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Retrospective

Uddhav Thackeray: Too moderate to survive

Print edition : Aug 25, 2022 T+T-

Uddhav Thackeray: Too moderate to survive

Uddhav Thackeray speaks during a press conference.

Uddhav Thackeray speaks during a press conference. | Photo Credit: AP Photo

He is a reluctant politician and possibly a weak one. But he made the Shiv Sena a respectable party.

After the new government came to power in Maharashtra, Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) leader Sharad Pawar made a telling statement to reporters. He said: “Uddhav Thackeray’s style of working is that if he has faith in someone, he gives him total autonomy. We saw this happen with Eknath Shinde. I don’t know if this is behind what has happened.”

The statement, made in Pawar’s characteristic bland manner, was something of a back-handed compliment. It spoke of trust, faith, and maturity—all signs of a confident leader, but it also begged the question, is the Shiv Sena prepared to go to the next level of being a mature political party? Given the recent incidents, it would seem not.

Under Thackeray, it seemed as if the party was ready to move on. It did not take long for Thackeray to endear himself to the State. When thrown into the deep end with COVID-19, he handled it well enough to gain admiration. For Sainiks, who are more used to brickbats for their leaders than bouquets, this was something new. There was a new-found respectability for the Shiv Sena. But, as the political crisis has shown, it was simply not enough.

Shiv Sena founder Bal Thackeray with his son Uddhav Thackeray.
Shiv Sena founder Bal Thackeray with his son Uddhav Thackeray. | Photo Credit: AP Photo

The Shiv Sena is basically an urban regional party that grew out of fears that non-Maharashtrians would overrun the State. Founder Bal Thackeray was always creating bogeymen around this theme. Born on the streets with no real ethos, having something to hate was a necessary focus for the old Sena. It was a matter of survival and it gave them an identity. But there was also the need to be taken seriously as a political party so that they could make a mark on the national political scene. This Achilles’ heel is what the BJP took advantage of some decades ago. Under Atal Bihari Vajpayee, the party offered Bal Thackeray the chance to join the Hindutva bandwagon and he leapt at it.

Here is a strange but true fact. Maharashtra’s Muslim community supports Uddhav Thackeray. It is strange because the old Sena used to bait Muslims. For Uddhav, the politics of hate made no sense. In fact, he was not even a natural politician but circumstances and ambitious followers raised him up. And although he is a great believer in Hindutva, he is not anti-Muslim, which is the defining factor of Hindutva that has been sold to the masses.

This absence of personal animosity has, however, not prevented Thackeray from visiting Ayodhya at least four times since 2018 (ironically, sometimes with Eknath Shinde); he has donated Rs.1 crore towards the construction of the temple; he has offered to build a Maharashtra Bhavan in Ayodhya for pilgrims from Maharashtra; he insists the temple must be built and keeps tabs on its construction; and, like his father, he says he is proud of the Sainiks who broke the Babri Masjid. Yet, without diminishing his belief, faith and commitment to Hindutva, he appears to have succeeded in cutting out the hate factor from it. He saw himself as a preserver of the religion rather than a protector.

A different Hindutva

He articulated this different vision of Hindutva in 2020 when he said, “Hindutva does not mean BJP. Hindutva is different and BJP is different. We have separated from the BJP and not from Hindutva…. Saying ‘Ram, Ram’ before the elections is not something I am going to do.” He refused to shout his beliefs from the rooftop. It was an ivory-tower decision made by a man who had grown up knowing no opposition or even the need to feel the pulse of those around him. It was a major error of judgment and Shinde and the BJP exploited it.

The Maha Vikas Aghadi’s common minimum programme had included the Preamble of the Constitution and it had the word “secular” in it. The BJP picked up on this and said Thackeray had abandoned Hindutva. Shinde leveraged this underlying fear in the Sainiks to lure away 40 Sena MLAs. The relative stability in the State, the well-controlled COVID-19 crisis, and the goodwill that Uddhav Thackeray had generated, all ultimately stood for nothing.

Maharashtra Chief Minister and rebel Shiv Sena leader Eknath Shinde. After winning the trust vote, Shinde once again justified his rebellion saying he did it to protect Bal Thackeray’s legacy of Hindutva.
Maharashtra Chief Minister and rebel Shiv Sena leader Eknath Shinde. After winning the trust vote, Shinde once again justified his rebellion saying he did it to protect Bal Thackeray’s legacy of Hindutva. | Photo Credit: AP Photo / Rajanish Kakade

After winning the trust vote, Shinde once again justified his rebellion saying he did it to protect Bal Thackeray’s legacy of Hindutva. He claimed that since the formation of the MVA, there had been unrest in the Sena and that he had approached Thackeray “five times” to address it. “We couldn’t speak against the parties that spoke against Savarkar and couldn’t insist on action being taken against those who had connections with Dawood Ibrahim. Nor could we demand the renaming of Aurangabad and Osmanabad [both these happened in the last days of the MVA]....”

Interestingly, although Maharashtra is the headquarters of the RSS, Hindutva is not easily embraced by the general population. The State prides itself on liberal thinking and acceptance of different religious identities. Bal Thackeray took on Hindutva as a political cloak, something he believed would give added mileage and prevent him from being swallowed up by the BJP with its pan-national presence. The Sena’s son-of-the-soil campaign touched a chord with the average Maharashtrian but the same cannot necessarily be said for Hindutva. There are many who say that Uddhav Thackeray got his just deserts, but there is one vital difference between what happened in 2019 and what happened in 2022. The former, say analysts, was the severing of a partnership because the promise of sharing the Chief Minister’s post was broken. The latter appears to simply be revenge.

A reluctant politician

Thackeray is a reluctant politician and, given the way he has handled the rebellion, possibly a weak one. But he did succeed in making the Sena a respectable political party. Shinde is likely to take the party back to its rougher days and, worse, reduce it to lackey status under the BJP.

Former Maharashtra Chief Minister and Congress leader Prithviraj Chavan expressed amazement at the opportunity Thackeray had lost by announcing his resignation on Facebook Live.
Former Maharashtra Chief Minister and Congress leader Prithviraj Chavan expressed amazement at the opportunity Thackeray had lost by announcing his resignation on Facebook Live. | Photo Credit: AP Photo / Rajanish Kakade

Thackeray has been accused of aloofness and being inaccessible. This, too, seems to have contributed to his downfall. Congressman and former Chief Minister Prithviraj Chavan noticed this flaw when he remarked on Thackeray’s decision to resign via Facebook Live. He expressed amazement at the opportunity Thackeray had lost. If the resignation has been done in the House, Thackeray could have detailed his political journey and choices as well as the betrayal of his followers and the treacherous means adopted to oust his government. As Chavan said, if Thackeray had resigned in the Assembly, it would have gone on record and been a black mark against the new government.