Updated: March 8, 2020 12:20:13 pm
In September last year, at a gathering of Shiv Sena workers in Worli, where Aaditya Thackeray announced that he would contest the Maharashtra elections — marking the first time a Thackeray was entering electoral politics — on the stage was his mother Rashmi Thackeray. Three months later, when Aaditya became a minister in his father’s Cabinet, taking oath as “Aaditya Rashmi Uddhav Thackeray”, it only underlined her growing influence in the Shiv Sena — and over the politics of her husband Uddhav Thackeray and elder son Aaditya.
Last week, the Shiv Sena announced that the 54-year-old Rashmi would take over as editor of the party mouthpiece Saamana, a daily founded by her father-in-law Balasaheb Thackeray and of which he was editor for 24 years until his death in 2012. Uddhav had resigned as its editor a day before taking oath as chief minister.
In the widely recorded history of Maharashtra’s chief ministers, their wives have only appeared as fleeting forms in the background — from Yashwantrao Chavan’s wife Venutai Chavan to Sharad Pawar’s wife Pratibha Pawar, who maintained a low public profile.
But that was until Devendra Fadnavis became CM, when his banker-wife Amruta gladly shared the spotlight with her husband. But unlike Amruta, who appeared in music videos promoting the BJP government’s schemes and continues to publicly take on her husband’s detractors, Rashmi has largely stayed in the background, at least so far.
Many Sainiks who have interacted with Rashmi, whom they call “Vahini” or “sister-in-law”, confirm she played a key role in pushing Uddhav, her reluctant, “laid-back”, photography-loving husband, to take on the CM’s role. And, more importantly, into making the difficult decision of breaking ranks with the Sena’s long-time ally and ideological partner BJP, and tying up with the Congress and NCP.
Party sources also say Rashmi was present in the room when BJP chief Amit Shah discussed the alliance formula with Uddhav ahead of the Lok Sabha polls.
“She was definitely the reason behind the breaking up of the BJP-Sena alliance. She was clear that the Sena had to get the chief ministership and Uddhav the post. There was never any confusion, at least not in her mind, about what would happen if the deal (with the NCP-Congress) didn’t work out. She is the undeclared vice-president of the party,” says a Sena leader.
Her supporters, however, dismiss talk of Rashmi’s “ambition” or that she is the Sena’s command centre.
“Rashmi vahini does not interfere in party affairs. We have only seen Uddhavji taking the final call. If discussions happen among them (Uddhav, Rashmi Vahini and Aaditya), we are not aware of it,” said a senior party leader, requesting anonymity.
Her friends prefer to speak about her “Maharashtrian values” instead.
Shaina NC, BJP spokesperson and Rashmi’s “family friend” since their college days, says, “I have always appreciated the way she conducts herself with grace and poise. An affectionate daughter, a loving mother and a committed wife, she is smart, astute and understands politics intrinsically. I have observed her on several occasions as a dedicated life partner to Uddhavji. She has brought up Aaditya and Tejas with good middle-class Maharashtrian values.”
Sena sources also point to how Rashmi’s family has found their space in the party. Her sister Swati’s husband Satish Sardesai was the go-between in the Sena-BJP negotiations after last year’s elections, while her nephew (Swati’s son) Varun Sardesai is secretary of the Yuva Sena and controls access to Aaditya. Her younger brother Shridhar Patankar is in the real-estate business.
Despite attempts by The Sunday Express, Rashmi Thackeray could not be contacted for this story.
Born into a middle-class family in Dombivli — her father Madhav Patankar runs a family business of chemical production — Rashmi graduated with a BCom degree from Mumbai’s V G Vaze College in the late 1980s.
Her friends from college say the two sisters stood out in the largely “middle-class to lower-middle-class” Dombivli. “While all of us had regular aspirations and wanted to be either doctors or engineers, Rashmi was different: she knew she was cut out for bigger things,” says a senior from college.
In 1987, she joined Life Insurance Corporation, where she became friends with Jayawanti, Bal Thackeray’s niece and Raj Thackeray’s sister. It was Jayawanti who introduced Rashmi to Uddhav, with the two getting married on December 13, 1989.
With Uddhav, the youngest of Bal Thackeray’s three sons, never seen as cut out for the Sena’s muscular politics, Rashmi was never in the public gaze unlike the more flamboyant Smita, wife of Thackeray’s estranged second son Jaidev. But after Bindu Madhav, his eldest son, died in a road accident, Bal Thackeray picked Uddhav as his successor over nephew Raj. With Uddhav getting involved in the party starting 1997 and Smita Thackeray sidelined from Matoshree, it was left to Rashmi to take on the role of managing the Thackeray household and her husband’s affairs in the Sena. Rashmi is also director of four companies, including two real-estate firms.
To those who say she has “emerged from the shadows”, the Sena leader quoted above says that for those in the know of the happenings at Matoshree, Rashmi’s “ambition” and “acumen” were always evident.
“During Bal Thackeray’s final days, she controlled access to him. She decided who could meet Balasaheb, be it Raj Thackeray or the media. In fact, many blame her for the split in the family,” says the Sena leader.
Rashmi is said to have helped Uddhav through his initial days as executive president of the party in 2003, when Narayan Rane and Raj Thackeray had revolted, leading to a split in the party.
Most of the Sena leaders The Sunday Express reached out to made it a point to compare “vahini” with Meenatai Thackeray, Bal Thackeray’s wife, the matriarch whose unobtrusive presence was felt in every major Sena meeting that was held in Matoshree. “She is like Maa Saheb (Meenatai) to us. Despite being the wife of the party chief, she is down to earth, warm and caring and conducts herself with grace,” said a party leader.
But while Meenatai’s role was limited to ensuring that the visitors to Matoshree were fed and taken care of, Rashmi is seen as an advisor to her husband Uddhav.
Sanjay Raut, Sena MP and executive editor of Saamana, said, “Just like Maa Saheb used to stand behind Balasaheb, we have seen Rashmi vahini standing behind Uddhavji, who has faced many challenges, including political. We should not forget that there is always a woman behind a successful man.”
While many see Rashmi’s appointment as Saamana editor as another pointer to her growing clout, Sena sources insist there is not much to read into. “The newspaper has always been linked to the Thackeray family. Earlier Balasaheb and Uddhav ji were its editors. Since Uddhavji is CM and Aadityaji is minister and we wanted someone as editor from the family, Rashmi vahini has been named to the post,” said a Sena leader, adding that Saamana editors rarely visit the newspaper office and that Raut holds editorial charge.
After naming Rashmi as editor, Uddhav, in his interaction with the media, said, “Saamana, Shiv Sena and Thackeray can’t be separated. We are one family. With Rashmi becoming editor, there is speculation on whether the language of the paper will change. I want to assure you that won’t happen… but don’t write Rashmi Thackeray criticises Uddhav Thackeray (government decisions).”
Inputs from Liz Mathew
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