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In the throes of change

As the sun begins to set on their political careers, many of the men who helped firebrand ex-cartoonist Bal Thackeray set up and build the Shiv Sena are stepping back for a younger generation, reports Rajendra Aklekar.

mumbai Updated: Sep 26, 2009 23:54 IST
Rajendra Aklekar

As the sun begins to set on their political careers, many of the men who helped firebrand ex-cartoonist Bal Thackeray set up and build the Shiv Sena are stepping back for a younger generation.

And if the men picked by the roaring tiger over four decades ago were bold and brash, his son Uddhav’s team is equally a reflection of the rather-more-rational nature photographer’s personality.

The new Sena top brass are street-smart men — and yes, a woman too — with a corporate attitude, people who can think for themselves while also working towards a common goal.

It’s clearly an attempt to woo a different kind of voter.

Back in 1966, the party named after Maratha warrior-king Shivaji, attracted mainly the disgruntled, often-unemployed Marathi youngster. After gathering at Shivaji Park to hear Balasaheb’s charged speeches, future leaders like Datta Salvi and Wamanrao Mahadik would take to the streets in rage, often marching to jail with him after violent outbursts on behalf of the sons of their soil.

Balasaheb would boast that he could call out his troops in the thousands with just one word. And he could.

In 1991, on Thackeray’s call, Shiv Sainiks dug up the pitch at Wankhede Stadium in south Mumbai, to protest a scheduled Indo-Pak cricket match.

Now 84, the senior Thackeray still supposedly takes all major party decisions, and has claimed that he ran the last Sena-BJP government (1995-1999) by remote control.

His son Uddhav, a JJ School of Art graduate, is much more moderate and is quietly changing the way the organisation functions — and the way the party is perceived.

Despite persistent goading by cousin Raj Thackeray and the latter’s Maharashtra Navnirman Sena, Uddhav refused to be rattled and would not join the skirmishes as MNS followers attacked north Indian immigrants on the streets.

Instead, he was quietly building his core group, a veritable thinktank.

And focusing on reaching out to youngsters and non-fundamentalists through helplines, the Web and SMSes, asking them to pitch in with suggestions, complaints and criticism — of both the government in power and even the Sena’s own manifestoes.

Uddhav has set up an IT centre and is using hi-tech gadgets (like his own iPhone) to strengthen the party’s local network and analyse data on everything, from voting patterns to public responses to current issues.

“The difference between the leadership styles of Balasaheb and Uddhav is singular,” said political commentator B. Venkatesh. “Balasaheb is authoritarian and no one can even think of revolt in his presence. Uddhav is more moderate, but is taking the Sena beyond Mumbai and Thane to the rural belts.”

The question many are asking, particularly within the party: Is this approach too soft for a regional outfit that has little to offer but a history of violent protests on behalf of the Marathi manoos?

After the Lok Sabha election, where the party suffered a humiliating defeat, next month’s Assembly poll will be the acid test for Uddhav, his new philosophy and his GenNext team.

“These elections will decide whether he can perform… whether he can lead,” said Venkatesh.

The man himself doesn’t seem too worried. “We will win,” Uddhav told said on Tuesday. “And Sena chief Bal Thackeray will address our victory rally in a month.”