When it comes to the Shiv Sena, Bal Thackeray is like a patriarch in retreat. From his headquarters at Matoshree, he can only survey the damage being caused by a family war that continues to rage silently. If the second-generation 'army of Shiva' ever runs aground, he can blame the protracted tussle between the rising son, who got the cake courtesy papa, and a nephew whose isolation is near-total.
"When it comes to the party, my father relates to me as the Shiv Sena chief, but at home we're father and son. It's the same for Raj and me," wrote Sena's new executive president Uddhav Thackeray in the party mouthpiece, Saamna.
It's been a month since Thackeray's low-profile son inherited the second-in-command's mantle, but the 'Raj Thackeray question' keeps popping up. At every press briefing, Uddhav is asked about the strained relationship with his spitfire cousin—who the rank and file have long considered Thackeray's heir. Now Uddhav has used Saamna to rub in the truth: when it comes to the party, Raj must learn to heed him.
So, is it end of the road for Raj? That Thackeray was going to pass the baton to his 42-year-old son has been known for a while, but Raj's ultimate humiliation came at the party's Mahabaleshwar conclave where he was made to propose Uddhav's name for the post. Since then, Raj has been shunning the media and has hardly been seen in public. He, according to his friends, is aware that any kind of protest will backfire. "Balasaheb is the final authority and Raj can't strike out on his own, that is, if he takes on his uncle," says a Sena MLA.
Raj is out in the cold, but dismissing him completely could be politically naive, say insiders. They point out that the real impact of the Uddhav-Raj power struggle can only be tested when Thackeray is no longer around to shield his son. Says a Raj supporter: "The future of the Sena depends on how Uddhav deals with Raj."
Ever since he took over, Uddhav has not invited Raj for the party's inner-circle meetings. Sena watchers fear that if Raj is pushed to a corner, he could well split the party in a post-Thackeray scenario. And with Uddhav's chief ministerial ambitions coming to the fore, aspirants like Narayan Rane—who has a strong base in the Konkan region and has always been close to Raj—may throw their weight behind him. It's also a fact that the average sainik strongly identifies with Raj, who has modelled himself on his uncle and even bears an uncanny resemblance with him. "Finally, the test of a leader is his popularity. Raj has a magical linkage with the Sena constituency. Besides, Uddhav is not a charismatic orator or organiser," says a Sena veteran.
Raj's men have also formed a formidable parallel front, which Uddhav can't afford to ignore. Over the past five years, when his ambitions crystallised, Uddhav deliberately posted his own men in many party posts. Raj was effectively sidelined, his supporters were refused party posts and election tickets. But he retaliated by using his followers from the student wing, which he heads, to challenge the party hierarchy. Says a Sena insider: "For every district chief in the Sena, there is a parallel chief in the Vidyarthi Sena. It's virtually like a parallel organisation and is fiercely loyal to Raj."
Besides, Thackeray's nephew has done more years than his cousin in politics—he entered the arena five years before a reluctant Uddhav made his debut in the early '90s. Since then, Raj has progressively
fallen from grace and reports of his involvement in the infamous Ramesh Kini murder case proved to be a great setback. By the mid-'90s, the feud between the cousins became an open secret and the senior Thackeray had to broker peace on more than one occasion. But Thackeray's fondness for his son became much too transparent.By 1997, Uddhav took control; he started denying election tickets to Raj's nominees. Last year, when Uddhav refused to consult his cousin ahead of the bmc polls, an anguished Raj went public about the "malicious politics" that has penetrated the party.
Popular though he may be, Raj's supporters fear that he will lose the power game if he doesn't act quickly. Several fence-sitters have thrown in their lot with the son who now holds the top post. Raj has virtually been on political sanyas since last year. He rarely attends party meetings and rallies. Says a friend: "Raj is deeply attached to Balasaheb and he has responded emotionally; but he should remember that public memory is short. If he stays away from his support base, they will not remain with him."
As a shrewd and calm tactician, Uddhav may yet hit the winning runs. As a cricket-loving Mumbai sainik puts it, "Raj is a natural hitter like Tendulkar. Uddhav is a Ganguly who may or may not perform. But Raj should act fast, or else, he might end up as an ill-fated Vinod Kambli who got his chance but squandered it. It's like getting run out on a no-ball in the death overs."
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