April 05, 2020
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Succession Squabble

The Sena’s woes intensify as the feud between the Thackeray cousins comes to the fore

Succession Squabble
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IT’S been a star-crossed week for the Shiv Sena. Even as party chief Bal Tha-ckeray was accepting gifts from supporters on Guru Purnima day, his moon stood eclipsed with a delayed decision to bar him from contesting or voting till 2001, a six-year disenfranchisement made effective from ’95. This came close on the heels of the feud that had broken out between the two successors to the Sena throne, his son Uddhav and nephew Raj.

"I pity such democracy," said Thackeray of his disenfranchisement, and in typical fashion attempted to turn adversity into an advantage. "The people will vote for us en masse in a backlash against my victimisation." Thackeray, however, seems to be a victim of his own circumstances, having brought on, willy nilly, the series of misfortunes plaguing the party. The latest of these, one he could have done without on election eve, is the surfacing of the bitter rivalry between the two Thackeray cousins. The differences were there ever since the Sena-BJP alliance came to power in Maharashtra in 1995. But it was kept a party secret.

Things came to a head on July 23, and it was made clear to everyone that all was not well between the two. At Sena Bhavan, a crowd of Raj Thackeray’s supporters beat up the Sena general secretary, Subhash Desai, said to be close to Uddhav. Raj’s supporters were expressing their displeasure at being sidelined by the party. The incident was widely reported and Thackeray called for a rapprochement the following day. For the record, the cousins patched up. But Raj’s supporters willingly talk about how their leader has been systematically sidelined.

According to insiders, the process of cutting Raj Thackeray to size was set into motion long before Uddhav even emerged on the scene. In fact, Uddhav was always seen as a force in the Sena because many party workers and leaders were displeased with Raj’s flamboyant style of functioning. He dressed like his uncle, cultivated his mannerisms and pushed himself as the next heir. Not everyone was impressed by this projection which might have worked if Thacke-ray’s son had done it.

Even before Raj’s alleged involvement in the infamous Ramesh Kini murder, when even his uncle began to see him as a liability, senior Sena leaders (who were trying to give the party a less goon-like and more people-friendly image), saw Raj and his ways as militating against their bid to keep the Sena in power and project it as a responsible party. So they got him out of their hair by packing him off on the campaign trail. In successive elections, Raj was encouraged to channelise his energies into less political and more ‘creative’ pursuits. "He loves music, so we set him to produce our campaign cassettes and videos. He was effectively kept out of the real action," chuckles a senior Sena leader. Raj fell for the trick, particularly since he loves hitting the road: "I love campaigning. I never want to give it up." He even came to believe that he was chiefly responsible for the party’s gains in the state. But, while Raj was ‘away’ Uddhav was being set up by Sena leaders as their conduit to Thackeray. His physical proximity to Thack-eray—both live in the same residence—helped. So did his perceived humility and deference to party elders. By contrast, Sena leaders found Raj rude and arrogant (qualities acceptable in Thackeray but not in someone 30 years younger). As the Sena’s stakes in the power game grew with each poll victory, so did Uddhav’s importance.

It took time for Raj to realise he was being sidelined. He found his supporters were being denied tickets as well as the fruits of power in the form of plum posts in corporations. He also discovered that he was almost never welcome at Matoshree. Even his calls were not passed on to Thackeray, blocked largely by the secretarial staff of other Matoshree residents—Uddhav and Thacke-ray’s powerful daughter-in-law Smita (not Uddhav’s wife). However, he swallowed his pride and did not complain of his isolation in the family as well as in the party.

So, last fortnight, when he wasn’t invited to the Sena’s pre-poll brainstorming sessions, the pent-up frustration spilled out into the open. And Raj reacted in precisely the manner that his uncle might once have. He sent his supporters to the party headquarters on July 23 to "bash up’’ those leaders he felt stood between him and power within the party. The soft-spoken, mild-mannered Desai was made the scapegoat for the junior Thackeray’s troubles. For the first time Sainiks, old timers as well as the new blood, got a taste of their own medicine.

NO surprise therefore, that Thackeray reacted swiftly and summoned Raj to Matoshree the following day: his first meeting with the Sena chief in months. ‘All’s well that ends well’ was the message as Raj, Uddhav and other Sena leaders smiled into the photographers’ cameras. But the act wasn’t convincing enough. Few believed Raj’s reiteration that there were no differences with Uddhav ("We’re not contesting elections, so there’s no power struggle here’’), and that the rift between them was media-generated. Incidentally, Raj had been complaining to close friends in the media for well over a year about how he was being sidelined in the very party he helped build. Uddhav was a little better at the convincing act: "We’ll give up power but we won’t allow our relationship to be destroyed for petty political gains." A few days later, on July 27, though, he was setting up his own roadshow, displaying his muscle with a gathering of his supporters at Matoshree—in celebration of his 40th birthday. In this first ever show of strength organised for the Tha-ckeray scion, Raj significantly was absent.

The undercurrents of rivalry between the two continue and this worries the same Sena leaders who set out to clip Raj’s wings. For apart from Thackeray’s waning charisma, an anti-incumbency factor and their leader’s disenfranchisement, the differences between the cousins and the public display of rancour has only added to the Sena’s woes. For one, it has opened up factions in a so-far monolithic party, with Raj’s supporters forming the rebel group. Also the inevitable discontentment over the distribution of tickets is likely to compel the supporters of the two young Thackerays to work at cross-purposes. Moreover, private dissatisfaction persists despite the public rapprochement brought about by Thackeray. Raj, although since invited to a policy meeting, continues to be in charge of the Vidarbha and Western Maharashtra regions, areas where the Sena has little presence and is likely to lose by enormous margins. Uddhav, on the contrary, has been put in charge of Marat-hwada and Konkan where the party will fare better.

"This is clearly a move designed to declare Uddhav as Thackeray’s heir," says a disgruntled worker. "Uddhav will get the bouquets for easy victories, Raj the brickbats for defeats." Perhaps. But what also worries Raj’s supporters is that he’s too much of a Thack-eray clone with limited oratory skills. Besides, he‘s now on the defensive, carrying as he does the baggage of the Kini murder and the failure of the youth employment scheme of which he had exclusive charge. Uddhav, for his part, has kept his hands untainted and evolved a style all his own, a sharp relief from Thackeray’s abrasive style of functioning.

As the Thackeray clan untangles the knots it’s tied itself into, the mood at Matoshree is sombre: evinced from Thackeray’s low key reaction to his disenfranchisement. He will not appeal. He will not be critical of the Supreme Court. The Sena chief is conscious of the fact that there’s a clamour from the opposition to deny him the right to campaign as well. In any case, it could be a vacuous campaign devoid of the hope of ’95. With no achievements in governance to trumpet and crippled by a succession war, many in the Sena are thinking that after their season in the sun there could be a long cold winter in the Opposition.

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