THE SHIV Sena and Mumbai, according to Uddhav Thackeray, share blood ties. In speech after election speech, the Sena president has lauded local Shiv Sainik youth who rush to the sites of disasters, pick up the bloodied, rush them to hospitals, and go on to donate blood or hold large blood donation drives. This is undisputed. But more importantly, it makes for a deep, sentimental connect when the Shiv Sena’s battle for Mumbai, which goes to polls on Tuesday, February 21, is also Uddhav Thackeray’s battle for the Shiv Sena itself. Ahead of elections to the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC), the civic body that runs Mumbai, even the junior-most foot soldier in the Sena believes that the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is out to obliterate the party. Having jettisoned its junior NDA ally at the very last minute during the Assembly elections in 2014, the BJP eventually needed the Sena’s support to form the Maharashtra government.
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But it’s a different story at the BMC, which has long been the Sena’s balekilla or citadel. Even though their corporator-strength has dipped (from 98 corporators in 2002 to 83 in 2007 and 75 in 2012), the Sainiks are the big boys here.
“They wanted to finish us,” says South Mumbai’s Sena MP Arvind Sawant of how senior party leaders viewed the seat-sharing discussions with the BJP for the municipal polls. The BJP sought 114 of the 227 seats — just over half — whereas in the last elections in 2012, it had contested in 63 seats, winning 32. What’s more, among the 114 seats it wanted were 40 occupied by sitting Shiv Sena corporators. Already straining at the leash at the party’s sidelining since the summer of 2014, the average Sainik was bristling, and here was an apparent attempt to snatch the BMC, the jewel in the Sena crown.
So when Uddhav, in a dramatic speech to party workers on Republic Day, unilaterally called off seat-sharing talks and vowed never to ally with the BJP again in any election, he notched up a huge personal victory. The speech garnered over 70,000 YouTube views over the next few weeks; shorter clips are still being shared on WhatsApp. It also catapulted Uddhav as the leader to watch out for in this election and the Sainiks, underdogs after the BJP made huge strides in every election in Maharashtra since 2014, were back, along with their shrill slogans.
“The alliance did not break because of the leaders. The decision was taken by party workers,” says Suryakant Mahadik, 71, one of the oldest Shiv Sainiks, who attended the historic June 1966 Shivaji Park speech that marked the inception of the Sena. President of the 15-lakh-strong Bharatiya Kamgaar Sena or workers’ union, Mahadik says he mirrors the emotion of every union member when he says the BJP stabbed the Sena in the back. “In the 25 years of the alliance in Maharashtra, it was we who carried their (BJP’s) flag; they piggy-backed on us because they had no presence here. Now they have too much airs about themselves. And remember, when workers take a collective decision, the party always grows.”
The outrage over the real or imagined attempted decimation of the Sena has resulted in a resurgence, that may see the party pose the first real threat to the BJP’s unhindered run since April 2014, which includes its victories in the November-December 2016 municipal council polls across the state. With the Congress crippled by factionalism, the NCP, MIM and Samajwadi Party no more than bit players in Mumbai, the two allies in the state government are in a vicious battle for control of the prestigious and cash-rich BMC.
The BJP has brought in its pollsters, started up its well-oiled war room and launched a hologram of Chief Minister Fadnavis, who has zipped across the city addressing rallies. Fadnavis believes the Sena and the BJP are neck and neck. Neither may touch the halfway mark, but nobody is surprised that the Sena wants to keep the BJP out anyhow.
But the result notwithstanding, this Mumbai election will be seen as Uddhav’s coming of age. “You can see Balasaheb in Uddhav now,” says Mahadik, the septuagenarian founder-member of the Shiv Sena, echoing a view shared by most of the Shiv Sena workers. “He is a mild, soft-spoken leader, but seeing the anger and enthusiasm among the Sainiks, he too has become aggressive.”
Many point out that the senior Thackeray’s risqué language is missing from Uddhav’s much more polite demeanour, but agree that there are glimpses of his father in his speeches since January 26. There is that unsmiling, deadpan delivery of witticisms. He also no longer hesitates to mock — Uddhav uses mitron and bhaiyon aur behnon when referring to Prime Minister Narendra Modi, though he skips Bal Thackeray’s use of mimicry. “Pehle hi line mein punch,” says South Mumbai MP Sawant. “He’s smashing the ball out of the stadium at every rally.”
Phrases from Uddhav’s speeches are now central to the language that the Sainiks use in their door-to-door campaigning. In a Girgaum gully in South Central Mumbai, men sporting saffron scarves emblazoned with the bow-and-arrow symbol tell voters that it’s time for “BJP-bandi, like note-bandi” and that while 2014 had seen a laat (wave), now it’s only villevaat (destruction). Then there’s Uddhav’s latest coinage for Sharad Pawar: “Guru dakshina via a Padma Vibhushan” — a disingenuous reference to the uncertainty over which way the NCP will swing. And it’s all in line with the Maharashtrian’s, whether a front-bench rally-goer or a bemused family with Sainiks at their doorstep, love for the slogan with a smart rhyme — the yamak.
When the BJP last week sought a ban on the Sena mouthpiece Saamana for the three days around polling, Uddhav responded by calling it a “second Emergency” curb on the freedom of speech. The newspaper distributed a few hundred free copies to drive home its point. His positioning on Hindutva is also a throwback to the old, parochial, ready-to-scuffle Sena. If Uddhav ridicules the BJP for not building the Ram Mandir despite promising it in manifesto after manifesto, his MPs think nothing of privately mocking Islam. For all their new-age wooing of non-Maharashtrian voters in Mumbai, the Sena has also hardened its stand on Hindutva, the uniform civil code and permitting religious symbols in government offices.
It’s a far cry from Uddhav’s image as an all-too-gentle and reluctant politician with soft-spoken oratory and mild mannerisms — once considered no match for cousin Raj Thackeray’s bluster. Instead, it is Raj, who is now overseeing the rapid crumbling of his Maharashtra Navnirman Sena, and who is expected to lose his bastion of Nashik to the Sena in this election. When the Sena-BJP seat-sharing talks disintegrated, Raj sent an emissary to the Sena, offering an unconditional alliance. In his all-new avatar, Uddhav rebuffed him.
By all accounts, Uddhav remains the gentle leader, but with a new-found confidence. Whether it is expelling 26 Sainiks overnight for daring to contest as rebels or peppering his speeches with “my word”, “my promise”, “I won’t allow”, he makes it clear that he’s the boss.
“His aggression now is a result of his patience having run out,” says a Sena leader. Sawant calls the new pluck a “volcanic reaction” to months of suffering insults.
Aurangabad district Sena chief Ambadas Danve says insiders always saw Uddhav as a capable administrator, widely read and tech-savvy. The nay-sayers were, Danve adds, the “media and outsiders”. Various district and regional heads say the party chief calls at regular intervals to keep a tab on the progress of their respective campaigns.
After his tour of drought-hit Marathwada last year, Uddhav reportedly kept a close watch on the Sena’s activities in the region, contributing proceeds from his photography exhibition to partially fund the party’s relief measures.
Another mid-level leader recounts receiving a call from Matoshree at 2 am one day this past week — it was Uddhav calling to check if he’d had dinner before hitting the road after a long day of campaigning in another city. One senior Sainik who was in the ICU of a suburban hospital last year was informed by doctors that Uddhav called five times in one night, to check on his condition. One of the party’s star campaigners describes it thus: “There isn’t just dehshat (terror) at Matoshree, there’s matrutva (motherhood), a sense of being nurtured.”
Matoshree, the Thackerays’ family home in Bandra, is seen as an iconic power centre and a sensitive area during elections, communal riots, Indo-Pak cricket matches and more. On the wane over the past four-five years, it has bounced back in its significance in Mumbai’s politics. “The crowd around Uddhav has grown,” says one very senior leader. “That’s always a sign.”
Until the seat-sharing talks between the allies ended abruptly, the general opinion in the city was that while grassroots activists were keen to go it alone, Uddhav and Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis were equally keen to hammer out an agreement. Both are seen as accommodative leaders not given to rushes of impulse, but the duo are now in a highly personalised and vitriolic trading of insults.
BJP MP Kirit Somaiya, among those who has repeatedly described the BMC as being controlled by a “mafia” residing in Bandra, tells The Sunday Express that he is willing to challenge the “godfather” of this mafia. “The Sena chief should declare his wealth,” says Somaiya. Chief Minister Fadnavis repeatedly accuses the Sena of having walked out of the alliance over disagreements at the BJP’s insistence on transparency in the scam-ridden municipality.
BJP supporters have also released a series of animated videos on YouTube trolling the Shiv Sena as the ‘Khau Sena’, depicting a father tiger and baby tiger chomping on currency notes paid by hapless citizens and street vendors, until a lion with a lotus on its belly comes along and knocks them down.
Uddhav has readily responded to the attacks. “Had I given them 114 seats, we would have been transparent,” he said at one rally. In his January 26 speech, Uddhav said the BJP’s campaigners who talk of water supply and dams won’t know how far a dam is from Mumbai, or how many kilometres of pipeline connect the city to the source of its water, a thinly veiled dig at the chief minister, a Nagpur native. When the chief minister waved a survey report lumping Mumbai and Patna in the same category of service standards, Uddhav responded at a sabha in Worli. “Those desiring to win Mumbai should know they must not besmirch its reputation. The Patna jibe will now lose them the Bihari vote too,” he predicted.
The Sena has “put the government on notice” but its ministers haven’t resigned, and there have been ample such instances in the past to argue that the Sena-BJP marriage is far from over. But the Sena’s influence has deepened whenever presented with an iconic adversary — the Dalits during the naamantar movement in Marathwada, the veshti-clad Tamilian of Matunga in the 1970s, other job-seeking ‘outsiders’, in later years the north Indians and the ‘Westernised’ college kid celebrating Valentine’s Day.
Presented as an ally of two decades that is trying to raze the Sena citadel, the BJP fits in just nicely.