On June 15, when Aaditya Thackeray visited Ayodhya with senior Shiv Sena leaders, he was sending a message to the BJP that his party had not abandoned the Hindutva plank. The visit was significant in more ways than one. It was not only an attempt to convince the party’s electorate that it is the sole custodian of the ideological legacy of Aaditya's grandfather, Shiv Sena founder Balasaheb Thackeray, but also to tell Raj Thackeray, the chief of the Maharashtra Navnirman Sena (MNS) and Aaditya’s uncle, that the Shiv Sena could match his repeated attempts to appropriate the party’s legacy.
Though Raj too was scheduled to visit Ayodhya on June 10, BJP’s opposition to the visit made him cancel it. Brij Bhushan Sharan Singh, a BJP MP from Kaiserganj in Uttar Pradesh, had not only opposed the visit but had also demanded a public apology from the MNS chief for humiliating North Indians in Maharashtra. Raj had also wanted to meet Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath, a request staunchly opposed by the BJP in that state. Given the politics of one-upmanship between the Shiv Sena and the MNS, it is an advantage of sorts for the former, said sources.
Uddhav – the chief minister of Maharashtra and the incumbent chief of the Shiv Sena – and Raj are cousins. Their fathers, Balasaheb and Srikant Thackeray were married to two sisters, thereby making it a tightly-knit alliance. The cousins grew up together and were close to each other. Uddhav, the elder of the two, was more inclined towards environmental and photographic pursuits, while his younger sibling travelled with Balasaheb, interacting with Shiv Sainiks and learning to navigate the by-lanes of politics. Like his uncle, Raj’s persona took on an aggressive edge, while Uddhav remained the soft-spoken man aloof from politics. As they grew up, both developed ambitions to sit on the chief minister’s gaddi. While Raj was open about it, Uddhav’s kept his ambition close to his heart. “He was never a reluctant politician. The only reason Uddhav never talked about it was probably that no one had asked him about it," said a senior leader of the Shiv Sena to Outlook.
The genesis of their feud can be traced to the post-1995 era when the party got its first chief minister in Maharashtra. Though Uddhav continued to remain the backseat political diplomat, those who visited Matoshree – the Thackeray residence in suburban Bandra in Mumbai – also interacted with Uddhav. Thus began Uddhav's initiation into politics and Raj’s isolation from the Shiv Sena’s daily functioning. Alongside Balasaheb, two more power centres – Uddhav and Raj – emerged. It reached such a point that Raj was either not invited, or stopped attending important meetings of the party. Aided by their individual friends in the media, the chasm widened and the battle for supremacy between the cousins was laid bare.
On January 30, 2003, Uddhav was chosen as the working president of the Shiv Sena at the party’s conclave in Mahabaleshwar. Although it was Raj who had proposed his cousin’s name as the working president, all was not well between them. Both had nurtured the ambition to head the saffron party. The decision was a huge setback for Raj – who had in the past headed the Bharatiya Vidyarthi Sena, the student’s wing of the party. He was more popular of the two, not only among the partymen, but also with the media and influencers. The cousins parted ways in 2006 becoming bitter political rivals from friendly co-workers.
Through the years, the bitterness has remained. In the renewed Thackeray versus Thackeray feud, Raj is looking to draw those Shiv Sainiks who are disillusioned with their party’s alliance with ideological opponents Congress Party and the NCP. The Shiv Sena is a part of the tripartite coalition in the Maha Vikas Aghadi government in Maharashtra. Raj is seeking to claim the Hindutva legacy of his uncle and has taken more aggressive posturing than in the past.
Just weeks ago, Raj forced his cousin – the chief minister - to a corner by issuing an ultimatum and a deadline to bring down loudspeakers from all mosques in Maharashtra and to issue a ban on them from relaying prayers through the public address system. Even as Uddhav was huddled with his cabinet, seeking a middle path through the tricky issue, the MNS put up banners at prominent places, including in front of the Shiv Sena’s headquarters in Dadar, pitching Raj as the only stakeholder to Balasaheb’s Hindutva legacy. In retaliation, the Shiv Sena too jumped on the poster bandwagon, putting up hoardings that said, “Hindu Hruday Samrat Balasaheb Thackeray, ya sam dusre hone nahi (there can't be another like Balasaheb Thackeray, the Hindu king of hearts)."
Raj bears a close resemblance to his uncle in looks, oratory and aggression. Recently, the nephew has started draping a saffron shawl around his shoulders, imitating his uncle.
Though the cousins have visited each other during family emergencies such as the death of Balasaheb, Uddhav’s hospital stay during an angioplasty, or when Raj’s daughter Urvashi was admitted to the hospital with a fractured foot in 2014, the bitterness has grown manifold since Uddhav took over as the chief minister in 2019.
The lookalike nephew is perceived by many as a political failure, a man who spews anger and rages at everyone without achieving much. Though Raj has Bal Thackeray’s baritone and oratory skills, the similarity ends there, say others. “Their feud will not affect Maharashtra much. It will only affect their individual political parties,” says a former Congress Party chief minister to Outlook. “Both, of them have to stay relevant. As chief minister, Uddhavji’s performance is closely watched by everyone. He has to take along everyone, but Raj has no such compulsions. He is fomenting hatred,” he adds.
In recent months, Raj has found a scathing critic in Sharad Pawar, the NCP chief and mentor of the MVA government. In an interaction with the media in Kolhapur this April, Pawar called Raj “a vanishing political entity who appears once in 3-4 months”. Pawar also told the media that the NCP chief stayed underground for three to four months and would suddenly spring to life and then lecture everyone. Drawing attention to the electoral performance of the MNS, Pawar had said that the party was not in sync with the public and the voting percentage indicated that.
Writer Dhaval Kulkarni in his book The Cousins Thackeray: Uddhav, Raj and the Shadow of Their Senas, has looked closely at the relationship between Uddhav and Raj, and the unease that crept into it in the later years. In his book, Kulkarni mentions that while Raj was being pitched as Bal Thackeray’s successor, Uddhav was gradually working on himself. “Those who are familiar with the elder Thackeray (Uddhav) noted that despite his underrated style, Uddhav was a persistent learner”. According to the book, a friend of Raj narrated an interesting anecdote. In 1997, Raj and his friend started playing badminton at the Dadar Club, as the former was keen on learning the sport. Uddhav too joined them at the sport. One day during the game, Uddhav fell down. Raj and his friend laughed at Uddhav. From that next day, Uddhav stopped coming to play with the duo. He enrolled for badminton lessons at the Bandra MIG Club – which was close to the Thackeray residence Matoshree – and soon mastered the game.
A Shiv Sena leader referred to Uddhav as “work in progress”, saying that he continuously updated himself. “When he became the chief minister, Uddhav was called a greenhorn in administration. Look at the way he as shaped up. He is a continuous learner and never shies away from asking what he does not know about. Raj too is curious, but he is lazy. He loves a good life. If he worked hard, he would have done well for yourself,” said the leader.
Many of those who know the cousins closely, told Outlook that Uddhav was never a “reluctant politician”, and that he had always nursed the ambition to sit on the chief minister’s gaddi. They also say that Raj’s over-confidence that he was the natural successor to Bal Thackeray’s political legacy and his complacency was his undoing. During a conclave of the Shiv Sena at the Rambhau Mhalgi Prabhodhini, in Utan, to the north of Mumbai, a former Shiv Sena chief minister who has since quit the party, reportedly prompted a journalist to ask Uddhav about his chief ministerial ambitions. Uddhav had then in a first revealed that he would definitely love to be the chief minister if given a chance.
When Raj set out to establish the Maharashtra Navnirman Sena in 2006, it was his charisma that was the lure. Shiv Sainiks quit the party and crossed over to the MNS due to the pull of the charisma, said sources. However, in the past decade, the same charisma waned for his supporters as he was unable to walk the talk. Like the Shiv Sena’s traditional Dussehra rally started by Bal Thackeray to spell out the party’s agenda for the new year, Raj started the practice of the MNS’s Gudi Padwa rally. However, when the MNS activists realised that their chief was low on political deliverables, disillusionment set in, and a reverse movement to the Shiv Sena has now begun.
The fact that even the Marathi Manoos plank could not win him votes was a shocker to Raj, who had banked on the issue to get an edge over the Shiv Sena. Both Uddhav and Raj lack the political acumen and the people connect that Balasaheb Thackeray had. Though he was Mumbai-based, he had moved out of the city limits and understood the finer points of politics in the rural areas where caste played a dominant role. The permutations and combinations of caste politics are lost on both the cousins, who have a more cosmopolitan outlook. They are intimidated by the political and caste mobilisation of the rural areas, said sources.
Everyone this correspondent spoke with agreed the cousins are poles apart. Though it was initially Raj who was a crowd-puller, ever since he wore the CM’s hat, Uddhav’s rallies too have seen a sizeable presence. While the former is abrasive to the point of rudeness and seems to be always screaming at rallies, party functions etc., Uddhav comes across as a silent, soft-spoken man, says a political analyst. He is considered to be a strategist, a boardroom man, and a planner who speaks a more inclusive language. “Uddhav is friendly, yet he holds back and does not open up completely. He has close friends, but no one outside that circle knows who they are,” said a source who is friendly to both the cousins.
Their personalities differ probably due to their differing entry points in politics. While Raj was a part of the Shiv Sena’s student politics brigade, which saw violence in the past, Uddhav stepped into politics via the party mouthpiece Saamna, where he was closely involved in the editorial process of the newspaper. Hence, Raj gradually imbibed Balasaheb’s behavioural style as his USP, fitting in with the stereotype of a Shiv Sainik, Uddhav was more protected. While Raj has the shrewdness of a street fighter, Uddhav is more of a political diplomat.
Despite their aggressive batting for the Marathi language, their children are educated in exclusive English medium schools run by Jesuits. While Raj’s plans continue to remain in the blueprint stage, Uddhav, aided by his son Aaditya – Maharashtra minister for Environment and Forests – has been able to translate much of his plans into action. Aaditya has embarked on an ambitious plan to bring in an ICSE and IB curriculum into the schools run by the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC). This is being implemented in the civic schools in Mumbai as a pilot project and will be taken to the other parts of the state, depending on the success of the project.
Both suffer from an inherent distrust of influential leaders with a mass base within their parties. Predictably, they have been unable to hold on to these leaders over the fear that they will be eclipsed. Both rely on advisors who are family or those connected to their families but with no mass base. The interference in the party’s internal affairs has seen an exodus of influential leaders from both the Shiv Sena and the MNS. Though in the past, Uddhav’s public oratory was written off in comparison to his cousin's, in the months since he has taken over as the state’s CM, there has been a marked improvement in his oratory skills. Interestingly, Uddhav is popular with women voters, particularly homemakers. Speaking to Outlook, homemaker Sharmila Chavan says, “He speaks the truth. There is no hype attached to him. If he does not know something, he tells the public he will find out more about it. During the Covid-19 lockdown when he would address the people on a regular basis, we felt assured. He is like one of us." Ditto is the sentiment expressed by Bhanu Jain, a solicitor at a private firm. “Raj Thackeray is shrill. Uddhav is a gentleman. He is not a show-off,” said Bhanu to Outlook.
Both suffer from another personality fault – they never forget a slight or a hurt. According to a source, some time ago, a senior Shiv Sena leader who had quit the party criticising Uddhav’s leadership, wanted to return to the party, he was asked to meet the latter for one-to-one interaction. At the appointed hour, this leader arrived for the meeting at the pre-decided place. He waited for quite some time only to be told that Uddhav was unable to meet him. The leader left fuming but he had understood the message. According to Kulkarni, Uddhav will never insult someone if he is angry, but he will put down that person in a cloaked, yet venal manner, which is worse. A former member of Parliament of the Shiv Sena described Uddhav as someone who is a good listener and a “quiet manipulator”. In comparison, Raj has a shorter attention span, considered to be one of his biggest failings.
They have their similarities too – both are inaccessible and block access to people who fall out of favour with them.
Over the years, in the political arena, Raj has emerged more confused than before. Today, he is a caricature of what he was when he had begun, as he got side-tracked. In 2009, when MNS contested its first assembly polls, Raj rode on the people’s hope, faith and trust. The party won 13 seats, a feat which took the Shiv Sena 20 years to achieve. In 2012, when the MNS won 27 seats in the BMC civic polls it looked like ratification of that faith, hope and trust reposed by the people in Raj’s ability to lead. Today, the MNS has one seat each in the Maharashtra Legislative Assembly and the BMC.
For a man who rode a gigantic wave, his decline too has been as sharp as his rise, as indicated by the political barometer. Today, he is a political pariah – a party sans friends or coalitions.
Interestingly, in 2016 as his political decline continued, he decided to change the direction of his party symbol – the Steam Engine. Since the birth of his party this Steam Engine had faced a left-to-right direction. However, it was given a new direction – right to left – in 2014 after the Lok Sabha pols where his party lost all the 11 seats they had contested. In 2017, Raj wrote to the Election Commission, seeking another directional change for the steam engine – he wanted it back to the original left to right direction. Despite this, the political decline could not be stemmed.
The battle lines are already drawn as the cash-rich BMC is slated for polls later this year. It will be tough for both as they will be battling for supremacy over a legacy.