‘Whoever becomes chief minister, the remote control will always be with me.”
Sitting on a silver throne-like armchair, sipping a glass of white wine, that was Bal Thackeray’s typically blunt response when asked whether he would consider his son Uddhav Thackeray as a potential chief minister nominee if the BJP-Shiv Sena alliance won the 2004 Maharashtra assembly elections. Less than 20 years later, not only has Uddhav Thackeray’s government been pushed to the brink by an unprecedented internal rebellion but even the ‘remote control’ is moving out of Matoshree, home of the Thackerays, suggesting a serious existential crisis for the party founded more than half a century ago as a flagbearer of a ‘sons of the soil’ movement for Maharashtrian asmita (self respect).
The Shiv Sena’s predicament is partly that of any family-centric regional party whose identity revolves around a larger than life individual: once the founder withdraws from the political stage, how do the successors ensure their continued supremacy? Be it an Akhilesh Yadav in UP, a Tejaswi Yadav in Bihar, a Sukhbir Badal in Punjab, a HD Kumaraswamy in Karnataka or indeed, the Gandhis of the Congress, dynastical privilege is subject to diminishing returns. Even Naveen Patnaik’s Biju Janata Dal, which is often held up as an example of successful dynastical handover, faces a future challenge: after Naveen babu, the founder, who? Only the DMK has been able to ensure relative dominance in Tamil Nadu even after the demise of M Karunanidhi because its cadres have remained mostly intact.
The Shiv Sena too claims to be driven by their solid cadre-based shakha (branch) network but central to this unusual arrangement was the towering persona of Bal Thackeray. The political cartoonist turned politician was sui generis: a rabble-rousing neta who never fought an election, the unquestioned ‘supremo’ who presided over a loose mafia-like structure that evoked fear and loyalty in equal measure, a demagogue who openly endorsed the politics of ‘thokshahi’ (violent intimidation) while representing regional and nationalist aspirations.
Trying to emulate Thackeray senior’s charisma was always going to be a hard act to follow and to Uddhav Thackeray’s credit, he didn’t pretend to be his father’s duplicate. But in bravely attempting to carve out his own identity as a more moderate, accommodating face of a Sena-led government, he forgot that a tiger doesn’t change its stripes.
Over the years, Sainiks have built a reputation as Mumbai’s lumpenised street warriors, digging up cricket pitches, refusing to allow Pakistani artistes to perform, roughing up opponents: from south Indians to Muslims, the ‘enemy’ figure has changed over time but not the party’s distinctive militant character. Not surprisingly, rebel Sena leader Eknath Shinde’s CV includes leading a mob that set on fire a Thane hospital where his mentor Anand Dighe died after a road accident operation.
While the soft-spoken Uddhav and his Jesuit college educated son Aaditya represent a more urbane face of Sena politics, the original image of being a firebrand party of hardnosed street-fighters has led to a certain dissonance in style and functioning. When a Maharashtra MP was charged with sedition by a Sena government over her insistence on reciting the Hanuman Chalisa, the cadres were perplexed by the ‘secular’ shift, a confusion exploited by family rebel, the mercurial Raj Thackeray. While an Aaditya’s Thackeray’s commitment to environmental causes is truly admirable, it hardly resonates with the Sena rank and file who are clearly clueless about climate change and would rather take up more emotive issues linked to identity politics.
But this implosion is not just an ideological or generational battle within the Sena. The split in the party would not have taken place without the conscious attempt by the BJP to capture the Sena’s political space. When the Shiv Sena and BJP first came together in 1988, the rules of engagement were clear: the Sena would get primacy in Maharashtra, the BJP would be the national player. The glue between the militant ‘Marathi manoos’ party and the saffron party of the Hindi heartland was the rising tide of Hindutva nationalist politics that offered the first real challenge to Maratha-dominated Congress hegemony in Maharashtra. As the late BJP leader Pramod Mahajan, architect of the alliance once pointed out, the coming together was a ‘practical necessity’. Until they allied, both parties had single digit vote shares in Maharashtra. Together, they formed a government in Maharashtra for the first time in 1995.
But an alliance of political equals was upturned after the death of Bal Thackeray in 2012 and the emergence of Narendra Modi as a domineering national figure just a year later. By 2014, the BJP, buoyed by its Lok Sabha success, was confident enough to go it alone in the Maharashtra assembly elections that soon followed. It was a political risk taken by then BJP president Amit Shah but one that was amply rewarded when the BJP became the single largest party in the Maharashtra assembly for the first time and also had its first chief minister in Devendra Fadnavis. When post-elections, the Shiv Sena quietly clawed back into a BJP-led government, it was with the look of a wounded tiger.
The betrayal of 2019 when the Sena broke away from the BJP to form a post poll Maharashtra Vikas Aghadi (MVA) alliance with the NCP and Congress was ‘revenge’ for losing out in 2014. The 2022 coup is now retaliation for the perfidy of 2019: such is the animosity between the state leaderships of the two parties that the Enforcement Directorate has been brazenly misused to settle scores. Those aligned to Uddhav Thackeray are facing the full heat of the agency’s powers while the breakaway group is virtually guaranteed immunity judging by the BJP’s recent ‘washing machine’ track record.
The choices before the Thackerays in the face of the BJP’s undiluted political aggression are limited. A return to a BJP-led alliance would be a loss of face, an acceptance of junior partner status, forever at risk of being swallowed by the national juggernaut. Sticking by the MVA would mean a further erosion in its Hindutva ethos. Going it alone means risking isolation. Ahead of a crucial ‘do or die’ BMC elections – the country’s richest civic corporation remains the Sena’s last fortress – the Thackerays can ill afford another misstep. At stake is not just a greatly diminished family legacy but the party’s very survival as a major player in the state’s politics.
Post-script: In the 1990s, the seat negotiations between the BJP and Shiv Sena involved direct dealings between Bal Thackeray and Pramod Mahajan at the former’s Matoshree residence. Once when Thackeray was miffed, Mahajan had to spend hours assuaging him. How did the Sena chieftain eventually relent? “I gave him a box of his favorite imported Cuban cigars!” laughed the BJP leader. Times sure have changed.