Friday, Mar 24, 2023

War Of The Poses: Hindutva, Marathi Manoos And The Legacy Of Bal Thackeray


War Of The Poses: Hindutva, Marathi Manoos And The Legacy Of Bal Thackeray

Raj and Uddhav Thackeray have been hostile to each other for decades, but slowly, the Maharashtra CM appears to be pulling away from his mercurial cousin in public esteem

The founder: Bal Thackeray funeral procession Photo: Amit Haralkar

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. Not only was it an attempt to convince its vote bank that Shiv Sena remains the sole custodian of the legacy of Aad­itya’s grandfather, founder Balasaheb Thackeray, but also to tell Aad­itya’s uncle Raj Thack­eray, the chief of the Maharashtra Navnirman Sena (MNS) that the Shiv Sena could match his attempts to appropriate the party’s legacy.

Though Raj too was scheduled to visit Ayodhya on June 10, the BJP’s opposition to it 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 turned down by the sta­te BJP unit. Given the politics of one-upmanship bet­ween the Shiv Sena and the MNS, it is an adv­antage of sorts for the former, said sources.

Maharashtra CM Uddhav, the incumbent Shiv Sena chief, and Raj are cousins. Their fathers, Bal­a­saheb and Srikant Tha­ckeray, were married to two sisters, making it a tightly knit alliance. The cousins grew up toge­t­h­er and were close to each other. Uddhav, the eld­er of the two, was inclined towards env­ir­on­mental and photographic pursu­its, while his younger sibling traveled 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 a 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 che­st. “He was never a reluctant politician. The only reason Udd­hav never talked about it was because no one had ask­ed him about it,” says a Shiv Sena leader.

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 a backseat diplomat, those who visited Matoshree—the Thackeray residence in Bandra—also interacted with him. Thus began Udd­h­av’s initiation into politics and Raj’s isolat­ion from Shiv Sena’s daily functioning. Alongside Balasa­heb, two more power cent­r­es­—Uddhav and Raj—emerged. It reached a poi­nt when Raj was either not invited, or stopped atten­ding important party meetings. Egged on by their friends in the media, the chasm wide­ned and the battle for sup­remacy between the cousins was laid bare.

The founder Bal Thackeray
The founder Bal Thackeray Photo: Getty Images

On January 30, 2003, Uddhav was chosen as the working president of the Shiv Sena. Although it was Raj who had proposed his cousin’s name, 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 Bharatiya Vid­­ya­rthi Sena, the party’s student wing. He was more popular, not only amo­ng partymen, but also with media and influe­ncers. The cousins parted ways in 2006, becoming bitter rivals from friendly co-workers.

Through the years, the bitterness has remained. In the renewed Thackeray versus Thackeray feud, Raj is looking to draw Shiv Sainiks who are disillusioned with their party’s alliance with ideological opponents Congress and NCP. Shiv Sena is a part of a tripartite coalition in the Maha Vikas Aghadi government in Maharashtra. Raj see­ks to claim his uncle’s Hindutva legacy and has taken a more aggressive posture than in the past. Just weeks ago, he forced his cousin to a corner by issuing an ultimatum and a deadline to bring down loudspe­a­kers from all mos­q­ues in Maha­ra­shtra. Even as Uddhav was huddled with his cabinet, seeking a middle path through the tri­cky issue, MNS put up banners at prominent pla­ces, including in fro­nt of Shiv Sena’s headquarters in Dadar, pitching Raj as the only stake­h­o­l­der of Balasaheb’s Hin­du­tva legacy. In retaliation, Shiv Sena put up hoardings say­ing, “Hindu Hruday Sam­rat Bala­saheb Tha­ckeray, ya sam dus­re hone nahi (The­re can’t be ano­ther Balas­a­heb Thackeray, the king of Hindu hearts).

Raj bears a close resembla­nce to his unc­le in looks, orat­ory and aggression. Of late, he has also started dra­­ping a saffron sha­wl aro­und his shoulders like his uncle. Though the cousins have visited each other during family emergencies like the death of Bala­s­aheb, Uddhav’s angio­plasty, or when Raj’s daughter Uravashi was admitted to the hospital with a fractured foot in 2014, the bitterness has grown manifold since Uddhav took over as the CM in 2019.

Raj 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, only their own parties,” says a former Con­­gress CM 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, so 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”.

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. Kul­k­a­rni mentions that while Raj was being pitched as Bal­asaheb’s successor, Uddhav was wor­king on hims­elf. “Those familiar with Uddhav noted that despite his understated style, he was a learner.” According to the book, a friend of Raj narrated an interesting anecdote. In 1997, Raj and his friend started playing badminton at Dadar Club. Uddhav too joined them. One day, during a game, Uddhav fell down. Raj and his friend lau­g­hed at him. From the next day, Uddhav stopped coming, but enrolled for bad­­minton lessons at Bandra’s MIG Club, and soon mastered the game.

Warof Generations (clockwise) Raj, his son Amit Raj. Aaditya & Uddhav Thackeray
War of Generations (clockwise) Raj, his son Amit Raj. Aaditya & Uddhav Thackeray

A Shiv Sainik referred to Uddhav as a “work in progress”. “When he became CM, he was called a greenhorn. But look at the way he has shaped up. He is a learner and never shies away from enquiring about what he doesn’t know. Raj too is curious, but lazy. He loves a good life,” he adds.

When Raj founded MNS in 2006, it was his charisma that was the lure for Shiv Sainiks to cross over, said sources. How­e­ver, in the past decade, it began to wane as he was unable to walk the talk. Like the Sena’s traditional Dussehra rally started by Balasaheb, Raj started MNS’s Gudi Padwa rally. How­ever, when MNS activists realised that their chief was low on political deliverables, disillusionment set in, and they began to return to the Sena.

The fact that even the Marathi manoos plank cou­ld not win him votes sho­c­ked Raj, who had ban­ked on the issue to get an edge over Shiv Sena. Both Uddhav and Raj lack the political acumen and people-connect that Balasaheb had. Though he was Mum­bai-­based, he had moved out of the city limits and understood the finer points of rural politics, where caste plays a big role. The permutations and combinations of caste are lost on the cousins, who are cosmopolitan, and intimi­da­ted by rural mobilisations along political and caste lines, say sources.  

Their personalities differ probably due to their differing entry points in politics. While Raj was a part of Sena’s student wing, Udd­hav stepped into politics via the party mouthpiece Saamana. Whi­le Raj comes across as a str­eet fig­h­ter, Uddhav is a diplomat.

Despite their aggressive posturing for the Mara­thi language, their children studied in English med­ium schools run by Jes­uits. Both suffer from an inherent distrust of influential lea­d­ers with mass base within their part­ies. Inte­res­t­ingly, Uddhav is popular with women voters. Both suf­fer from another perso­n­ality fault—they never forget a slight. A former Shiv Sena MP described Uddhav as a good listener and a “quiet manipulator”. Raj has a short attention span, considered 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, Raj has emerged more confused than before. Today, he is a caricat­ure of what he was when he had launched MNS. For a man who rode a gigantic wave, his fall has been as sharp. Today, he is a 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—steam engine. At the time of MNS’s birth, the steam engine faced left to right. It was given a new direction—right to left—after the 2014 Lok Sabha polls, in which his party lost all 11 seats it had contested. In 2017, Raj wrote to the Election Commission, seeking another directio­nal change for the steam engine—back facing left to right. Despite this, he could not stem MNS’s decline. Battlelines are already drawn as the cash-­rich BMC is slated for polls later this year. It will be tough for both, as they will once again battle over Balasaheb’s legacy.

(This appeared in the print edition as "War of the Poses")

Haima Deshpande in Mumbai