Both Raj and Uddhav Thackeray face challenges this Lok Sabha election. While for Uddhav, this is the first election after the death of his father, Raj faces a credibility crisis

In 2006, when he addressed his fledgling party’s very first rally, Raj Thackeray staked claim to his space in the State. “I am Maharashtra’s and Maharashtra is mine,” he declared, bowing his head to the cheering crowd.

He had split dramatically from the Shiv Sena founded by his uncle Bal Thackeray and formed his breakaway outfit, the Maharashtra Navnirman Sena (MNS). This was the outcome of years of frustration at being sidelined in favour of the supremo’s son, Uddhav Thackeray, despite once being considered Bal Thackeray’s natural heir. In a party intolerant of dissent, he was a rebel from within.

The two parties share the same ideologies of Hindutva and Marathi chauvinism, though Raj Thackeray is the hardline militant avatar. They even attract the same cadre of Marathi voters — ‘sons of the soil’ who feel displaced in a fast-changing and developing State. Yet they remain bitter political rivals because if they do not, they stand to lose their following to the other.

That is why few were surprised when Raj Thackeray announced his decision to contest the Lok Sabha election despite being requested not to by former Bharatiya Janata Party president Nitin Gadkari. “If the MNS did not contest the election, its cadre may have deserted the party to rejoin the Shiv Sena or even the Nationalist Congress Party which is now an alternative for young Marathi youth,” says Sandeep Pradhan, political editor of Maharashtra Times.

In the 2009 Lok Sabha polls, Raj Thackeray had shown the Shiv Sena the damage he could do. His party tore into the Shiv Sena-BJP vote, ensuring its defeat in nine of the State’s 48 constituencies. The MNS played a spoiler in Mumbai, Nasik, Bhiwandi, Pune and Thane. With MNS candidates dividing the saffron vote, it was the Congress-NCP candidates who won. In the Nasik and Mumbai South constituencies, the MNS placed second, ahead of the saffron alliance.

The rise of the son

From the 1980s to the mid-90s, it was Raj Thackeray who was groomed as Bal Thackeray’s political heir. He bore an uncanny resemblance to his uncle and shared his gift for oration and aggression. He led the party’s student wing, the Bhartiya Vidyarthi Sena, which was at the forefront of agitations.

But Bal Thackeray later had a change of heart and went on to anoint his son. His reliance on Uddhav Thackeray had grown after Raj Thackeray got embroiled in the murder case of Mumbai tenant Ramesh Kini in the mid-1990s when the Shiv Sena-BJP government was in power in Maharashtra. He was later cleared of all charges.

Uddhav Thackeray began working with the party first through its newspaper Saamna. Over the years, especially after the alliance lost power in the State in 2000, he took control of the party by appointing his own men to its branches or shakhas. Raj Thackeray struck back by maintaining a parallel network of Vidyarthi Sena activists who were loyal to him.

However, with Bal Thackeray firmly backing his son, Raj Thackeray was forced to concede defeat. In 2003, he ended up proposing his cousin’s name as the party’s executive president, second only to Bal Thackeray. He later said that by doing this, he had “thrown the axe on my own foot.” His isolation soon escalated. He was not consulted on party matters and his men were denied party tickets. This made the split inevitable, especially after the 2004 State election, when the Shiv Sena-BJP combination was unable to return to power under Uddhav Thackeray’s leadership.

The bitterness still runs deep. In 2012, Raj Thackeray left his uncle’s funeral procession mid-way, reportedly because he felt excluded.

Mild-mannered and polite, Uddhav Thackeray had the unenviable task of stepping into his father’s shoes and competing against his flamboyant rabble-rousing cousin. He seemed nothing like a shiv sainik. While Raj Thackeray had charisma and could hold a crowd spellbound, Uddhav Thackeray’s speeches were laboured and forced.

Yet he had the advantage of his father’s backing and stronger organisational skills than his cousin. “Uddhav Thackeray has at least shown some consistency. He is not accessible and listens to a coterie, but devotes time to the organisation. He has undertaken regular tours and agitations. The party may not have come back to power in the State but it has retained key municipalities including Mumbai,” says Mr. Pradhan.

Under Uddhav Thackeray’s leadership however, the Shiv Sena’s equation with its alliance partner, the BJP, faltered. A key reason was that the BJP had become stronger and questioned the Shiv Sena’s role as the Big Brother in the alliance. In the 2009 Assembly polls, the BJP won two seats more than the Shiv Sena and began flexing its muscles.

Raj Thackeray symbolised the party’s belligerent pro-Marathi past and cast his party as the “real Sena.” He galvanised the cadre with a string of agitations against north-Indian migrants, leading to his arrest in 2008. In both the Lok Sabha and Assembly polls in 2009, the party reaped rich dividends. It now has 13 MLAs in the State Assembly.

However, since then the MNS has largely been inactive, barring a half-hearted agitation against road tolls, leaving the organisation in disarray. The lukewarm response to even this agitation is seen as a sign of the party’s waning influence. The reason many say is Raj Thackeray’s lifestyle and his preference for comfort over the rigour of running the party machine.

The poll battle

Both leaders face key challenges this Lok Sabha election. For Uddhav Thackeray, this is the first election after the death of his father. Raj Thackeray faces a credibility crisis. He was accused of a deal with the Congress-NCP after he split the saffron vote in 2009. Now he is accused of a deal with the BJP after he announced he would back Narendra Modi for Prime Minister. Both parties stand to benefit from the anti-incumbency against the Congress-led government. But at the moment, Raj Thackeray is not expected to be the game-changer he was in 2009.

The BJP is fishing in these troubled waters for the gains it can make, riding on the Modi factor. Its overtures towards Raj Thackeray could well be an attempt to keep the Shiv Sena on the defensive or open the window for an alternative ally in the future. But the Shiv Sena has hit back at its ally. Mr. Gadkari’s intervention has turned the battle of Sena versus Sena more interesting.

priyanka. k@thehindu.co.in

This article has been corrected for an editing error.

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