“Modi gaya to Gujarat gaya.” In 2002, after the Godhra riots, Shiv Sena patriarch Bal Thackeray said this to Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leader and Narendra Modi’s former mentor LK Advani. Thackeray was among the few senior leaders in the NDA, besides Advani, who backed Modi as Gujarat chief minister (Thackeray had referred to this statement much later in a 2009 Saamana editorial).
However, a decade later in 2012, just two months before his demise, Thackeray, in an interview to his party’s mouthpiece Saamana, backed Sushma Swaraj as the “only deserving and brilliant’’ prime ministerial candidate in the NDA.
Many were surprised by Thackeray’s support for Swaraj, even negating Modi’s bid for Delhi, given that the Sena founder had batted for Modi several times in public — in 2002, 2004 and again in 2007 after Modi’s spectacular second win as chief minister and in 2009 as a ‘self-made Hindutva leader’, someone the BJP desperately needed.
What went wrong from 2002 to 2012 between Thackeray and Modi? Or did Thackeray realise by 2012 the Modi juggernaut could ultimately derail his party’s growth in Maharashtra?
“It is difficult to try and guess what Thackeray’s logic was at the time. But it is possible that even Thackeray looked at the PM’s post as beyond Modi’s reach and did not want a controversial person at the top. That is the reason he supported Pranab Mukherjee for the president’s post, going against ally BJP,’’ said Surendra Jondhale, political analyst.
“More importantly, by that time he knew of the power tussle in the NDA and realised it was better to back Advani-supporter Swaraj as the potential candidate. Modi in the intervening years had not given Thackeray the kind of obsequious deference he was used to,’’ he added.
By 2012, Modi had made a bid for Delhi and was unwilling to kneel down to Thackeray. And Thackeray himself had also not warmed up to the idea of calling Modi a friend or an ally. Perhaps, it was because Modi was also trying to occupy the same space as Thackeray — as the ‘Hinduhriday samrat’.
By 2011, when Modi undertook the Sadbhavna mission to make up with the minorities in his state, Thackeray was in no mood to let it pass and taunted the latter for appeasement. This was also the time when Thackeray’s estranged nephew Raj had built a rapport with Modi by visiting Gujarat and backing him as a potential PM candidate. Post Thackeray’s demise, his son Uddhav failed completely to establish a rapport with Modi. By the time he realised the need to open communication channels, Modi’s star had risen way above his own.
“Uddhav failed to realise the BJP under Modi was completely different from the one under Vajpayee and Advani. He did not realise our ambitions until it was too late,’’ said a senior state BJP minister.
The signs were there for all to see when Modi kicked off his Lok Sabha tour with a rally in Mumbai where Sena was not invited. This communication breakdown between Uddhav and Modi, given the absence of state BJP mediators, is seen as one of the main reasons for the rupture in the saffron alliance.