Since the death of Bal Thackeray in 2012, opponents and allies alike masked with difficulty their derision for his son and political heir Uddhav, who was seen as less suave, too circumspect and mild to lead an aggressive cadre-based party like the Shiv Sena.
Within the BJP, it was believed that unlike his belligerent father, Thackeray could be kept under control. On Friday, however, it was clear that the BJP and many of his detractors had misread the 59-year-old Thackeray who managed to trigger a tectonic shift in the Shiv Sena’s political trajectory that even his father could not have imagined in his lifetime.
The youngest of Bal Thackeray’s three children, Uddhav was an unlikely candidate to helm the Shiv Sena. A backroom boy who was more interested in cameras and the latest tech gizmos, he found himself thrown into the rough and tumble of the state’s politics by his father who believed that only he could carry forward his political legacy.
Uddhav had a late initiation in the party compared to his cousin Raj Thackeray, MNS chief, who was then seen as Balasaheb’s savvy heir apparent. Sena sources said the 2002 Mumbai civic polls were a turning point. Uddhav had played a role in Sena’s victory in those elections, and his induction into the party as working president followed soon after, in January 2003.
Not surprisingly though, his leadership was challenged by his cousin Raj, and former Shiv Sena CM Narayan Rane, who quit the party in 2005 and joined the Congress with a dozen MLAs, while Raj formed his own party Maharashtra Navnirman Sena in 2006. Many believed that because of his initially insipid leadership and the exodus of aggressive leaders, the Sena would either implode or face a coup.
Uddhav consolidated his position within the party gradually, holding meetings with local workers and trying to understand how the party functioned. Shiv Sena observers say that even though his demeanour is more akin to a bank officer than a fiery Shiv Sainik, his willingness to listen to his workers and his determination to stick to his decisions endeared him to party workers. That resolve, say party workers, stood him in good stead over the last month in his decision to break a 30-year-old alliance with the BJP to form the next government in Maharashtra.
The Sena chief, who loves photography, is not a good orator when compared with his father or cousin. But behind the mild exterior, is a tough negotiator, and a tech-savvy administrator.
By deciding to accept the CM post, he has also been able to come out of Balasaheb’s and BJP’s shadow and has broken another Thackeray family tradition of not taking up any post in government.
Though he has organizational experience, he has not held any official position so far and may face challenge from the stalwarts of the Congress and NCP in the government’s functioning.
Uddhav’s 2012 angioplasty to remove multiple coronary blockages, and the death of his father in November that year, slowed him down. The 2014 assembly polls were thus a challenge. His father absent, and a new, aggressive BJP changing the equation, he had a lot to contend with. The earliest shock was the BJP decision to break its alliance with the Sena at the last minute.
Still, fighting against the Modi wave and BJP’s might, Uddhav was able to secure 63 seats for the party, the all-time highest seats after fighting polls independently. Since 2014, Uddhav adjusted himself in the BJP’s newfound aggression and big brother role in the alliance, in the state government and at the Centre. But he used the party mouthpiece Saamna, giving its acerbic editor Sanjay Raut full freedom to hit out at the BJP, needling it on policy issues including demonetisation, implementation of the goods and services tax.