Lights, camera, factions!

Uddhav Thackeray has softened the Shiv Sena’s belligerent brand of politics

PTI11_21_2019_000175B Victor, at last: Uddhav Thackeray and son Aaditya (to his left) greeting party workers after paying tribute to the statue of Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj in Thane | PTI

It was two decades ago that Uddhav Thackeray learnt an important lesson in politics.

In 1999, the Shiv Sena reluctantly agreed to advance the assembly elections in Maharashtra to coincide with the Lok Sabha polls. BJP leader Pramod Mahajan had convinced Uddhav’s father, Sena chief Balasaheb Thackeray, that there was a wave in favour of prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee that would help the ruling National Democratic Alliance win simultaneous polls.

Most Sena leaders, Uddhav included, were not in favour of pulling the plug on the first Shiv Sena-BJP government in Maharashtra, which still had eight more months left. And the poll results bore out their fears. The NDA won the Lok Sabha elections, but the Sena-BJP alliance in Maharashtra could win only 125 of 288 assembly seats—13 short of its tally from 1995.

The alliance needed 20 more legislators to return to power. Chances of it forming the government, however, were still good; the opposition Congress had split before the polls, with the breakaway Nationalist Congress Party led by Sharad Pawar contesting elections independently. But, when governor P.C. Alexander invited the saffron alliance to form the government, BJP leader Gopinath Munde refused to give a letter of support to the Sena.

Munde had been deputy chief minister in the Sena-BJP government, and he was not keen on holding the post again. He wanted rotational chief ministership, with the BJP getting the first chance. The Sena, he argued, had had two chief ministers already—Manohar Joshi and Narayan Rane.

Top-flight tactician: Uddhav during a cricket match in Mumbai, held to celebrate the birthday of Sena patriarch Balasaheb Thackeray in 2005. Top-flight tactician: Uddhav during a cricket match in Mumbai, held to celebrate the birthday of Sena patriarch Balasaheb Thackeray in 2005.

An angry Shiv Sena, which had 13 more legislators than the BJP, refused. As parleys between the two partners dragged on for days, the sharp-witted Sharad Pawar persuaded all independent MLAs to support his efforts to form a Congress-NCP government. Pawar’s success denied the Sena its second term in power.

That episode, say Sena insiders, remains etched in Uddhav’s memory. It was the reason why, after the assembly elections results were announced this time, he firmly demanded that the Sena get the first chance in the rotational chief ministership. The BJP refused, but Uddhav never gave up.

His firmness has now brought rich dividends. The Sena will not only get a full term as chief minister, but it will also have the highest number of ministries (16) in the government led by the Maharashtra Vikas Aghadi, the new coalition featuring the Sena, the NCP and the Congress.

As the youngest of Balasaheb’s three sons, Uddhav had made a reluctant entry into politics. Born in 1960, he did his schooling at Balmohan Vidyamandir at Shivaji Park, one of the most reputed Marathi-medium schools in Mumbai. His keen interest in visual arts led him to the J.J. School of Art after matriculation. He graduated in fine arts and started an ad agency named Chourang.

In December 1988, Uddhav married the girl he had been courting—Rashmi, from a middle-class, Marathi family in Dombivli. He began leading a simple life, away from the Sena’s aggressive Marathi-hindutva politics.

When Balasaheb started the party mouthpiece Saamana, he entrusted Uddhav with its managerial and administrative responsibilities. Back then, Uddhav would go to the Saamana office like any other employee, work through the day and return home in the evening. Politics was far from his mind.

The rising star in the Thackeray clan in the late 1980s was Uddhav’s cousin Raj, who was appointed president of the Bharatiya Vidyarthi Sena, the party’s student wing. Uddhav began taking an interest in party affairs only in the 1990s, especially so after the Sena-BJP alliance first formed the government in 1995, with Manohar Joshi as chief minister. Soft-spoken and restrained, Uddhav was naturally close to moderate Sena leaders like Joshi and Subhash Desai.

His rise in the Sena began after Raj Thackeray’s name cropped up in a murder case in 1996. With his nephew under a cloud, Balasaheb asked his son to handle party affairs on a daily basis. At Shiv Sena Bhavan, Uddhav began interacting with people and grassroots Sainiks.

“He was always warm in his interactions,” recalled Pandurang Dalvi, 50, the Sena’s shakha pramukh at Kopri in Thane. “Once, we managed to put the Shiv Sena’s panel in power at our bank. That was the first time that a Sena union had swept the polls there. So we were called to meet Uddhavji. Back then, I was a common Sainik. When we went to Shiv Sena Bhavan, he congratulated us and advised us about how the panel should solve problems of bank employees and customers.”

Uddhav became the Sena’s working president in 2003. His name was proposed by Raj himself. Later, after his split from the Sena in 2006, Raj described the move as a mistake.

After becoming working president, Uddhav began grooming a new crop of mild-mannered and moderate Sena leaders. The group included Neelam Gorhe, now deputy chairperson of the legislative council, and Anil Desai and Arvind Sawant, both MPs now.

When Raj and Narayan Rane quit the Shiv Sena in a span of a few months, both allies and detractors thought the Sena would not survive under Uddhav’s leadership. It was around this time that Uddhav experimented with the Sena’s first non-BJP alliance. He partnered with the NCP in Sindhudurg district, where Narayan Rane was the reigning leader. The entire Sena leadership in Sindhudurg had more or less followed Rane to the Congress, leaving ordinary Sainiks in the lurch.

With the BJP nearly absent in Sindhudurg, only the NCP posed a threat to Rane’s total dominance. So, when Uddhav announced his visit to Sindhudurg, the NCP extended a helping hand. “We welcomed Uddhavji in the district, and made arrangements for his rallies,” said Amit Samant, president of the NCP’s Sindhudurg unit. “R.R. Patil was home minister at that time. We spoke to him and made sure that the police protected the Sena meetings from being disrupted by Rane’s supporters. It was out of this cooperation that the Sena’s first alliance with the NCP was born. The Sena helped us capture Vengurla Municipal Council, when the BJP tacitly supported Rane.”

Uddhav first locked horns with the BJP’s state leadership in 2006, when Sena legislator Vijay Wadettiwar quit the party with Rane, necessitating a bypoll in Chimur. Nitin Gadkari, then state BJP president, demanded that his party be allotted the seat, as Wadettiwar had won by a wafer-thin margin and nearly three-fourths of all panchayats in the constituency were controlled by the BJP. Uddhav, however, persuaded Balasaheb to not give in, and ensured that a Sena candidate contested the bypoll. The BJP retaliated by supporting an independent, resulting in the Sena’s defeat in Chimur.

With Balasaheb ageing and firebrand leaders quitting the Sena one after the other, Uddhav soon took up the challenge of giving the party a makeover. Through its ‘Me Mumbaikar’ campaign, the Sena widened its base by reaching out to the city’s non-Maharashtrian residents. The campaign helped the party retain power in the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) elections in 2007—Uddhav’s first victory after being anointed heir to the Thackeray brand of politics.

In 2009, though, the Sena suffered a reversal. Raj Thackeray’s Maharashtra Navnirman Sena, contesting its first assembly elections, ate into the Maratha vote bank to win 13 seats. With the Sena having lost 17 seats, the BJP began cosying up to Raj, while Uddhav’s critics in and outside his party once again began writing him off.

But Uddhav bounced back in 2012, helping the Sena retain control of BMC and Thane and Dombivli municipal corporations. The 2014 assembly elections, two years after Balasaheb’s death, was the first that the Sena faced under Uddhav’s total command. Despite the success of the saffron alliance in the Lok Sabha elections a few months earlier, the BJP had broken its ties with the Sena. A determined Uddhav initiated ‘Mission 151’, asking the Sainiks to work hard to win the 151 assembly seats he had chosen. The mission failed, but Sena won 63 seats. It emerged as the second largest party after the BJP, which had 122 seats. The results were a clear sign that the Sena had begun flourishing under Uddhav’s leadership.

A Sena insider recalled an incident that happened after this victory. The party had decided to form the government with the BJP, and a celebration had been organised at Shiv Sena Bhavan. Uddhav came with his family and was immediately surrounded by party workers. As he was about to enter the building, an elderly Sainik who was trying to get closer to Uddhav accidentally stamped on a rangoli outside the gate. A relative of Uddhav began scolding the man, but Uddhav intervened and told him that he should never shout at Shiv Sainiks. “Have respect for their age and the work that they have put in for the party,” he said.

As chief minister, Uddhav has to shoulder greater responsibilities. “His strengths are his ability to take people along and being a silent administrator,” said Sayli Mankikar, senior fellow, Observer Research Foundation. “But several challenges lie ahead. He is not a seasoned politician, nor is he used to hard work. Being a chief minister will mean working 24x7. How he manages that with his health problems need to be seen. Also, as a leader of the party that led BMC for years, we have not seen any futuristic outlook or vision from him. He will need to become more outward-looking to achieve this.”

Uddhav’s pillar of support, both in politics and personal life, is his wife, Rashmi, and sons Aaditya and Tejas. The Thackerays belong to the Chandraseniya Kayastha Prabhu community, which is known for its love for non-vegetarian dishes. Uddhav was a foodie till his heart surgery in 2012; now his wife monitors his diet and personally oversees the preparation of food for the entire family.

Rashmi, who is known for her dress sense, is also particular about what Uddhav and their sons wear. She had asked Aaditya to first complete his education before entering politics. Aaditya graduated in history from St Xavier’s College and has also studied law.

Uddhav and Rashmi’s wedding anniversary falls on December 13. If all goes well, the Sena’s first family could celebrate the occasion in Varsha Bungalow, the official residence of Maharashtra chief minister. But then, with the kind of challenges he is facing, celebrating the anniversary might not be on the top of Uddhav’s mind.

According to author Prakash Akolkar, who tracked the rise of the Sena in his book Jai Maharashtra, Uddhav’s primary challenge is to ensure that the larger Sena family remains intact. “The BJP will not sit quiet after its humiliation,” he said. “It will be a very strong and aggressive opposition, with 105 legislators led by excellent leaders like Devendra Fadnavis. It will continue to try and poach legislators from all three [ruling] parties. So Uddhav will have to make sure that all his legislators remain loyal.”

Akolkar said Pawar could help Uddhav run the government to a large extent. “But how to conduct business in the state legislature, and how to make sure that the opposition does not get the upper hand—that Uddhav will have to manage,” he said. “The winter session of the legislature in December will be his first crucial test.”

Uddhav has to lead a government that will have veteran administrators in control. Prithviraj Chavan and Ashok Chavan of the Congress have been chief ministers, while Ajit Pawar and Chhagan Bhujbal of the NCP have been deputy chief ministers. One thing going for Uddhav is that Ajit Pawar, known for his bluntness, is unlikely to be part of the government, thanks to the political misadventure that saw him making and breaking ties with the BJP. Jayant Patil, who is likely to become deputy chief minister, is known to be soft-spoken. It will be easier for Uddhav to work with him than with Ajit or Bhujbal, a former Sena leader who became a bitter critic of Balasaheb.

While he may not have the oratorial skills his father had, Uddhav can bank on his abilities as an excellent organiser with a keen eye for detail. An expert in wildlife photography, he was so keen on making the recent Thackeray biopic that he visited the shoot several times with his wife. Uddhav would inspect the lighting and the camera angles, and discuss technicalities with the film’s cinematographer.

The premiere of Thackeray early this year was also the last time that the family went to the theatre together. Now, with Uddhav becoming the first Thackeray to hold the chief minister’s post, one thing seems certain: Being the glue that holds the unlikely alliance together will not be as enjoyable as going to the movies.



Farmer distress: Farm loan waiver and steps to increase farmers’ income

Infrastructure projects: Priority to infrastructure projects. Projects like the bullet train may not be priority

Unemployment: Focus on creating jobs across sectors

Public health: Improving public health will be priority; will examine whether a health check up at Rs10—as announced by Sena—is feasible

Free meal: Sena’s promise of a meal at 010 for the poor will be implemented

Minority welfare: Congress-NCP wants reservation in education and jobs for minorities; Shiv Sena’s stance unclear

Women and child welfare: Special attention to women and child welfare, and tackling malnourishment

*The final document of the common minimum programme of the Maha Vikas Aghadi government is not ready, yet (according to Nawab Malik, senior NCP leader)