Who would have thought that the Shiv Sena president Uddhav Thackeray would find himself on the same side of the political divide as the Congress, Trinamool National Congress and the National Conference, or speaking the language of how the average Indian suffers which is better identified with its bitter rival, the Left? Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s demonetisation decision has, in addition to unimaginable distress (and sometimes death) for the aam janata, pushed political leaders to make strange sort of common ground.
Thackeray’s initial reaction to the demonetisation was to hit out at Modi. He was sceptical of its effectiveness to address black money because, according to him, corruption “was a mindset and until it is changed, the disease of black money cannot be completely checked”, and warned Modi of chaos and far-reaching adverse impacts. By the Sena’s standards, it was a considered and mature reaction. By Thackeray’s standards of the last two-and-half years, it was unequivocal.
Later, in his speeches and editorials in the party’s paper Saamana, Thackeray used harsher language. He termed the demonetisation as “demonic and unsystematic…(leading to) financial anarchy in the country”. He carped that “…with this second (surgical) strike, Modi had wounded Indian citizens instead of hurting Pakistan…and if terrorism could be stopped by demonetising currency, then the whole world would have adopted this model”.
But when Union home minister Rajnath Singh dialled Thackeray last week, he told Singh that the implementation could have been better because common people are bearing the brunt. The Sena’s MPs said similar words to Modi during their meeting this week. So, does the Sena approve or disapprove the demonetisation? Unlike Mamata Banerjee, Sitaram Yechury and Arvind Kejriwal, Thackeray has not pushed a staunch anti-demonetisation agenda.
Once again in the alliance where the BJP became the Big Brother in 2014, Thackeray finds himself in an awkward position, confused between fulfilling his obligations as the BJP’s ally and his predilection to take on Prime Minister Modi and chief minister Devendra Fadnavis to score political points. In the last two-and-half years, Thackeray has been unable or unwilling to get out of the quagmire. The lure of being in power keeps the Sena in government; the need to counter the BJP makes him take people-centric and anti-government positions.
If there is a strategy to this model of politics – with you but against you – which Thackeray has been at, then he and his strategists are on to something that none of us know. If this represents ideological confusion or mere public posturing, then Thackeray may have to pay a price in the elections that are marked out on our calendars: The civic elections in the next few months in major cities including Mumbai, and the general and state Assembly elections in 2019.
Of these, the Mumbai civic election is the most prestigious one for Thackeray. Given how political parties are funded, the opacity behind which they spend cash during elections, and the Sena’s notoriety for turning the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation into its cash-cow with a string of allegedly corrupt practices, the clampdown on cash is likely to cripple its short-term political plans. So while its rift with the BJP over demonetisation is good for its politics, the cash crunch in the demonetised era is bad for its economics.
Thackeray’s initial opposition to the demonetisation in strong words and later questioning only its implementation on grounds that average citizens have been put to hardship tells us that, in this pre-election season, he wants the Sena to be on the side of the people but will not quit the central and state governments to drive home his point to the BJP. His continued preference for this with-you-but-against-you model of politics has left the Sena’s cadres and sympathisers quite confused too.
When Mumbai and other cities vote for their local bodies in the next few months, we will know if this Thackeray model brings political returns to the party or not.