Uddhav Thackeray addresses a public rally in Aurangabad. The Maharashtra chief minister should be lauded since his government survived 31 months despite persistent BJP attempts to topple him. Image Credit: ANI

Uddhav Balasaheb Thackeray faces a fork in the road. After resigning as chief minister of Maharashtra, he could become history. Maharashtra politics could become a BJP vs NCP affair, with the new breakaway Shiv Sena an adjunct of the Bharatiya Janata Party.

Or, Thackeray could rise like the phoenix.

We won’t have to wait long to know how things turn out. Elections for India’s richest city corporation, Mumbai’s Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation or BMC, are just a few months away. These elections will be the real test for Uddhav Thackeray.

Has Uddhav’s lucky stint as chief minister for 2.5 years made him a mass leader who can overcome the desertion of many of his party’s generals?

Will voters reward him for his performance in handling COVID-19, for his playing the Marathi card against the BJP, and for his genteel approach to moderating the Shiv Sena’s militant, nativist edge? Or will they reward the BJP and the new Shiv Sena for winning the power game?

This will be Uddhav Thackeray’s opportunity to defeat horse-trading with the power of the common man’s vote. If Uddhav and his son Aditya Thackeray invested enough in gaining political capital from the masses over the last 2.5 years, this shouldn’t be tough. But if they have behaved like technocrats and have ignored growing Brand Thackeray on the streets, they’ll pay a heavy price for it.

Mumbai = Thackeray?

“Mumbai means Shiv Sena and Shiv Sena means Mumbai,” a journalist in the city told me some months ago. The Sena has ruled the BMC for 25 years. Its power-sharing agreement with the BJP used to be about letting it rule the BMC while the BJP had the upper hand in the state government.

Now with a breakaway Shiv Sena contesting the BMC elections, the Marathi vote could split and the BJP could win the BMC elections. This could be the end of the road for Uddhav Thackeray.

However, if Uddhav Thackeray is to demonstrate he is Balasaheb’s son, if he can get the legion of Shiv Sena workers behind him, if he can show that rebel Eknath Shinde is not a patch on him, then Uddhav Thackeray will have made a place for himself in history.

Blaming the victim

Success has many fathers but failure is an orphan. Until a few days ago, Uddhav Thackeray seemed like a rather successful politician: he handled COVID well, completed over 2.5 years as chief minister of Maharashtra, leading a difficult alliance of three parties despite an aggressive BJP trying to make the government fall every day.

Now that most of his legislators have deserted him, critics are blaming Uddhav for his troubles. He couldn’t keep his flock together, but do you really blame him when the BJP went all out to make his government fall?

The charges include ideological betrayal as if ideology matters more than money and tax raids in the musical chairs of politics. The charge is that he was not accessible, he behaved like a dynast, he made his son a minister in his cabinet, he had no clue of a rebellion brewing within his party, and so on.

Uddhav Thackeray has been answering these charges over the last few days. For a moment, look at the big picture: Kamal Nath’s weak government in Madhya Pradesh was toppled by the BJP in 15 months. The Congress-supported government of HD Kumarasamy government in Karnataka lasted 14 months. Uddhav Thackeray should thus be lauded that his government has survived a good 31 months.

Operation Lotus

This is a no-mean achievement given that the BJP puts all its might in “Operation Lotus” to topple opposition-ruled state governments. In Maharashtra, the BJP had been trying to make the government fall every day since it was formed.

November 2019 was humiliating for the BJP in Maharashtra, when they could not form a government despite a hurried swearing-in of Devendra Fadnavis. The BJP has been trying to undo that humiliation but it has taken them a while.

Critics give credit for the success of the “Maha Vikas Aghadi” (Maharashtra Development Front) alliance to Sharad Pawar of the Nationalist Congress Party, but some credit is due to Uddhav Thackeray too. His soft Hindutva strategy also worked rather well. There was no revolt from the cadres against the party’s moderation and they even won by-polls. So to say that Uddhav is paying the price for moderating the Shiv Sena’s militant edge is not true.

The only thing Uddhav Thackeray is paying the price for is daring to oppose the mighty BJP. It is well known that central tax agencies did not spare anyone in this alliance, and this pressure was key to the breaking of the Shiv Sena. Yes, it helped that many Shiv Sena MLAs could not be accommodated with ministerial berths given that it was a three-party alliance. They obviously have a better chance of becoming ministers in a BJP-led government.