Bal Thackeray, founder of Shiv Sena (1966) and a towering leader of Maharashtra followed an unwritten dictum: Never occupy power. Control it.
His son Uddhav, daughter-in law Rashmi and grandson Aditya broke the rule.
Their current situation is mainly due to fiddling with the legacy of Thackeray senior, also known as Balasaheb, who wielded much more power than any chief minister in the seat of power because always people need a bold voice on their side.
Bal Thackeray’s brilliance lay in understanding people’s psyche and their grouses against politicians.
By never accepting official position and by never fighting an electoral battle, Balasaheb carved his position -- perpetually on side of people even though he himself was much more than the real sarkar (government) in Maharashtra. The clarity of thoughts, audacity to express it and a sense of purpose to run Shiv Sena made him a mass leader.
For decades, his party Shiv Sena was hardly a conventional political entity but it grew because it was perceived as a pro-people outfit with the muscle power.
In 2019, when he became the chief minister, Uddhav lost the authority that Balasaheb had acquired. Instead of taking to task the chief minister, questioning ministers and the bureaucrats, overnight he became answerable to the masses and his party men, too.
Moreover, he turned out to be a weak chief minister as Sharad Pawar had more authority in the state than what Uddhav wielded through his constitutional position.
Out of 55 MLAS that Sena currently has, more than 2/3 have deserted Uddhav Thackeray, making the Maharashtra Vikas Aghadi (MVA) ruling alliance lose its majority in the state assembly.
It is nothing short of a mind-blowing political event in India. The son of a legendary mass leader was caught napping when his own soldiers were plotting revolt.
Thackeray’s minister, Eknath Shinde led the rebellion, which is seen as a direct impeachment of Uddhav’s leadership. When the MVA was formed Eknath Shinde was to be a chief minister before Uddhav emerged into picture.
Of course, as Pawar said, India’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is behind Shinde’s revolt. Even Shinde said in Gauhati on Thursday that powerful national party (read the BJP) would help the rebel MLAs.
While breaking pre-poll alliance with the BJP that had the people’s mandate, Uddhav went on to form a government with Sena’s staunch political rivals Sharad Pawar’s Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) and Congress. Most observers knew that the ‘unnatural alliance’ would not last a full term.
But for anti-BJP forces, MVA’s stated purpose was to keep “communal BJP” out of power and help create space for Sena to adopt “softer Hindutva” in the company of NCP and Congress.
Sonia Gandhi was apprehensive to partner with Sena which had, in 1992, proudly owned up demolition of Babri mosque. But, the secular-liberal thinkers thought in view of BJP’s unrestricted growth, a compromise with ultra nationalist Sena is worth it.
Uddhav too has a more softer appearance. He is affable, mild-mannered and his main passion is wildlife photography, not politics. That helped gain the secular-liberal thumbs up.
Fast forward to June 2022, the unfolding development in Maharahstra suggests that the project of “secularisation of Sena” has been rejected and failed by its own Members of the Legislative Assembly (MLAs).
To counter and restrict BJP in Maharashtra, the idea of compromise by overlooking Sena’s hardline regional party image was inherently erroneous, not just opportunistic.
This top-down approach to change fundamentals of politics in India doesn’t work.
Uddhav played some symbolic politics to make his secular partners comfortable on the issue of Hijab (head covering) and Azaan (call for prayer) in mosques but his MLAs largely kept silent because they were confused. They had fought election after election campaigning over hardcore hindutva rhetoric — with success.
For the last two years, a hyperactive BJP was creating all sort of problems against MLAs of the MVA.
More than dozen MLAs, ministers or their business partners started facing heat from Enforcement Directorate (ED), CBI or Income tax.
Pawar and many other openly blamed BJP for using the agencies to weaken political adversaries. Eknath Shinde and his rich friends were under watch, too.
Meanwhile Shinde, who is now heading his party rebels, continued to meet cadres and help his fellow MLAs clearing projects in their constituencies.
Covid restrictions and his spinal injury made it difficult for Uddhav to run the party and the government. Recent riots over Agnipath scheme proved that India can ignite in no time.
No leader, including Uddhav, can afford to remain incommunicado when development work is a national priority.
Without influence peddling in the state capital (to get sanctions for funds for example), the MLAs can’t move freely in his/her own constituency.
Things have changed in India. In youth, dynasty is a bad word. The troubles faced by Akhilesh Yadav, Rahul Gandhi or Tejaswi Yadav are case in point.
Maharashtra’s MLAs finally got fed up of the Thackeray dynasty yielding away ground to NCP in non-urban areas. Eknath lend them a shoulder.
Devendra Fadnavis was talking to one and all in the Sena as he had worked with them for five years as chief minister (2014-2019). He had communication lines open with Congress’s Ashok Chavan and NCP’s Ajit Pawar, too. In Mumbai’s political bazar, all kind of allurement for MLAs were on offer.
Out of three top leaders of Maharashtra, only Eknath Shinde had the prowess to get 2/3 of Sena’s MLAs on his side. If all goes according to BJP’s plan, then Fadnavis will be the state’s next CM and Shinde would be his deputy.
Shinde got support of so many MLAs because increasingly they were finding that both — the BJP and the brand image of Prime Minister Narendra Modi haven’t weakened in Maharashtra even though they are not in power.
Total dominance of NCP in controlling various knobs of power and constant pressure from investigating agencies was the final tipping point.
Note that close to 40 Shiv Sena MLAs have allegedly rebelled politically against their own leader.
BJP coming to power — with the help of rebel Sena MLAs — will be Uddhav Thackeray’s battle for survival in Maharashtra.
For the BJP too, trying to wreck Sena may be a short term gain to bruise their hurt ego but in a long run it may need the Maratha party (or the Thackeray brand) or both — depending on situation on eve of 2024 election.
NCP will try to see that BJP hurts Shiv Sena as much as possible so that Maharahstra doesn’t see any more quadrilateral (With Sena, NCP, Congress and BJP) claims on most seats.
The battle for Mumbai — India’s financial hub — and Maharashtra has just begun.