On May 1, a week after Mumbai and the Konkan region voted in the general election and as Shiv Sena working president Uddhav Thackeray vacationed, the party's Marathi daily Saamna carried an editorial that slammed Gujaratis in Mumbai for treating the city like a "sex worker".
It was a needless provocation, after the rough-and-tumble relationship between the Sena and its ally of 25 years, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in the run-up to the election.
Uddhav, inheritor of all things Shiv Sena and, by that virtue, currently the editor of the paper, issued a clarification from his international vacation spot to assuage Gujaratis, long acknowledged as the true movers-and-shakers of the city for their disproportionately large influence over its wealth generation and ownership.
The Sena had a somewhat uncomfortable relationship with the Gujarati community early in its 47-year-old history. It had its roots in the battle over whether Bombay, as it was then called, should be retained in Maharashtra as its capital or given to Gujarat, both newly carved states from the large Bombay Presidency in 1960. As Gujaratis fought for it to be made the capital of their state, 105 Maharashtrians were killed in police firing fighting for Bombay as Maharashtra's capital. But this was essentially a battle between Gujaratis and the Samyukta Maharashtra Samiti; the Shiv Sena was six years away from its formation.
Yet, the residual anti-Gujarati sentiment spilled over into the Sena given its pro-Marathi politics. Ever the clever politician, the late Bal Thackeray hastened to clarify in the 1970s that "…Gujaratis make generous employers and one should not bite the hand that feeds one" for the city's textile mills were mostly owned by Gujaratis and Marwaris but Maharashtrians formed the backbone of their work force.
In the 25-year-old Sena-BJP alliance, there have been many ego clashes and displays of one-upmanship but rarely a Marathi-Gujarati divide at the top; thanks to BJP's prime ministerial candidate Narendra Modi's aggressive appeal to Gujaratis and a style of campaigning in which he marginalised Uddhav, this happened during the run-up to the general election. The Saamna editorial was mischievously playing on this emerging crack. In it, and in his clarification, lay the essence of Uddhav's leadership--or the lack of it.
For Uddhav, 53, this general election is a survival call. In the first major poll since his over-arching father's death in November 2012, Uddhav managed to rally around his own team--howsoever a kitchen-cabinet it seems to be - plan and carry out campaigning across the state and generally keep his head above the water when it came to negotiating with the BJP. The question is whether his writ runs in his own party – and newspaper.
Analysts are of the opinion that he somehow managed two aspects: the tic-tac-toe between BJP's state rivals Gopinath Munde and Nitin Gadkari (Uddhav prefers Munde) and the BJP's, or rather Gadkari's, plan to get his cousin and political bête noire Raj Thackeray on board a grand saffron-Dalit alliance.
The Sena-BJP alliance's best performance in the state's 48 Lok Sabha seats, so far, was its 1996 tally of 33 seats. It has campaigned hard this time to reach 35 seats. If it does, the Sena would have a big role in the alliance's success and Uddhav's soldiers in Delhi can hope to be rewarded with cabinet berths.
But that's not the greatest of Uddhav's concerns at this juncture.
What's at stake for him--whether the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance forms the central government after May 16 or not--is the future course of the Sena-BJP relationship especially in the context of the BJP's ambition in the forthcoming assembly election. Ever so slightly, the balance of power between the two has been shifting in favour of the BJP in the last few years; this election may just seal it.
State BJP leaders have found Uddhav an amiable, unlike his egoistical and unpredictable father, but this amiability has come across as a sign of weakness--actually reduced power vis-à-vis the BJP--for his troops, especially, his second-rung leaders. A number of Sena leaders now believe that the resurgent BJP, for years treated as "the younger brother" in the relationship, is now calling the shots. The Sena continues to contest a higher proportion--26--of the state's seats.
His own relationship with Modi was initially marred by his insistence that the Sena support Sushma Swaraj for the top job, a line of thought propagated by his father. Eventually, Uddhav warmed up to Modi but it continues to be the relationship of mutual convenience and need rather than one based on genuine respect or regard. Besides, Modi's chest-thumping advocacy of the "Gujarat model of development", though official statistics show Maharashtra still ahead in vital parameters, has not gone down well with Uddhav and his party men.
It's the BJP's state ambition that bothers Sena leaders the most. In order to wrest power from the Congress-NCP alliance in Maharashtra, the BJP would like to get Raj Thackeray and his Maharashtra Navnirman Sena on board the alliance, so that the saffron vote does not split between them. This broad alliance--and sharing of power with Raj--is exactly what Uddhav is apprehensive about and wants to avoid at all costs. A strong BJP at the centre would propel a possible re-alignment in the state too.
For Raj, the equation after May 16 would be simpler than for his estranged cousin. In not putting up candidates against the BJP, except in a couple of seats like Pune, Raj has ensured that the saffron votes will not split and walked his talk when it came to supporting his current political hero, Modi, for the prime minister's post.
The MNS had a total of only 10 candidates in this general election but Raj's campaign was lusty and hard. He was jostling and getting into place for the state assembly election, which is Raj's real objective. But through it too, it did not escape attention that he chose to challenge the Sena in its strongholds across the state even while desisting from putting up candidates in seats that the BJP contested as part of the Sena-BJP alliance.
It's in Raj's interest to keep positively stoking the BJP so that they can work out an arrangement closer to the assembly election. Given Uddhav's flat denials to even entertain the idea of a grand BJP-Sena-MNS coalition, the BJP has its task cut out in Maharashtra.
If the Sena performs below par in the general election, Raj will smell an opportunity to exploit. It's not so much the general election or its result on May 16, but the post-poll scenario in the state and the forthcoming assembly election that really matter to Raj. Analysts believe that the MNS is nowhere near its strength of 2009. For Raj to continue to be relevant in the state, he would have to play his cards smartly after May 16.
But at the end of the day, Uddhav and Raj are essentially fighting for the same piece of the pie. After Sena's blow hot blow cold line on Gujaratis, the MNS piped up and seized what it read as an opportunity. It objected to the Mumbai's local bus transporter BEST to take off ads announcing the launch of a Gujarati newspaper on the grounds that the ad had insulted Marathis. If this smacks of a flaky approach to the issue, it is so. But then, this is typical MNS brand of politics.
The real fight between the Sena and MNS begins after May 16. The BJP may be forced to choose between the two.