He started as a reluctant leader — someone who preferred wildlife photography to addressing a party rally. A decade later, as the Sena completes 50 years, Uddhav Thackeray has kept his flock together, the party remains a strong political force, and he is its undisputed leader.
“There were doubts over his leadership earlier but he has turned out to be a different kind of leader. He is soft-spoken but maintains the Sena’s aggressive image,” says political analyst B Venkatesh Kumar.
A decade ago, Uddhav’s cousin Raj was seen as more suitable to run the Sena, by both partymen and in political circles. Raj had his uncle’s flair for oratory and his mannerisms.
After Uddhav was anointed his father’s successor in 2004, the Sena lost two Assembly elections – in 2004 and 2009. Besides, two Sena stalwarts, Narayan Rane and Raj Thackeray, left the party with their followers. With senior Thackeray inactive because of old age and illness, it seemed the party was in trouble.
“Uddhav knew his limitations,” says a senior Sena leader. “He was not a good orator but he learnt to speak effectively. He put together a team that manages the Sena’s affairs. And he learnt political manoeuvering.”
The first turnaround was the 2012 Mumbai civic polls that Uddhav led from the front. Battling anti-incumbency, the Sena retained power with the help of the BJP and smaller parties. It boosted Uddhav’s confidence.
In the Lok Sabha polls, the Sena rode the Modi wave to win 18 seats—its highest tally in Parliament. What happened next was a test of Uddhav’s political skills. The BJP wanted more seats for the Assembly elections. Uddhav refused and the saffron allies parted ways. Uddhav again surprised his cadre by training his guns on Prime Minister Narendra Modi who was at the height of his popularity.
The BJP became largest party in the Assembly with 122 seats, but the Sena won 63 — its highest tally since 1999. The BJP fell short by 23 but did not yield much while getting the Sena to join the government.
Within the party several Sena leaders were unhappy with Uddhav’s decision to accept less important portfolios. “He played safe as the BJP leaders issued veiled threats of splitting the Sena. Uddhavji thought keeping his flock together and buying time was important,” said a key Sena leader.
In the past two years, the Sena has proved a thorn in the BJP’s flesh by being most critical of the Modi government. The BJP is now preparing to wrest power in Mumbai’s civic body, which is the Sena’s main source of strength.
The next two years will again put Uddhav’s leadership to the test. Will he walk out or stay in an unhappy marriage? For the second chief of the Shiv Sena, the political battle is far from over.