Stung by the revolt of Chhagan Bhujbal with 17 other MLAs, and jibes from within over turning his party into his fief, Shiv Sena chief Balasaheb Thackeray on July 18, 1992, wrote a signed article in Saamana, and announced that he was quitting the party.
Two days later, on June 20, a sea of Shiv Sainiks landed up outside the Sena office, pleading with Thackeray to reconsider. Senior Shiv Sena leaders were heckled and manhandled for not being loyal enough and many of Thackeray’s potential detractors were cut to size. Thackeray then “magnanimously” acceded to the Sainiks’ requests to reconsider his decision, with the episode stamping his authority on the party forever.
Almost exactly 30 years later, the above is the best-case scenario for son Uddhav Thackeray. However, on June 29, as he resigned as the Chief Minister and MLC after a 15-minute-long staid speech, it was with an appeal for peace, which seemed unnecessary. Barring a few incidents of vandalism, the transfer of power from his Sena faction to the one represented by Eknath Shinde in Maharashtra was smooth, with the Sainiks more puzzled than angry at Uddhav for “throwing in the towel” without a fight.
Uddhav seemed determined to maintain the detente though, congratulating Shinde promptly after he was sworn in as CM. Even rabble-rouser Sanjay Raut appealed to the Sainiks to not make a fuss when he appeared before the Enforcement Directorate.
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For Sena ranks, this dilly-dallying represents all that is wrong with the party. A decade after stepping into Bal Thackeray’s big shoes, Uddhav appears uncertain about where he wants to take the party. Should he stick to the new, ‘moderate’ mould that is seen as better suited to his own personality of a laidback politician? Or under heat from the rebels, over particularly Uddhav’s Hindutva credentials, should he fall back on the in-your-face tactics that have paid off for the Sena over the years?
With 39 of 55 MLAs rebelling, any politician would find a fightback difficult. Uddhav must contend with that plus a BJP snapping at his heels. The rebels will have the Sangh’s support and the money and muscle power that comes with being in government.
Many Sena watchers doubt Uddhav has the stomach for it, especially given how the recent crisis played out. Still in the initial stages, Uddhav inexplicably vacated his official residence, making a show of it; then let a good farewell moment pass; only to hang on as numbers dwindled; and lastly quit without using the Assembly floor to make a grand exit.
“He should have presented his case on the floor of the House. He could have put forth his views and explain why he chose the Congress and NCP. That would have been in the records of the House for posterity. Instead he chose Facebook Live,” says leader Prithviraj Chavan, not hiding his dismay.
The loss of 39 MLAs to Shinde won’t be felt only in the Assembly. The Sena has in the process lost its second-rung leadership across Maharashtra. Shinde himself was No. 2, next only to the Thackerays. Of the six MLAs from North Maharashtra and five in Western, none remain with Uddhav. The same is the case with Vidarbha, where three of the four Sena MLAs have gone with Shinde. In Marathwada, eight of the 12 MLAs, and in Konkan, 12 of the 15, are now with Shinde.
The only place where Uddhav has retained some support is Mumbai, where eight of the 15 MLAs are still with his faction. One of the first tests of how strong that base is will be the approaching BMC polls. The BJP is determined to wrest the cash-rich body, and within hours of the Shinde-Fadnavis swearing-in, the volley against the Sena-controlled corporation started. Says a former BJP corporator tasked with handling the BMC polls: “It is time for change. This year the BJP will get control of the city as well.”
The Sena’s track record in the BMC polls under Uddhav doesn’t inspire much confidence. In the 2002 elections, when he played an important role, while Bal Thackeray was around, the Sena won 97 of the 227 seats. It has been downhill since: 84 seats in 2007 and 75 in 2012 (Thackeray Sr died that year), with the BJP as an ally. In 2017, when the Sena and BJP fought separately, the Sena got 84.
Even in the Assembly elections, the Sena has been on the decline. It came to power in 1995 winning 73 of the 288 seats. After Uddhav started playing an active role, it got 62 in 2004, 45 in 2009, 63 in 2014 and 56 in 2019. In 2014, the Sena, BJP fought separately.
Series of splits
Since Uddhav took over the party in 2003, this is the third split in the Sena. Many Sena rebels note that while Uddhav does not have the aura of his father, he expects to be treated with the same deference, with no questions raised about his methods. His “aloofness” adds to the problem, with Uddhav operating through a coterie, including his family.
“Those in his inner circle became gatekeepers and many old leaders were disappointed that they had to go through them to approach Uddhav. The trust deficit only grew,” says Sanjay Patil of the University of Mumbai who has traced the Sena between 1985 and 2022 for his doctoral work.
Partymen say that not only did he rely on a select few, Uddhav was unable to monitor what they were up to. NCP chief Sharad Pawar minced no words in private about the Sena being clueless on the brewing rebellion.
After the transfer of power on Thursday, Pawar told reporters: “Uddhav Thackeray’s working style is such that if he has faith in someone, he gives him complete autonomy. We saw this with Eknath Shinde. I do not know if this is behind what transpired.”
Even in the days following the revolt, Uddhav seemed to have left the talking to the others, particularly Raut and son Aaditya. Many Sena leaders feel that the aggressive stance of the two pushed the rebels away.
For now, Uddhav has the support of the Congress and NCP. But this will be tested when the three parties, with their separate agendas, fight an election. Even Pawar has been guarded over poll commitments.
New Uddhav, or old family man?
Nearly everyone is unanimous that Uddhav needs to readjust. “He needs to face the uncomfortable reality that his hold over the second- and third-rung leadership of the Sena has been wiped out. Him doing some hard thinking to reach out to the Sena cadre, which still has a significant presence on the ground, is essential,” a Congress MLA says.
Whatever he does going forward, Uddhav might find himself even more dependent on the advice of wife Rashmi, Aaditya and NCP chief Pawar. Just like Balasaheb, who after the 1992 rebellion by Bhujbal started inducting his family in the party, Uddhav too might draw an even tighter circle of family around him.
Aaditya’s growing clout, another cause of heartburn for the rebels, is already more visible. The Yuva Sena, which he has headed for 12 years since its formation, is leading the rallies to lobby support across the state. The core committee members, who are mostly Mumbai-based, have been instructed to focus on districts.
Samajwadi Party MLA Rais Shaikh says that for all of Aaditya’s enthusiasm, he represents a new face of the Sena that the rebels have mutinied against. “With Aaditya, you can talk about nice things like what is happening in Davos. But if you tell him that there is garbage strewn around a chawl… he gets uncomfortable. I had a conversation with him where I told him that these issues will not get votes. He told me somebody should think beyond only votes. I told him that this is not the time. But then he starts ignoring you and stops talking to you,” Shaikh says.
Rashmi is also seen as key to Uddhav’s political career, having played an important role in pushing him to take on the CM’s role. And, more importantly, to making the difficult decision of breaking with the BJP.
On June 22 night, as Uddhav travelled the short distance from his official residence Varsha to his private home Matoshree, it was the dynasty at the forefront. Uddhav, Rashmi and their two sons, hailed and cheered by supporters, appearing repeatedly from their vehicles to acknowledge the support.
That evening showed there could be a new day for Uddhav. But the clock is ticking.
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