Uddhav Thackeray’s maiden press conference in New Delhi – by and large in Hindi – last week has impressed many, supporters and critics alike, despite some sour grapes among rivals like his cousin Raj Thackeray and Maharashtra industries minister Narayan Rane.
The Shiv Sena president exuded a rare confidence in an alien setting and seemed at ease speaking in both Hindi and Marathi. Though he joked that he could not understand a query in English, he was quite up to the answer, taking an opposite stance to BJP president Rajnath Singh’s crib against English. Uddhav quoted his grandfather in support of the benefits of learning this ‘phoren’ language which was quite reasonable.
Many Shiv Sainiks were quite taken a back; I, too, thought he had finally come out of his father’s shadow and was now a master of his own mind, for he was very nuanced which the elder Thackeray was usually not. Besides, Uddhav said much without quite saying, well, much.
A lot has been made of his lack of enthusiasm to either endorse or anoint Narendra Modi as the future prime minister but I can understand Uddhav’s dilemma. Modi is more partial towards his cousin Raj. Moreover, I do not think even Raj Thackeray would want to tie up with the BJP and subsume his personality to the overpowering charisma of Modi.
That seems to be Uddhav’s problem, too, for, after the passing of Bal Thackeray, the Shiv Sena seems to have lost its very raison d’etre. When people voted for the Sena, they voted not for the party or its candidate but for Bal Thackeray – and just Bal Thackeray alone.
As Dr Ramesh Prabhoo, former Bombay Mayor and Thackeray’s personal physician for long years from 1973 to 2004 once told me in another context, “Shiv Sainiks might hate the Congress but if Balasaheb wanted the Congress to win, they would jump into the battlefield without asking a question and work hard to make that happen. It was Thackeray they loved. Nobody else mattered.”
Clearly, neither Raj nor Uddhav command that kind of love or loyalty.
The brokers and builders who largely form Raj Thackeray’s Maharashtra Navnirman Sena have flatly refused to let their business interests be jeopardised by his politics. One of the main reasons why he has been silent, of late, is that there are hardly any workers to build the party up. So far as Uddhav is concerned, I have it on unimpeachable authority that more than a half dozen of the 11 Shiv Sena MPs in the Lok Sabha are waiting to jump ship and are in various stages of negotiations with the Congress.
They need a couple more to be able to avoid attracting the provisions of the anti-defection law but the Congress has a problem in accommodating all of them for some of these seats are held by the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) in their own seat-sharing arrangements.
Not that Sharad Pawar is unwilling to welcome these MPs with open arms but the NCP’s reputation is currently at its nadir with the party being in its own leadership tangles. Further, the Sena MPs do not want to have to exchange one set of political heirs (Uddhav and Raj) for another (Supriya Sule and Ajit Pawar, Pawar’s daughter and nephew respectively).
Why they are hoping they will win on a Congress ticket is because they are long time winners and have no challengers from the Sena in their respective constituencies. The Shiv Sena was always a personality-oriented party – and not just at the top. Thackeray was wont to entrust the responsibility of the districts to his lieutenants, among them Chhagan Bhujbal, Narayan Rane and Ganesh Naik who quit to join the Congress/NCP at various points.
The Sena had to then build up the party from the scratch in these districts. It took years. The potential defectors in the Sena, from Vidarbha, Western Maharashtra and Marathwada, are hoping they will gain the same advantage and that is another reason why they might cross over when the 2014 polls near to be able to give little time to Uddhav to recoup and find suitable challengers against them.
Uddhav, I am told, is not unaware of the potential threat looming ahead of his party.
I am not a Sena ideologue but there are moments when I feel extremely sympathetic towards all of Bal Thackeray’s heirs. Neither can afford to cede ground to the other but divided as they stand, they are cutting that very ground from under their own feet. They need all the help they can get. But with friends and supporters like these...