A common thread through major revolts against Shiv Sena
Unlike the previous three revolts, Shinde’s rebellion, poses the most potent threat to the Sena’s existence
Mumbai: The more things change, the more they remain the same, at least in Shiv Sena and with its first family. The party has seen four major rebellions so far -- led by Chhagan Bhujbal (1991), Narayan Rane and Raj Thackeray (2005) and Eknath Shinde (2022). While Bhujbal rebelled against late Sena chief Bal Thackeray after being ignored for the position of the leader of opposition over Manohar Joshi, the other three mutinies were against Uddhav Thackeray and his leadership.
A common thread runs through the rebellions against Uddhav—his inaccessibility, his coterie and gatekeepers who often rub people the wrong way, his esoteric inner circle, the distance and disconnect from his men and hands-off approach. Uddhav’s style of functioning is often blamed as the root cause behind the grist to these revolts that helps them gather support on the ground.
Unlike the previous three revolts, Shinde’s rebellion, poses the most potent threat to the Sena’s existence as it has exposed cracks in Uddhav’s capability as chief minister and shattered the aura of infallibility around the Thackerays.
Even the most hard-core Uddhav loyalists admit that the charge about Uddhav being cut off from his men and deputy chief minister Ajit Pawar and the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) dominating the government hold water. It was Uddhav’s inaccessibility that ensured that most party ministers and legislators met Shinde for their works and eventually coalesced around him.
Though senior ministers in the Maharashtra Vikas Aghadi (MVA) admit that Shinde was known to have a group of around 15 loyalists, including independent MLAs like Rajendra Patil Yadravkar, who was made a minister of state from the Sena’s quota and eventually joined the rebels, the extent and intensity of the revolt caught everyone off-guard. This indicates that the anger and disgruntlement were sub-terrain yet widespread. The ranks of the rebels have also been bolstered by the presence of hardcore Sainiks like Aurangabad MLA Pradeep Jaiswal and minister Gulabrao Patil.
Rane’s rebellion in 2005 was a result of a clash with Uddhav’s growing ambitions and increasing role in the Sena. Rane and his loyalists had attacked Uddhav’s controversial personal assistant Milind Narvekar. Uddhav, known for being an introvert and reserved with people beyond his immediate circle, chose Narvekar as his gatekeeper in the 1990s. Soon, Narvekar became one of the most powerful figures in the Sena, and apart from Rane and his men, was blamed by leaders like Bhaskar Jadhav (2004) and Mohan Rawle (in 2014) for their decisions to quit the party. However, it is said that parallel power centres and gatekeepers have evolved at ‘Matoshree’, the Thackeray family residence at Bandra East, to undercut Narvekar.
When Rane rebelled in 2005, the Shiv Sena, which dominates the streets of Mumbai using its muscle, was pushed to the backfoot. Raj’s move to quit the party, blaming a coterie around his uncle Bal Thackeray for his decision, also came a jolt to the Sena that year. However, it was the late Shiv Sena chief who took charge of the situation and personally helmed the party through these troubled times.
Uddhav, who was the Shiv Sena’s working president, too used the party’s iron-clad organisation and the emotional connect that the cadre has with the Thackerays to establish his leadership, and in 2014, despite the BJP calling off its alliance with the Sena for the assembly polls, won 63 seats, up from the previous tally of 44.
However, Shinde’s mutiny goes much beyond that of Rane or Raj as its poses a stronger existential threat to the Shiv Sena. The charge that the NCP was growing at the expense of the Shiv Sena has struck a chord with a section of Sainiks and the allegation about the party diluting its commitment to Hindutva by allying with the ‘secular’ Congress and NCP has challenged its very raison d’être.
As his father did in 2005, the revolt is an opportunity for his son and scion Aaditya Thackeray, who is the state environment minister and heads the Yuva Sena, to prove and establish his leadership.
Though Aaditya has taken the initiative to hit the ground and address rallies against the rebels, there are charges that he too is led by a coterie which leaves little access for the common Shiv Sainik. The short-term political and electoral setback notwithstanding, Shinde and his band of men may have presented a golden opportunity for Aaditya to lead the fightback and prove his leadership, though it would need a massive reorientation of his style of working to reach out to people beyond his immediate circle and become a 24X7 politician like the BJP top brass.
Soft-spoken like his father and well-read with a keen interest in international affairs, babus in Mantralaya credit Aaditya -- the first in the Thackeray family to run for public office -- for bringing in a much-needed breath of fresh air. However, Sena watchers admit that when it comes to the organisational nitty-gritty, there is much that is lacking.
Despite the present crisis, those who know Uddhav too claim that behind the gentle façade, he is a fighter who will show his instincts as a pugilist when pitched into the political ring.
An anecdote narrated by one of Raj’s friends says much about Uddhav’s spirit. Around 1997, Raj and his friends began learning badminton and started playing at Dadar. Soon, Uddhav to joined them. Once, while playing, Uddhav fell and everyone laughed. If Uddhav was upset, he did not reveal it then but stopped coming to play from the next day onwards. He, however, took badminton classes at Bandra and as the friend said, mastered the game in a way that could put those who laughed at him to shame.
Uddhav, the man often mistakenly claimed to be a “reluctant politician” had first spoken about his chief ministerial ambitions in 1999, and after Rane and Raj left, senior Shiv Sena leaders would often suggest slyly that Uddhav would be their chief ministerial nominee. The chief minister’s chair that Uddhav could occupy two decades on, had been shaken by the tremors of the revolt. Will these instincts as a fighter, albeit as an under-rated one, kick in or has age and health taken a toll on them? Only time will tell.