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Uddhav Thackeray: The reluctant politician who in the end hung on to chair too long

A graduate from J J Institute of Applied Arts, with photography as his main subject, Uddhav was seen as indifferent towards politics. While he took hesitant steps, he largely remained in the background as cousin Raj Thackeray built up his profile as Balasaheb's “natural successor”.

Shiv Sena chief Uddhav Thackeray virtually addresses the people of the state, in Mumbai. (PTI)

At 62, this is the worst crisis Uddhav Thackeray has faced in his short political life, emerging from the overarching shadow of father Bal Thackeray. Not only has he lost chief ministership after taking a gamble with an unlikely coalition, he is facing the prospect of losing control of a party founded by Balasaheb and deriving sustenance from the Thackeray name.

In hindsight, it seems Uddhav sowed the seeds right at the beginning when, on November 28, 2019, he took over as Chief Minister. He thus became the first Thackeray to hold a public office, with Balasaheb choosing to let a Sainik be CM while he held full control over the party.

Amidst celebrations and showering of rose petals, his well-wishers had cautioned Uddhav at the time about the “power play” that would ensue and the “administrative” challenges of leading an unlikely coalition, including old rivals the NCP and Congress.

The anger many Sainiks felt at this decision, combined with the move to dump old ally the BJP, only seems to have festered over time. Party workers felt unheard, a feeling that grew as Uddhav surrounded himself with a coterie and seemed to disappear into Matoshree. Some of that distance was on account of Covid and a surgery that left Uddhav incapacitated for long, but there was no one to keep the troops in the loop.


Rebel leader Eknath Shinde claimed to speak for many when he said: “We never showed disrespect to Uddhavji. We are Balasaheb’s sainiks. We wanted the Sena to break its alliance with the Congress and NCP. Our fight is for Balasaheb’s Hindutva.”

A graduate from J J Institute of Applied Arts, with photography as his main subject, Uddhav was seen as indifferent towards politics. While he took hesitant steps into it in the early 1990s, he largely remained in the background as cousin Raj Thackeray built up his profile and personality as Balasaheb’s “natural successor”.

However, like a political story repeated one too many times, the shrewd Sena pramukh too had eventually chosen son over nephew. Uddhav’s appointment as executive president at a Mahabaleshwar convention in 2002 marked the turning point. Even then, as a sulking Raj lurked in the background and finally quit the Sena in 2005, Uddhav never really shook off that gentle, low-profile visage that made him a leader far removed from the everyday aggressive cadre that filled the Sena.

Some believe it was wife Rashmi who was the main driver of his ambition, apart from elder son Aaditya, who has emerged in the forefront in the current crisis. The other son, Tejas, is seen as more interested in wildlife and environment issues.

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Still, Uddhav did weather many a storm, including senior leader Narayan Rane and Raj Thackeray’s exits. After Balasaheb’s death in 2012, he managed to keep the Sena together, and proved the better of the MNS. He also saw the Sena to power, and through to the other side, despite a rocky relationship with the BJP.

A senior BJP functionary requesting anonymity admits, “After Balsaheb’s demise, many wondered if Uddhav who is not charismatic would be able to keep the party together. But he ensured its growth in the last two decades.” However, he adds, “It is evident that his decision to betray the BJP was not liked by many within as it amounted to compromising Hindutva, which is its members’ core agenda.”

Follow all updates here |Maharashtra political crisis

But the blame does not lie on Uddhav’s part alone, say supporters. The BJP’s character has changed since the Gopinath Munde-Pramod Mahajan era of accommodation, particularly with the ascent of the party under Narendra Modi. In the 2014 Assembly elections, came the first split between the two-decade-old partners, due to differences over seat-sharing. While post-polls, Uddhav shook hands with new BJP star and CM Devendra Fadnavis, the ties were never the same.

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Earlier this year, at a party meeting, Uddhav said he was left with little choice but to break away. “We supported the BJP wholeheartedly, to enable them to fulfill their national ambitions. The understanding was they will go national while we will lead in Maharashtra. But we were betrayed and attempts were made to destroy us in our home. So we had to hit back.”

Uddhav also accused the BJP of dumping its allies according to political convenience. He said, “The BJP doesn’t mean Hindutva. I stand by my comment that the Shiv Sena wasted 25 years in alliance with the BJP.”

However, it is doubtful if this message ever went down the ranks. To many, Uddhav’s resigning nature meant he felt more at home with the Congress and NCP, rather than with the aggressive BJP. Even as the Sainiks squirmed, the message from the top was also of a more moderate party, with Aaditya especially fronting “progressive” causes.

The NCP has been painted as the villain of the piece by the Sena rebels, who have claimed that it called the shots in the MVA and kept them deprived of funds. Others have questioned Pawar’s advice to Uddhav to hold on to power, ultimately to no avail, rather than resigning after it became clear that the party had slipped out of its hands, which might have given him some moral high ground.

However, allies have only kind words for Uddhav. Says state NCP leader Jayant Patil: “Our relations were cordial, there was mutual respect for each other. He was never high-handed.” NCP leader and MP Supriya Sule describes him as “a gentleman politician”, who “focused on the concerns of the common man and handled the Covid pandemic laudably”. Senior Congress minister Balasaheb Thorat says: “Uddhav always treated allies and Cabinet colleagues with great respect.”

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Over the course of the current crisis, Uddhav vacillated between standing determined against the rebels and issuing desperate appeals to them – even as other party leaders poured vitriol on the Shinde men. He has also claimed to be representative of true Hindutva and real inheritor of Balasaheb’s legacy.

In his last Cabinet meeting, Uddhav said: “It is unfortunate that I have been betrayed by my own people.” In his resignation message, as both CM and MLC, he thanked the Governor, acknowledged the support of allies, appealed to Sainiks for peace, and pointedly showed that he was not about to be put on the defensive over the new Sena under him.

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“I have no regrets about leaving the CM’s chair… What I did, I did for the Marathi people and Hindutva… The people of the state have bestowed their love on me. There were riots across the country and Maharashtra was an exception. I would also like to thank my Muslim brethren for listening,” he said.

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First published on: 29-06-2022 at 10:47:11 pm
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