31/10/2019 7:16 AM IST

Uddhav Thackeray Is Using Shiv Sena's Resurgence Against BJP In Maharashtra, But For How Long?

The Shiv Sena chief is trying to bring the powerful BJP to the negotiating table, but behind the bravado, there is desperation.

Hindustan Times via Getty Images
Shiv Sena chief Uddhav Thackeray

NAGPUR, Maharashtra — In September, when campaigning for the Maharashtra assembly elections began in earnest, it didn’t come as a surprise to anyone that Shiv Sena chief Uddhav Thackeray was more guarded than usual in both his words and actions.

The 59-year-old has always been subdued in comparison with his fiery father and cousin, but this time, he was also acutely conscious that the stakes were higher than usual: his party was contesting only 124 out of 288 assembly seats because Uddhav had to give up more seats to senior alliance partner BJP. Even that number, the lowest for the Sena in 30 years, had come after some tough negotiations.

Even more importantly, Uddhav’s 29-year-old son, Aaditya Thackeray, was preparing to make his debut in electoral politics, the first from his famous family to do so. 

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The Sena’s position was so precarious that more than once, Uddhav had to publicly apologise to restless party workers who were denied tickets.

Compared with the BJP’s high-voltage campaign, the Shiv Sena seemed like it was conducting an Aaditya promotional exercise. The Thackeray father-son duo came across as ineffective when the Mumbai Metro Rail Corp. cut more than 2,000 trees in the Aarey colony in the face of protests. Uddhav was ridiculed when he said Aarey would be declared a forest area once Sena returned to power, seemingly having forgotten that they were part of the ruling state government.

“Whose government it is now?” Uddhav’s cousin and MNS chief Raj Thackeray questioned in one of his election rallies. “Stop fooling people,” he added. 

Aaditya also faced flack for being a “Twitter warrior” instead of leading the charge for Aarey’s trees.

Come 24 October, the biggest question everyone was asking was whether BJP could cross the halfway mark on its own. Translation: could the Devendra Fadnavis-led party afford to ditch its increasingly fractious ally, the Shiv Sena, and form a majority government in India’s richest state? 

But surprisingly, both parties saw their seat tally drop from 2014 after NCP supremo Sharad Pawar single-handedly led a spirited campaign.

A week since then, it’s clear that the tables have turned—not only has the Shiv Sena not attended a single meeting with the BJP yet to discuss government formation, its newspaper Saamna has been harshly criticising the party for everything from the economic slowdown to its reluctance to play ball on seat sharing. 

One of the biggest points of contention is the so-called ‘50:50 formula’—Sena leaders insist they were promised an equal share of power in the new government (including the chief minister’s post), while Fadnavis has flatly denied this—which could decide whether Aaditya has a shot at becoming the state’s youngest chief minister.

Behind the bravado is also desperation—while the BJP’s tally in Haryana and Maharashtra was lower than it expected and it is overtly dependent on the Sena’s numbers, it’s too powerful to be sidelined for long. And since NCP leader Sharad Pawar has ruled out any understanding with the Sena, the two saffron parties have no choice but to get together sooner or later.

But until then, Uddhav seems determined to milk his moment of triumph. 

Holding out for more

The change in Uddhav’s demeanour was obvious from the afternoon of the results itself.

At a press conference held in his house, he was confident, combative and quick to answer all the questions that came his way.

A Shiv Sena leader close to Uddhav told HuffPost India confidently (and on condition of anonymity) that his party chief may not be a firebrand orator like his cousin Raj or a mass leader like his father Bal Thackeray, but he was the best when it came to “drawing-room politics”.

“Even Balasaheb (Bal Thackeray) would have been no match for Uddhav when it comes to the theatrics of coalition politics. (Former BJP leader) Pramod Mahajan could easily persuade Balasaheb but in the present BJP, there is no one who can tackle Uddhav, given his negotiating abilities. Just wait and watch, he will extract the maximum from the BJP. You might even see a different CM in Maharashtra next week,” he said.

PUNIT PARANJPE via Getty Images
Prime Minister Narendra Modi with Shiv Sena party chief Uddhav Thackeray during Lok Sabha election campaign in April 2019

Uddhav’s rise

Uddhav’s political career has always seen obstacles but the soft-spoken photographer has managed to overcome each challenge.

Even at the Shiv Sena’s peak in 1995, when its campaign was led by people like Bal Thackeray along with Raj and Narayan Rane, the maximum number of assembly seats it has won is 73.

Until the 1995 election, Uddhav was nowhere on the political horizon of Maharashtra but his cousin Raj had already carved out an identity for himself and was being considered the rightful heir of Bal Thackeray.

Uddhav, in contrast,  was soft-spoken and maintained a low profile.

“Raj’s rise within Shiv Sena was not without heartburn, especially among the old guard. Raj was aggressive and even brash and would often overrule party veterans who had seen him since childhood… Uddhav felt that instead of this top-down approach the organization should be built ground up and the monopoly of some leaders needed to be challenged. Raj was blunt. The party’s old guard was uneasy at his rising political graph,” wrote senior journalist and author Dhaval Kulkarni in his recently published book The Cousins Thackeray: Uddhav, Raj and the Shadow of Their Senas.

Uddhav used the unease of the senior members to his advantage.

“The party’s old guard gradually started pitching Uddhav as a counterweight,” wrote Kulkarni.

During the four-and-a-half years of his party’s government post-1995, Udhhav managed to carve out a group of his own loyalists but what came as a shot in the arm was a 1996 murder case which led to the marginalization of Raj in the Shiv Sena.

Four years later, Uddhav was made the working president of Shiv Sena and the announcement was made by none other than Raj Thackeray, in the absence of Bal Thackeray.

But this did not end Uddhav’s difficulties. His elevation led to Narayan Rane, former Maharashtra CM and senior party leader, also becoming disgruntled.

The next decade saw the exit of Raj and Rane from Shiv Sena and the party lost three back-to-back elections beginning 1999. 

Rane directly pointed fingers at Uddhav while joining the Congress in 2005 whereas Raj had also indicated his displeasure over the “people surrounding Bal Thackeray” when he formed his own party, Maharashtra Navnirman Sena, in 2005.

The next few years were a test for Uddhav, who was constantly compared with his cousin.

Rane destroyed the Shiv Sena’s hold over the Konkan region. In the 2009 Lok Sabha election, the Sena was reduced to 11 MPs and could not win even a single seat in its bastion Mumbai, thanks to Raj’s MNS, which got lakhs of votes.

Four months later, in the assembly election, the NCP-Congress combine swept back to power for the third time and Raj managed to win 13 assembly seats but Udhhav could not even stake a claim for the leader of opposition post as his party had one MLA less than BJP.

With Bal Thackeray ailing, people had begun writing political obituaries of the Shiv Sena and Uddhav but people close to him say that instead of losing heart, he focused on organisation and cadre-building, a task that Bal Thackeray always left to other leaders.

Uddhav’s biggest test was retaining the Shiv Sena’s hold over the cash-rich BMC in the 2012 municipal election with the MNS snapping at its heels. Not only did he manage to thwart Raj’s threat, he also kept his flock together even after his father’s death in 2012.

Uddhav’s efforts paid off in the 2014 Lok Sabha election when his party won seats from Konkan to Vidarbha and Marathwada to Western Maharashtra.

In the assembly elections later that year, he eclipsed his cousin and won 63 assembly seats.

BJP’s ally and biggest critic

The BJP won 122 assembly seats in 2014 and Shiv Sena was set to drive a hard bargain, but Sharad Pawar came up with another obstacle when he declared unconditional support to BJP, extinguishing Uddhav’s bargaining power. 

For the next three months, Shiv Sena occupied the opposition benches but Uddhav realised that the biggest threat to his party was the aggressive, ambitious BJP.

When he realigned with BJP, he became the biggest critic of the government for the next four years.

From asking his ministers to keep their resignations ready in their pockets to travelling to Ayodhya to remind the BJP of its promise on Ram Mandir, Uddhav turned out to be a bigger headache for the BJP than the opposition NCP-Congress in the state.

In 2018, he declared that Shiv Sena would not align with BJP in any future election, only to eat his words this year when he not only aligned with the BJP but also settled for fewer seats.

His decision to align with the BJP before 2019 polls was seen as a compromise by many but people close to him claim Uddhav is good at gauging the political weather.

“People thought Raj was the natural and rightful heir of Balasaheb but look at Raj now. He is battling for political survival and Uddhav continues to remain politically relevant despite getting only 50 odd MLAs. Balasaheb chose the right successor, I would say, and it’s there for everyone to see,” said a Mumbai-based political observer who has watched the Thackeray family’s political journey closely.

Uddhav’s health remains a concern for supporters—he has been hospitalised multiple times for heart ailments—but they are counting on him to bring Fadnavis and the BJP to the negotiating table one more time.