Some years ago, when Union minister Nitin Gadkari was president of the Maharashtra unit of the BJP and attending a private dinner in his honour at a party worker’s residence, he received a call from Uddhav Thackeray, then just the working president of the Shiv Sena. An important election was coming up and Uddhav wanted to discuss seat distribution between the two parties. After putting him off with some polite noises, Gadkari turned round to curl his nose at people surrounding him—I among them—and say, “At this hour!? I tell you, this man has no political sense. Balasaheb ke baad, yeh party ko dooba dega (After Balasaheb, this man will ruin the party)!” I could not make the connection between political acumen and wanting to discuss fractious issues at dinner time. But it was obvious that BJP leaders had always taken Uddhav for granted and thought little of his ability to lead the Shiv Sena in his father’s stead. Now, after much water has flown under the bridge, it is very apparent that they severely underestimated Bal Thackeray’s son and political heir. He is still standing on his feet, running rings around them and far from writing his political obituary, they have had to go to him with a begging bowl, from their relative position of strength as against Bal Thackeray’s time, on more than one occasion.
Several BJP leaders from both Maharashtra and New Delhi, both past and present, had got used to the Sena founder’s tantrums which always worked to a script. Thackeray would get miffed at a perceived slight. He would either publicly abuse the BJP leaders, including those of the stature of L.K. Advani and late Atal Bihari Vajpayee, in the foulest terms or threaten to break off the alliance. They would ignore the abuse and hotfoot it to Matoshree, the famous Thackeray residence. They would be made to cool their heels in his parlour for hours or even a few days before Thackeray relented and granted them an audience—at a price. They would return having conceded a couple of coveted seats in the assembly or Lok Sabha to the Shiv Sena or even a plum ministry or two. Thackeray was the Big Brother in Maharashtra and leaders of Advani’s genre who were desperately trying to put together a government at the Centre could not afford to lose such a valuable ally, the only one who did not shy away from their sharp Hindutva rhetoric.
However, even then, younger leaders like Gadkari and the late Gopinath Munde wanted to break the alliance with the Shiv Sena, for they believed that that partnership was preventing the BJP from growing and putting down its own roots in Maharashtra. But so long as Bal Thackeray was alive, they were afraid his charisma would be difficult to combat and waited until he faded away.
When Narendra Modi emerged on the horizon, BJP leaders discovered that he was everything Bal Thackeray was—a charismatic demagogue, with a turn of phrase that hypnotised the youth—on a larger scale and thought they would not need the Shiv Sena anymore. Uddhav was the shy pussycat to his father’s roaring tiger and local BJP leaders only had contempt for his perceived lack of political acumen. After the 2014 Lok Sabha polls, they left it deliberately late to break their quarter-century-old tie with the Shiv Sena, hoping to leave the party in disarray. But with twelve stents in his heart and just 15 days to find candidates across Maharashtra and campaign solo—his son Aaditya Thackeray had not yet come of political age (he was 24)—Uddhav stunned both his own party men and the BJP by winning 63 seats in the assembly, more than the Congress and NCP numbers, and slightly over half the seats (122) won by the BJP in a house of 288. It was a better showing than his father’s—Thackeray never managed to win more than one or two seats at a time while going solo, it is only in alliance with the BJP that he could make it to double digits.
Despite the untarnished charisma of Modi at the time, the BJP found itself in a minority government and had to seek the Shiv Sena’s support in forming the government again. Given the circumstances of their reunion, it was not an easy alliance for the BJP through the five years. But their uncertainty about their 2019 victory at the start of the poll process this summer had BJP president Amit Shah threatening, cajoling, scolding and even begging the Sena to return to the fold. And though the Shiv Sena did really with the BJP, the renewed tie seems to have become the source of all troubles for the party in Maharashtra.
If the late Pramod Mahajan and Advani were in awe of Thackeray’s connect with the masses and had a manner of persuading him round to their point of view, the current party leadership including Gadkari, Devendra Fadnavis and Shah have taken Uddhav’s lack of charisma for granted and dealt him an iron hand from time to time. Most of the times, he meekly accepted—like the dud heavy industries ministry in New Delhi year after year (from which his minister has now resigned) or less than half the seats he had wanted in the Maharashtra assembly.
But they forgot that over the past five years he had perfected the art of eating his cake and having it too—the Shiv Sena was part of the government both in Maharashtra and at the Centre and yet Uddhav behaved as though he was the opposition leader. No other ally of any government, NDA or UPA, has had the gumption to do so. He was not just critical of policies, but at times even picked on the Modi-Shah duo and got away with it because the BJP could not really afford to break ties with its sole saffron ally in the country or alienate the Maharashtrian vote, particularly in Mumbai.
But even if Hindutva and the Ram temple were the only issues binding them together of late—leaders of the BJP have been emphasising on that as a compelling argument to bring the Sena back on board—the differences now are many. Uddhav may have focussed more on Hindutva in recent years and, unlike his father, who had called for a secular structure like a school or hospital for the poor at the disputed site in Ayodhya, has always wanted a Ram temple in place of the demolished Babri Masjid. But now that the Supreme Court has made that possible—no credit to the BJP, he says, for they did not have the guts to pass a law on their own to build the temple—Uddhav knows elections cannot be won merely on a temple issue. His lack of charisma or demagoguery masks a deeper understanding of the challenges faced by his party and, again, unlike his father who was content with an army of lumpen elements ready to flood the streets with their muscle and brawn at a moment’s notice, Uddhav understands the need to move the Shiv Sena several notches higher to encompass the aspirational Maharashtrian youth who had in recent years been moving away from the party, attracted by Modi’s rhetoric or even other political parties that offered them schemes and opportunities to explore a future beyond the shakhas of the Shiv Sena.
For this, Uddhav understands, as his father never did, he needs control of the government and its machinery. Former chief minister Devendra Fadnavis is particularly to be blamed for not being able to comprehend this aspiration of the Sena president. He reckoned without Uddhav’s courage, again unlike his father, to take risks and go out on a limb to achieve his goals. Uddhav is not willing to ride piggyback on the BJP any more or be satisfied with just a crumb or two—he knows he could be shaken off anytime and must pave his own way to his goal. But no one would have believed he would risk his all and go for broke in the manner he has over government formation in Maharashtra, insisting on all or nothing.
Uddhav is clearly punching above his weight. But if he pulls off the coup, he will go down in history as the man who, well, turned the tide of history. If not? The consequences of failure could be enormous. The BJP would cannibalise the Shiv Sena, and Uddhav risks Nitin Gadkari’s prophecy coming true all these years later.
(The writer is a senior journalist and author. Her columns and political analyses appear on several media platforms across the country.)