Shiv Sena.
And though Narvekar, as the son-in-law of a top NCP leader, might have had other reasons to quit the Shiv Sena, it is clear that this high-profile exit leaves Uddhav’s party standing at the knife’s edge, a double-edged one at that.
Its very raison d’être could soon be under threat.