Frontline Volume 20 - Issue 04, February 15 - 28, 2003
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THE STATES

The son rises

LYLA BAVADAM
in Mumbai

Bal Thackeray's son Uddhav is chosen the new leader of the Shiv Sena. The other contender, Raj Thackeray, makes way for him but the party is evidently polarised on the issue of succession.

RAJESH NIRGUDE/AP

Uddhav Thackeray, the newly appointed executive president of the Shiv Sena.

SHIV SENA chief Bal Thackeray has had much to say against dynastic succession in the Congress(I), but he has no qualms about practising it in his own party. On January 30, at a party conclave in Mahabaleshwar, Thackeray's son Uddhav Thackeray was chosen as the Shiv Sena's executive president. Thackeray has not stepped down from his self-appointed position of supreme leader. He will continue to dictate to and guide the party, but will reduce the number of his public appearances.

What prompted Thackeray, who has determinedly kept the top position for himself, finally to choose a successor? Plainly put - intimations of mortality and the Assembly elections in 2004. The Sena patriarch is 76 years old and reputedly in poor health. The party that he created and headed for over four decades has been steadily losing direction and credibility among its supporters. Over the past three years, Thackeray has witnessed the public jostling for power between his son and his nephew, Raj Thackeray. For the Sena to be able to maintain the political ground it has gained in its 40 years of existence, a new leader had to be appointed during Thackeray's lifetime.

Despite Thackeray's vicious comments with regard to dynastic rule, there was little doubt that he would ultimately anoint his son as his successor. Thackeray does not see this as hypocrisy and says the Sena has never claimed to be a democratically run party. In fact, the formal structure of a party national executive and the post of president were created recently in order to forestall derecognition of the party by the Election Commission (E.C.). (The E.C. has prescribed that every political party should draft a constitution and hold regular inner-party elections to retain recognition.) The Mahabaleshwar meeting saw the formation of a 13-member national executive, which included Bal Thackeray, Lok Sabha Speaker Manohar Joshi, former Maharashtra Chief Minister Narayan Rane, Sudhir Joshi, Madhukar Sarpotdar, Leeladhar Dake, Subhash Desai, Satish Pradhan, Dattaji Nalawade, Pramod Navalkar, Uddhav Thackeray, Raj Thackeray and Diwakar Raote.

THE appointment of a successor was overdue. Although Thackeray was expected to anoint a successor on his 75th birthday, on January 23, 2002, that never happened as the Sena was passing through difficult times. Its political gains were unimpressive, control of the State government had been lost and the disarray in the party had resulted in the loss of loyalty among some cadres. To add to these, both Thackeray's son and nephew wanted the top post. Each had their groups of supporters within the party that once had stood undivided. To choose between the two contenders was a tricky, and risky, business.

Moreover, there were the disadvantages of Thackeray's style of functioning, marked by his intolerance for sharing power. His autocratic style served the purpose well when he was building the party. His flamboyant ways, his fiery speeches, and his ability to twist everything to the Sena's advantage, regardless of the convoluted logic of his arguments, were advantages at one time. However, the disadvantages of eclipsing everyone else showed when it was time to choose a successor. Uddhav Thackeray was the natural choice since he was the chief's son; but his interests lay elsewhere. He had a penchant for photography and travel. Even today his website describes him only as a photographer. Apart from a dramatic opening sentence that reads `Bring stripes back into fashion' (a picture later reveals this to be a tiger) there is no indication on the website of Uddhav Thackeray having anything to do with the Shiv Sena. In the eyes of several people, the correct choice for successor was Raj Thackeray, with his political ambitions, charisma, experience, a natural affinity for politics - and an uncanny resemblance to his uncle.

In December 2002, Thackeray convinced Raj Thackeray of the need to accept Uddhav Thackeray as the party leader. Raj Thackeray's acquiescence was not a surprise, despite the fact that the same person had commented to confidants some years ago that if he was superseded, "there would be violent standoffs in the city". No one took the threat lightly and yet, if the party's claim is to be believed, on January 30 Raj Thackeray himself proposed Uddhav Thackeray's name for the post of executive president. Apparently, one of the things that worked against Raj Thackeray was his alleged entanglement in the Ramesh Kini murder case. Although he was subsequently declared innocent, the matter did tarnish the Sena's image. Choosing him leader might have affected the party's chances of victory in the Assembly elections.

PARTY insiders say that Uddhav Thackeray is not to be underestimated merely because he lacks Raj Thackeray's impassioned style. In a quiet but assertive way, Uddhav Thackeray is more in a position to influence decisions than his cousin. In 2002, sensing that he was being overshadowed, Raj Thackeray had said his men had been sidelined in ticket distribution for the civic elections. He complained that partisan behaviour by those close to the Sena chief had robbed his followers of potential gains. The accusation was aimed at Uddhav Thackeray, whose popularity was on the rise at the time. Interestingly, this time round, Raj Thackeray has chosen to accept Uddhav Thackeray's appointment despite alleged overtures to him by some rival political parties.

On the other hand, Uddhav Thackeray's refusal to be drawn into a slanging match last year had been praised by some. But the fact is that he knew his position was secure as he was Thackeray's son. Thackeray wrote in the party's newspaper, Saamna, in 2002, "If Raj was here, he too would have got this advantage." It was a reference to Uddhav Thackeray, who lived with his father, unlike Raj Thackeray, who lived elsewhere.

SHERWIN CRASTO/AP

Shiv Sena chief Bal Thackeray.

Since 1998, when Uddhav Thackeray entered active politics, there have been small but frequent indications that he would take charge and that he was also his father's son in thought and attitude. In October 2002, Uddhav Thackeray addressed a rally of various trade unions to protest against the report of the Second Labour Commission. It was a job that would normally have been done by Raj Thackeray, who is not only more familiar with the politics of trade unions and student organisations, but is known to their members. In 1999, in the thick of the controversy over Pakistani cricketers playing in India, it was Uddhav Thackeray who spoke against it at a rally in Mapusa, Goa, and made fun of the Bharatiya Janata Party for its wishy-washy stance on the issue.

In his first speech after taking over as the leader of the party, addressing a gathering of Shiv Sainiks on February 2, Uddhav Thackeray reiterated his commitment to the Sena's oldest slogan - "Mumbai for Mumbaikars". It is believed that he will reiterate his father's opinion on Rajya Sabha member and former Union Law Minister Ram Jethmalani's decision to defend Syed Abdul Rehman Geelani, one of the three men convicted and sentenced to death in the December 13 Parliament attack case. Thackeray had objected to this saying Jethmalani was elected to the Rajya Sabha with the Sena's support and hence should toe the party line on the issue. He said that if Jethamalani wanted to defend Geelani he should first resign from the Rajya Sabha.

The jostling for the top position has polarised the Sena. From being a band of people who were single-mindedly devoted to one man, the party now has two camps. Manohar Joshi and Narayan Rane - both former Chief Ministers of the State - are in opposite camps. While Rane owes allegiance to Uddhav Thackeray, Joshi is a Raj supporter. The positions taken by these two important and ambitious Shiv Sena leaders further polarises the party at a time when it needs to remain united prior to the Assembly polls.

Moreover, a division in the Sena ranks would give the BJP an upper hand in the course of political bargaining in case the two decide to form an alliance for the next elections. The Shiv Sena and the BJP have had poll alliances from the mid-1980s. While the BJP needs the Shiv Sena given its consistent electoral performance in the Konkan belt and in Mumbai, the Sena needs to use the BJP's platform of Hindutva. When not sharing power, the two parties display contempt for each other. Of late, Thackeray has been projecting himself as the protector of the Hindutva cause. In January, responding to Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee's musings from Goa, he sought to project himself and his party as the foremost advocates of Hindutva, "not wavering according to the winds of the moment" like the BJP or the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP). He described the BJP as an "entity that did not know which path to tread. It says one thing from one platform and yet another on Hindutva from a different one". Thackeray also sought to put his spin on the significance of the BJP's victory in the Gujarat elections by saying that it was not because of "any Narendra Modi pattern or Gujarat pattern, but because of Hindutva".

For its part, the BJP leadership has little love lost for the Shiv Sena. A senior BJP leader from Maharashtra is known to refer to Thackeray as "a small man" and the animosity between Uddhav Thackeray and BJP leader and former Deputy Chief Minister Gopinath Munde is a matter of public knowledge.

By current indications, a Shiv Sena-BJP alliance is seen to have a fair chance of returning to power in the State in 2004 as the ruling Congress(I)-Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) combine shows no signs of resolving their mutual differences. It is believed that if the Shiv Sena-BJP alliance comes to power and the Shiv Sena wins a majority on its own, Uddhav Thackeray may break with tradition and accept the chief ministership with Gopinath Munde as his deputy.

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