The Indian National Congress’ slow decline is making it clear as daylight that opposition parties in India have no hope of getting the better of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) juggernaut anytime soon. We keep hearing of the need for the opposition to be united. The project of opposition unity won’t go anywhere without a prime ministerial candidate.
One of the points of friction for many voters is Rahul Gandhi. The thought of Rahul Gandhi running the country is more frightening than the thought of Narendra Modi as PM for many swing voters who are otherwise willing to consider an option other than the Modi-led BJP.
Idle chatterboxes like yours truly have the freedom to build castles in the air. So here we go: a united opposition should declare Uddhav Thackeray as its prime ministerial candidate for the next general elections, due in April 2024. Here’s why:
1) Acceptable gentle face
One never thought one could say this about a Shiv Sena leader, but Uddhav Thackeray is an acceptable gentle face. He doesn’t look clueless like Rahul Gandhi or temperamental like Mamata Banerjee.
More importantly, he doesn’t look or project himself as a strongman like Modi, thus coming across as a contrast. Contrast is good: it helps him stand out. He looks and sounds genteel like a caring, measured leader, just the sort of person India needs now.
2) Coalition manager
If by some stroke of luck the opposition gets a hung Parliament in 2024, the Congress and the Gandhi family are too weak to lead a coalition.
The leader will have to be someone who can pull of the difficult task of managing different coalition partners. Uddhav Thackeray currently leads an unlikely three party coalition of Shiv Sena, the Sharad Pawar-led Nationalist Congress Party, and the Congress.
Ideologically disparate, running this coalition is no easy task, especially with BJP doing everything it can to exploit any hint of friction. Even if this coalition, known as the Maha Vikas Aghadi, falls tomorrow, Uddhav has already achieved the impossible by making it happen.
Credit for running the coalition smoothly has been given to Sharad Pawar, but chief minister Thackeray also has the most important role in keeping everyone happy.
3) Hindutva-Secularism balancing act
Uddhav Thackeray and his party the Shiv Sena can’t be easily accused of the crime of ‘secularism’. But these days they can’t be accused of ‘communalism’ either. Since the death of his father Bal Thackeray, Uddhav has been toning down his party’s extreme impulses.
While remaining committed to Hindu and Marathi identity politics, they have given up their anti-minority violent edge. Perhaps one could call Uddhav Thackeray India’s first secular Hindu nationalist.
It will be difficult for the BJP to use the minority appeasement bogey against a party which is named after a Hindu deity.
4) Oh, and he can govern
Strictly speaking, this is not a precondition to succeed in Indian politics. You don’t have to be able to govern to win popular support. You just have to be able to lead the masses into believing you’re the guy they need.
It does help, however, if you can also govern well. If the MVA coalition in Maharashtra hasn’t fallen already, it’s partly because Uddhav has shown he is a serious, committed administrator who spends more time on governance than politics.
He took the risk of making his young son Aditya Thackeray a minister but even he is well-regarded. The best example of this has been the response to COVID-19. While Maharashtra has been the first and worst affected state during the pandemic, it hasn’t made Uddhav Thackeray or his government unpopular.
5) He has courage, lots of it
The Shiv Sena contested the 2019 assembly elections in Maharashtra in a pre-poll alliance with the BJP. As an arrogant BJP was unwilling to yield to Uddhav Thackeray’s demands in the power sharing arrangement, he dumped the BJP and with the help of Sharad Pawar formed the MVA alliance.
An angry BJP has done everything possible to destabilise his government, including using mouthpiece media to run calumnies and misusing central investigation agencies against his party and government colleagues. But Uddhav has struck back, having ordered the arrest of a prominent BJP rabble rouser on TV, and recently even a union minister in Modi’s cabinet.
In the best of times politics takes courage. When there is a dominant leader and party in power, it takes Himalayan courage. Uddhav has shown he has the courage to take on the BJP at a time when many other opposition leaders prefer to lie low and bide time.
6) Good communicator
Not many outside Maharashtra have a sense of how good a communicator Uddhav Thackeray is because he generally addresses his people in Marathi. He’s not the deracinated Congress elite who sound like they’re speaking in English even when they speak in Hindi.
Uddhav communicates regularly, passionately and unapologetically. This is part of the reason why he hasn’t faced much flak over COVID-19 fall out (apart from genuinely doing a better job than other states).
The importance of a good communicator to take on the BJP cannot be overstated.
7) Big business likes him
Nobody can win an election without the backing of big business in India today. Big business was the first to endorse Modi. Apart from the funding, they are part of the matrix of influencers who change public opinion.
Uddhav Thackeray is not only pro-business in his outlook, but has demonstrated that he’s willing to go the extra mile to increase economic activity.
India's big business, headquartered in Mumbai, is said to be happy with his government. Since he’s known all of them personally as fellow Mumbai residents, they have a level of comfort and trust they don’t enjoy with many Delhi politicians.