A large part of Shiv Sena chief Uddhav Thackeray’s political career was, until recently, marked by doubts over his ability. Can the polite, soft-spoken Uddhav lead a vociferously zealous party?
When he was named successor to the late Sena chief Bal Thackeray, many were unsure if he could match up. When his cousin, Raj Thackeray, quit the Sena to start his own party, there were doubts over how Uddhav will counter the charismatic Raj, who bears more resemblance than him to the senior Thackeray’s oratory skills and mannerisms. When, in 2012, Bal Thackeray died, there were again questions: was this is the beginning of the end of the Shiv Sena?
But in the past three years, the 56-year-old Uddhav has more than silenced his critics, effectively demonstrating that he and his party are in it for the long haul.
The first time he did so was in 2014. In the run-up to the state Assembly elections, seat-sharing talks between the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the Sena collapsed. The Sena was not adequately prepared to contest alone and a significant ‘Narendra Modi’ wave had swept through the nation, but Uddhav refused to climb down from his demand for 150 of the 288 Assembly seats, and preferred walking away from the alliance instead of succumbing.
On Thursday, he won more acclaim from party workers, when he hit out hard at the BJP for the way it treated the Sena and broke off his party’s 20-year-old alliance with the BJP in the civic body. He did so even though the BJP has emerged stronger than the Sena in Mumbai in the 2014 Assembly polls — winning 15 seats against the Sena’s 14 — and becoing a serious threat to the Sena in these elections. Uddhav called the BJP a “wild bull”, accused it of harbouring goons and only caring about capturing power. He firmly stated he will never opt for an alliance in the future. This was the Sena’s new path, he said, as he instilled new fervour among his Sainiks.
The Mumbai civic polls next month would be the Sena’s first with Uddhav as the sole leader, without the presence of his father. Uddhav wants to come out strong in the Sena’s home turf of Mumbai, change the political equation at the state level and prop up the Sena as an equal, not a junior partner of the BJP.
“Both these instances sent a strong message of confidence to his cadre, and that has gone a long way in galvanising the Shiv Sainiks. The Sena workers by nature react strongly when they feel the party is cornered or its existence is under threat,” a senior Shiv Sena leader, who did not wish to be named, told HT.
In 2014, despite being left in the lurch by the BJP, he helped the Sena win 63 seats in spite of the strong ‘Modi wave’ and not having enough resources to match the opponent’s campaign.
Aggressive now, Uddhav, the youngest son of Bal Thackeray, was known to be reticent and shy, someone more interested in wildlife photography than active politics.
Within politics, he was known more for his back-room management skills before he took up the party’s top post in 2003. At the time, this irked several party workers who would have preferred the aggressive Raj Thackeray as their leader instead. Uddhav then began playing a role in the day-to-day functioning of the party and developed his own team of loyal, trusted aides much to the chagrin of senior leaders such as Narayan Rane, who ultimately exited the Sena.
“His leadership started emerging when Bal Thackeray was still actively involved in party affairs. It was only after Bal Thackeray’s death that Uddhav really came out of his father’s shadow. There is no political culture within the Sena to challenge leadership, so the change was smooth-sailing. Meanwhile, he learnt strategies, how to handle coalition matters and finally, how to emerge as a leader considered by all as a force to reckon with,” said Surendra Jondhale, head of Mumbai University’s department of civics and politics.
Learning to adapt with the changing political scenario simultaneously as he strengthened his hold over the Sena has been Uddhav’s biggest strength, Jondhale said.
Thursday’s decision to contest the polls without joining hands with the BJP is a huge gamble for Uddhav. If the Sena loses hold over the Mumbai civic body, he could face problems. But, he showed the courage to take a call. Whatever the consequences, a majority of his workers will love Uddhav’s aggression.