SHIV Sena chief Bal Thackeray is unpredictable and his reactions are often volcanic. But when he chose to erupt and attack Chief Minister Manohar Joshi in his much publicised interviews to Saamna, the Sena mouthpiece, it caught partymen unawares. The timing was what was most intriguing. Thackeray's broadside against Joshi on two consecutive days came on the eve of the state budget, just when the Congress was gearing up to take on the Joshi government.
Thackeray's outburst is being variously described. At one level it is seen as a manifestation of the frustration that has crept into the party following its drubbing in the elections. A section of the party believes that it was poor governance and corruption in high places which led to the rout. And that once the party began looking for a villain, Joshi was seen as a convenient fall guy. While Thackeray succeeded in camouflaging the larger failure of his party, he has brought to the fore the divide in the Sena and the growing suspicion that there is corruption in high places. It has also exposed the ill will for Joshi from within his party.
According to insiders, Thackeray and his family have long resented Joshi's smart business sense. Alleges a party leader: "His (Manohar Joshi's) son Unmesh is in charge of the Mumbai area. Nasik and Pune have been divided between his sons-in-law. Joshi is a businessman first, then a politician; he eyes a plot and knows its value. Unlike the Thackerays, he doesn't take the money directly—everything is done through various outfits which act as fronts. Joshi and his son have also successfully spread allegations of corruption involving the Thackeray family." Unmesh Joshi, unlike the young Thackerays, Raj and Udhav, keeps a very low profile and has only recently found mention in the news.
Though unhappy with Joshi, Thackeray finally retracted his charge against the chief minister in the larger interests of the party. But he also seems to have decided to remote-control the government even more closely than before. According to insiders, the Sena chief's outburst is "a reaction to pressure from a section of the party" and his "own method of putting pressure on Joshi". A week before his outburst, Thackeray had indicated that he was going to make a move. "I will be doing something. There will be changes. I have some people in mind," Thackeray had told Outlook. For the kind of man he is, this display of rage was characteristic. But what's surprising is he had trained his guns on his own partymen. His ire also obviously reflected the anger among the cadre and the growing distance between the lower rungs of the Sena and the decision-makers.
For those wishing to take on the Sena, Thackeray has provided sufficient ammunition. Here is what the Sena chief told Saamna: "If Joshi has pro-Pawar leanings he will have to pay a heavy price for it. I will not spare anyone. Some of those who had paid lakhs of rupees and found that their work had not been done are in despair and approached me. Someone is collecting lakhs of rupees in the name of the chief minister, in some cases up to Rs 40 lakhs... this may cost the chief minister dear." Thackeray even named businessman Raj Dadarkar as one of those collecting funds for Joshi.
According to government sources, Thac-keray's checklist against Joshi includes a complaint by a textile tycoon that a considerable amount of money had changed hands before the sale of a mill's surplus land was cleared. The sale of mill land is in itself a highly sensitive issue and is vigorously opposed by mill workers' unions.
In his interview, Thackeray castigated the government, its functioning and also announced that he was distancing himself from politics. This left the door open for the Opposition to sink Joshi, his son Unmesh, friends and associates in a heap of money-grabbing charges. It also was a green signal for angry Sainiks to take on the chief minister, his cabinet and senior party leaders. A volatile crowd gathered outside Thackeray's residence, Matoshree, on March 22 and roughed up ministers, journalists and showered insults on Sena leaders.
EVER since the poll debacle, a reaction was expected from Thackeray. The Sena could only manage six of Maharashtra's 48 Lok Sabha seats. This has considerably reduced the party's bargaining powers in Delhi. Thackeray articulated his disappointment to the crowd which had gathered outside his house: "I am pained. People with seven and 15 MPs are dominating the government. Last time we won 15. We could at least have had a say if we had won 10 seats."
Joshi reacted with his own brand of histrionics. Fuelling speculation that he would resign, the chief minister drove to the Raj Bhavan. Later in the evening, he called on Thackeray and a truce was called.
But all is not well in the Sena. The lower rung Sainiks say they are alienated. The feeling that some ministers and leaders have no time for party workers and that the leadership spends its time amassing money still persists. In fact, this is what encouraged a small but influential section in the party's leadership to try and push for a change of chief minister and a restructuring of the cabinet. Also, they seek changes in the core group of 12 leaders who form the second-in-command after Thackeray, his son and nephew. Predicts a Sena leader pressing for change: "You will see things happening by the end of April. This is what the partymen want."
Following his sabrerattling interview, Thackeray is on course to restructure the party organisation. A shakeout seems to be on the cards. Ministers, heads of state-run corporations and shakha pramukhs will have to step aside as the party goes in for a facelift. The day after his Saamna interview, a number of heads of state corporations and leaders at different levels submitted their resignations to Thackeray. But the Sena chief will go by his own assessment. Says senior leader Subhash Desai: "Changes will be made whether someone has sent his resignation or not." He describes Thackeray's outburst as a "timely shock" for the party.
But what is the Sena chief's strategy? Explains a BJP legislator: "There is a method in his (Thackeray's) madness. This is an old tactic—attacking the government or the CM even though everyone knows it is Balasaheb who is running the show. The message is, those are the bad guys and me and my family are the good guys and are not a part of all that is happening." Thackeray's tactic is also a sledge-hammer way of countering Joshi's subtle method of deflecting both blame and corruption charges towards Matoshree and his party chief's family. "If everything goes well he's going to be there... I am happy (with the government's performance) but as far as people around are concerned, he has to be careful," said Thackeray, reinstating Joshi.
But all that can't shut the can of worms. Thackeray's earlier outburst only reinforced the noisy allegations that opposition leader Chhagan Bhujbal has been making against Sena leaders. "Money, money, money. It's all about money. The Thackeray family is jealous that Joshi and his family are making a lot more money," says Bhujbal who has his own Joshi corruption checklist. Among other things, Bhujbal alleges that schools in the Dadar area have been converted into commercial establishments to please Joshi's business associates, Dadarkar, Madhu Kokarne and Shantilal Maru. Joshi, of course, denies the charges.
Whether Thackeray will finally ease out Joshi remains to be seen. There is some talk in the Sena that the chief may want to push a family member—maybe Uddhav—to the top slot. But mere changes at the top may not be enough. The Sainiks are a disillusioned and defeated lot today. The party needs to energised at the shakha level if the Sena is to hold its own.