Can there be a Shiv Sena without the Thackerays? Ever since Eknath Shinde, the powerful mass leader from Thane and ex-minister in the Maha Vikas Aghadi government, rebelled against the leadership of Uddhav Thackeray, a question is being asked about Shinde being the next party chief. With over 35 of the Shiv Sena’s MLAs extending support to Shinde, there could be a vertical split in the party founded by Uddhav’s father Balasaheb Thackeray. But while the rebel Sainiks succeeded in their coup, it is imperative to note that both Uddhav and Shinde have laid claim to Balasaheb’s legacy. They seek legitimacy only through the supreme leader who died several years ago, but his name still dominates the party. Precisely therefore, while Uddhav might have exited, it is still unlikely that scores of Shiv Sainiks in Maharashtra would soon bow in obeisance to Shinde.
The party, then, still appears to be of the Thackerays.
In the 56-year-old history of the party, the word of Bal Thackeray and now Uddhav, had been the last word. People watched in awe as the biggest names in India queued up for an audience with Balasaheb. During the peak of the Shiv Sena’s agitational politics it was said that if Balasaheb sneezed in Matoshree – the residence of the Thackerays in suburban Bandra – Mumbai caught a cold. When he anointed Uddhav as the party chief, Balasaheb had ensured that there was no competition to challenge his son. He had probably never thought that the soft-spoken bearded man, who had always stood in the second rung of leaders in the party, would challenge his son. And the party he built with the help of committed Shiv Sainiks would be staring at an existential crisis.
The Shiv Sena still needs the Thackerays as much as the family needs the party. The power of the Shiv Sena is the Thackerays, it is their name that elicits interest and responses from across the divide. Even those MLAs who have rebelled and migrated to the Shinde camp are well aware that to win any elections they will need the Thackeray name as a prop. Without it there will be no identity for the Shiv Sena. Uddhav may not have his father’s baritone or oratory skills, but he carries a certain aura associated with the Thackerays. The difference between Balasaheb and Uddhav is that while the former wanted to be the kingmaker and not the king, the latter was enamoured by the crown. While Balasaheb ensured that it was the chief ministers he nominated, be it Manohar Joshi or Narayan Rane, who wore the crown of thorn on their heads, in Uddhav’s case the thorny crown became his constant companion since the day he consented to sit on the chief minister’s gaddi.
It was for a reason that Balasaheb was not keen on the Thackerays entering electoral politics. That way they would be saved from electoral defeats, because for Balasaheb defeats meant a loss of the invincibility associated with the Thackerays. Now, Shinde has directly challenged the invincibility which Balasaheb had carefully constructed more through perception than action.
Days before his death Balasaheb had appealed to his followers to stand by and support his son Uddhav and his grandson Aaditya. In a recorded message at a Vijayadashmi rally, a frail Balasaheb had asked the Shiv Sainiks to support Uddhav and Aaditya the way they had stood by him.
Though in recent years Uddhav has been disconnected from the party’s shakhas, for the Shiv Sainiks he is still their chief, the son of the ideological deity. Therefore, dislodging the Thackerays from the exalted position they hold will be difficult for Shinde.
Uddhav’s inclusionary politics has found many takers not only in Maharashtra but across the country – the recent case in point being one of the top businessmen in the country seeking an audience with Uddhav to set up a mega project in Maharashtra.
Shinde needs to hang on to the Thackeray name and legacy if he has to stay relevant in Maharashtra’s politics. Without this, he may not be able to hold on to the political stature the Shiv Sena has given him, say political observers.
Shinde’s is the fourth rebellion in the Shiv Sena after Chhagan Bhujbal, Raj Thackeray and Narayan Rane. The damage by the present revolt is already several times more than the previous ones combined though.