Seen as a power centre behind the scenes, Shiv Sena president Uddhav Thackeray’s wife Rashmi has been careful to always maintain a Laxman Rekha in public, deferring to her husband at the events she accompanies him to. Even if she has had a hand in the decisions taken relating to party organisation or policies over the years, it was always done quietly.
This has ensured that “Vahinisaheb”, as Rashmi is popularly called by Sainiks, has maintained both her clout and popularity within the Sena.
Which is why the 54-year-old’s surprise visit to Tembhi Naka, in Chief Minister Eknath Shinde’s stronghold and home turf Thane, to offer prayers to Goddess Durga during the Navratri festivities was so out of character.
In the three days since, the speculation has not ceased. Was it meant to be a display of the Uddhav Sena’s “nari shakti (woman power)”? Or a bold political message to the Shinde camp? Or was it simply to boost the morale of Sainiks amid the tussle for control of the party?
Officially, the Thackeray Sena described Rashmi’s visit to the Thane Durga Puja as nothing unprecedented. A senior Sena leader said, “Every year, Uddhavji and Rashmi Thackeray visit Tembhi Naka to offer prayers on Navratri. It has nothing to do with politics.”
Shinde too downplayed the visit, saying, “Everybody’s free to walk in and pray before the Goddess.”
The two-day Navratri celebrations at Tembhi Naka were started by the late Sena Thane strongman and Shinde’s mentor Anand Dighe. After Dighe’s death, Shinde continued the tradition.
In the Sena split of June this year, Shinde walked away with almost the entire Sena in Thane, reinforcing his hold on the region. Hence, Rashmi’s decision to visit the Tembhi Naka Durga Puja was far from business as usual.
Given Rashmi’s tact, the Uddhav camp is arguing that she was perhaps the best person to deliver the message it wanted to convey to the Shinde side – that too ahead of the annual Dussehra rally of the party at Mumbai’s Shivaji Park grounds which Uddhav is hoping to seal as a feather in his cap.
Captured by photographers as she offered her prayers with folded hands and teary eyes, Rashmi is being hailed by the party as both a symbol of humility and defiance, capturing hearts in a party that has always been high on emotions. She also succeeded in stealing the limelight in Shinde’s backyard, though how long the effect lasts is yet to be seen.
Belonging to a middle-class family and a Commerce graduate who briefly worked with LIC as a contract employee, Rashmi had met Uddhav through Raj Thackeray’s sister Jajjaywanti, who was her friend. Rashmi and Uddhav got married in 1989, and have two sons, Aaditya and Tejas.
A close Thackeray aide said Rashmi “stands like a rock” behind Uddhav, and has no personal political ambitions for herself. According to the leader, she, however, may have had something to do with Uddhav’s swift rise after father Bal Thackeray fell ill and gradually withdrew from public life. This led to the sidelining of Balasaheb’s nephew Raj, who was till then seen as his successor. “It was Rashmi’s wish to see Uddhav Thackeray become CM of Maharashtra,” said the insider.
Sources in Matoshree say Rashmi has “always given her family especially husband and two sons higher priority”, busying herself occasionally with social programmes of the Sena’s women’s wing.
So far her most visible role has been taking on the post of Editor of party mouthpiece Saamna in March 2020, which lasted till June this year. Uddhav as CM could not retain the role as it would amount to conflict of interest. He is back as Editor now having lost power to the Shinde Sena and BJP.
In the past, the BJP has claimed “growing influence” of Rashmi’s brother in the Shiv Sena-ruled BMC, and accused her of partnership in real estate projects. But the Shiv Sena has dismissed these charges as baseless and politically driven.