Other States

The reluctant Sainik: The rise and fall of Uddhav Thackeray

The detractors of the former Maharashtra chief minister say Uddhav Thackeray followed ‘aristocratic’ politics and was out of touch with the grassroots.

The detractors of the former Maharashtra chief minister say Uddhav Thackeray followed ‘aristocratic’ politics and was out of touch with the grassroots. | Photo Credit: Illustration: R. Rajesh

As a young amateur photographer, Uddhav Thackeray had a hair-raising encounter with a tiger at the famous Kanha National Park. The big cat leapt out from the woods and glowered at him before walking away, leaving Uddhav breathless. The young Thackeray scion went on to photograph wildlife in protected areas such as Bharatpur, Kanha, Gir, and Ranthambore, learning the virtue of coexistence. And when he had his first photography exhibition in 1999, he named it ‘Live and Let Live’.

ALSO READ: ‘Reformist’ Hindutva and Uddhav Thackeray

But his firebrand father Bal Thackeray, who inaugurated the exhibition, warned him that the rules of politics are different from those of the wild: predators in the political jungle are hungry for power.

On June 29, 2022, when he announced his resignation from the post of Maharashtra Chief Minister, Uddhav must have remembered his father’s words. In his address on Facebook Live, Uddhav claimed that he never wanted to be Chief Minister, but circumstances forced him to hold the post. “Sena made common people MLAs, MPs, and Ministers, and today they want to pull me down — the son of Shiv Sena Chief Balasaheb — from the post of CM,” he said.

Uddhav at a press conference in Mumbai last week.

Uddhav at a press conference in Mumbai last week. | Photo Credit: Getty Images

Since the second week of June, Uddhav suffered many setbacks. His party candidate was defeated in the Rajya Sabha polls, and in the State Legislative Council polls, the BJP overpowered the ruling alliance. This series of events triggered a political crisis in the State. Shiv Sena’s most senior leader Eknath Shinde revolted against Uddhav and almost 40 out of 55 party MLAs joined him. Ultimately, the Uddhav-led government landed in minority and he had to resign ahead of the crucial Mumbai civic elections. Sena has ruled Mumbai since 1997, and the civic body, with an annual budget of over ₹30,000 crore, is the lifeline of Sena’s politics. 

What came as a surprise for many was the way Uddhav handled the crisis. “When he was announcing his resignation, I felt that this is what happens to a simple straightforward person in the dirty world of politics,” says computer professional Aruna Chavan who has been following the political turmoil in the State. She says that Uddhav should have stayed away from the hurly-burly world of politics.

He too probably felt the same way back in the 90s. Uddhav was unwilling to step into political waters and was contemplating building a career as a photographer. After graduating from Mumbai’s Sir J.J. School of Art, he started an ad agency with his friends. But, by 1985, he realised that his charismatic father’s supporters had political ambitions for him.

ALSO READ: Shiv Sena | The Maratha tiger in its labyrinth 

At 30, he became active in the Shiv Sena when his maverick cousin Raj was already seen as the political heir to Bal Thackeray. Raj never believed in Uddhav’s capacity to lead the party. When Uddhav resigned as CM last month, Raj tweeted, “When anyone misunderstands good fortune as one’s personal accomplishment; therein begins the journey towards one’s decline!”

Shiv Sena cadre raise slogans in support of Uddhav Thackeray.

Shiv Sena cadre raise slogans in support of Uddhav Thackeray. | Photo Credit: Emmanual Yogini

Before he left Shiv Sena, Raj had alleged that Uddhav behaves like a “leader of the camp” and not of the party. When he became active in Shiv Sena, Uddhav built his own team of leaders who are part of the decision-making process. Subhash Desai, Sanjay Raut, Anil Parab, Anil Desai and personal secretary Milind Narvekar form Uddhav’s core team. Rebel Shiv Sena MLA Gulabrao Patil says that the ‘coterie’ around the party honcho never allowed common party workers and MLAs access to their leader and he remained unapproachable. Uddhav is not outspoken like his father and even party workers and leaders are often unable to decipher what is going on in his mind. “The revolt has not happened in a day. There was a growing feeling that our party leadership is not listening to us,” says Patil.

In November 2021, Uddhav underwent spine surgery, which restricted his movements. He alleged that rebel party leaders exploited the situation to break the Shiv Sena.

The family feud

In 2005, when Raj quit Shiv Sena, he launched a scathing attack on his cousin claiming that there was a widespread feeling that Uddhav had destroyed the party cadre. In 2006, Raj founded his own political outfit, Maharashtra Navnirman Sena (MNS), which is still struggling to stand on its feet in State politics.

Bal Thackeray’s estranged younger brother, Ramesh Thackeray, who died in 1999, had made an interesting observation of Raj and Uddhav. He said that Raj was ‘flamboyant and  chalu (cunning) type’ and ‘ dada-like (thug-like)’, traits that helped the Sena thrive. Uddhav, on the other hand, represented Shiv Sena’s newer, cleaner face: disciplined, polished and straightforward.

ALSO READ: Uddhav Thackeray ready for electoral battle asks cadre to begin preparations for Maharashtra Assembly

The next person in the Thackeray clan to question Uddhav’s capability as leader was his brother Jaidev. He dragged Uddhav to court over family property, and threatened to wash the family’s dirty linen in public. Jaidev hoped to play a leadership role in Shiv Sena but Uddhav dealt with him calmly and their father supported him. 

Another challenge to Uddhav’s leadership came from Jaidev’s wife Smita. Though Smita and Jaidev were divorced, she had strong political ambitions and wanted to be a Rajya Sabha member and play an active role in Shiv Sena. But again, the family patriarch threw his weight behind Uddhav. Eventually, Smita vanished from the political scene.

One of Uddhav’s close friends, who requested anonymity, said that after Uddhav’s mother Meenatai’s passing and his elder brother Bindumadhav’s death in a road accident, Bal Thackeray, in his sunset years, “became more dependent on Uddhav and it was obvious that he would choose him as his political heir. He handed over Shiv Sena to Uddhav, leaving no scope for Raj and Smita in the party.” 

Friends turn foes

Some veteran Shiv Sena leaders who worked with Bal Thackeray also believed Uddhav had no ability to lead the party. One of them was Narayan Rane who is now a Union Minister. In July 2005, Rane quit the Sena and alleged that Uddhav had humiliated him. Rane intended to lead a split in the party to show that Uddhav couldn’t handle it. Rane failed in his efforts, unlike Shinde in 2022.

In the 2019 State elections, the BJP and Shiv Sena fought as an alliance. BJP won 105 seats while Shiv Sena got 56. Together, the alliance crossed the majority figure of 144. But Uddhav claimed that the BJP must keep its promise of sharing the Chief Ministership with the Sena for a two-and-a-half-year term each. When BJP refuted this, Uddhav decided to snap ties with the BJP and formed a government with the Congress and NCP.

Shinde, a hardcore Shiv Sainik since 1980, is an MLA from Kopri-Panchpakhadi in Thane city and hoped to play a major role in the party after Bal Thackeray’s demise. In 2019, he hoped that Uddhav, like his father, would stay away from power corridors and play the role of king-maker. Shinde was gearing up to become Chief Minister in the Shiv Sena-led Congress and NCP government, but NCP chief Sharad Pawar insisted that for the stability of the government, Uddhav must take the responsibility.

From the day that Uddhav became Chief Minister, Shinde had been looking for an opportunity to pull him down; and the BJP provided him with ammunition. Shinde now claims that his faction is the “real” Shiv Sena and is also planning to claim the party’s symbol and rid the Sena of the Thackerays.

“Uddhav completely failed to grasp the gravity of the situation. He also failed to understand and differentiate between his role as head of the party and Chief Minister of the State,” says Shiv Sena historian and scribe Prakash Akolkar. “Shinde has not rebelled against the party but led the revolt against the party. Shiv Sena was always a feudal and aristocratic party but Balasaheb balanced the masses and boardroom politics. Uddhav followed only aristocratic politics and the result is here.”

A file photo of Aaditya Thackeray.

A file photo of Aaditya Thackeray. | Photo Credit: Getty Images

Akolkar adds that the “undue” promotion of Aaditya Thackeray, Uddhav’s elder son, fuelled unrest in the party. “Like his father, Aaditya is also into high-class Malabar Hill and Nariman Point politics, completely disconnected from the grassroots. Shiv Sena cadre could sense it, but I think Uddhav failed to understand that the party stands on the shoulders of its cadre.” Senior scribes like S. Balakrishnan and others who have studied the Shiv Sena for decades say that the Thackerays are not ready to trust an outsider and hence put Uddhav in the Chief Minister’s chair. The family’s experience with Shiv Sena’s first Chief Minister Manohar Joshi, and later Narayan Rane, was not good as they tried to override the Thackeray clan in decision-making.

A long battle ahead

Shiv Sena insiders say that with the support of the BJP, the rebel Sena camp will pose a major challenge to Uddhav on the streets and in courtrooms. “The aim of the revolt is not just to topple the government, but to dislodge the Thackerays from the party. BJP wants to occupy all the saffron space in Maharashtra with the help of Shinde and discredit Sena and Thackeray in Hindutva politics,” says political analyst Vijay Chormare. 

Shiv Sena 2.0: Uddhav ’s politics is far removed from his father’s approach
Uddhav’s style of leadership has dismayed many who believe in his father’s leadership. Not surprisingly, the BJP is wooing Shiv Sena cadres saying that Uddhav has compromised on Bal Thackeray’s principles. It would be interesting to see if Uddhav returns to his father’s brand of politics to save the party or continues to build the new Sena according to his vision.
Bal Thackeray
After founding Shiv Sena in 1966, Bal Thackeray ran campaigns against South Indians, who he said “grabbed” jobs of Marathi people in Mumbai. Later he injected Hindutva into mainstream electoral politics. His ‘Thakri’ language was blunt and often abusive. He never believed in democracy and advocated authoritarian rule. He warned his son Uddhav that the “infection” of democracy should not spread in the Shiv Sena. He picked up current issues and ordered his cadre to act on the ground without room for debates and discussions. Shiv Sainiks — soldiers of Shiv Sena — beat up anyone who dissented.
Uddhav Thackeray
Uddhav’s politics is far removed from his father’s approach and the old Sena cadre is unhappy about this. Many Shiv Sainiks opposed Uddhav when he appealed to party workers to not create problems for rebel Shiv Sena MLAs who returned to Mumbai from Goa where they had camped after the revolt. Uddhav has indeed changed the party’s style of functioning. Shiv Sainiks no longer beat up couples celebrating Valentine’s Day, attack greeting card shops, and indulge in moral policing. The party now discusses climate change and the environment and seeks suggestions from experts on several matters. There are no orders to persecute minority communities.

The first attempt of the BJP and the rebel Sena camp would be to end Shiv Sena’s control on Mumbai city, which has been the lifeline of the party’s politics for the last 25 years. Former Shiv Sena MP and senior leader Shivajirao Adhalrao Patil says that Sena needs to change its style of functioning and become more proactive. More Sena leaders, MPs and grassroots workers are likely to join the Shinde camp. “We are the real Shiv Sena and we will take forward the legacy of Balasaheb’s Hindutva,” announced Chief Minister Shinde, who has given clear indications that he plans to take over Shiv Sena in the next few months.

“Uddhav has a tough challenge ahead. He will have to reconnect with the masses. Uddhav is not Balasaheb and the Shiv Sena cadre has accepted it. Uddhav has his own style of working and he has proven his leadership since 1995,” says senior political scientist Ashok Chousalkar. “Balasaheb himself accepted Uddhav’s style of functioning and fully supported him. The revolt that has happened is not against Uddhav leadership but because of the political equations on the ground.”

Love, like a rock

A file photo of Uddhav Thackeray and his wife Rashmi Thackeray.

A file photo of Uddhav Thackeray and his wife Rashmi Thackeray. | Photo Credit: PTI

After his father, the only other person in his family who had faith in his abilities was his wife Rashmi. In 1988, Uddhav met Rashmi Patankar, a fresh graduate working as a contractual employee at the Life Insurance Corporation of India. The two got married in 1989 and she has, ever since, been a constant source of support to Uddhav. Sena insiders say that Rashmi plays an important role in her husband’s political decision-making at Matoshree, the residence of the Thackerays in Mumbai’s Bandra area.

Uddhav’s detractors allege that it was Rashmi’s ambition that pushed the Sena chief to take the reins of the party, break the alliance with the BJP, and occupy the chair of Chief Minister, joining hands with the Congress and NCP. 

Uddhav’s social circle is limited but he has a close connect with Mukesh Ambani and other industrialists in the State. In fact, Ambani was one of the prominent persons who attended the function at the iconic Shivaji Park in 2019 when Uddhav took oath as Chief Minister. Marathi film and theatre artists are closely connected with him and Marathi TV personality Aadesh Bandekar says that Uddhav has personally helped many of the artists but never revealed this to the public. 

While stepping down from the post of Chief Minister, Uddhav received praise from various quarters. Actor Prakash Raj tweeted, ‘You did great dear sir @OfficeofUT... and I’m sure people of Maharashtra will stand by you for the way you handled the state.. the Chanakya s may eat laddoos today.. but your genuinity will linger longer .. more power to you.. #justasking’. Many other Bollywood actors and actresses, including Swara Bhaskar and Simi Garewal, extended their support to Uddhav. Paresh Rawal meanwhile posted against Shiv Sena on Twitter, saying that the BJP must form a government in the State.

At 61, Uddhav still has a long way to go in politics and has announced he will be a regular at Shiv Sena Bhavan, the party office in Mumbai. But sympathy waves recede and he will have to reconsider his political strategies and connect with grassroots workers to rebuild the party. Stepping out of the coterie of leaders in Mumbai, can Uddhav give Shiv Sena a new identity? 

The writer is Deputy Editor, The Hindu BusinessLine, and author of ‘Trail of the Tiger: Uddhav Balasaheb Thackeray: A Journey’ (2021).


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Printable version | Sep 12, 2022 11:40:15 pm | https://www.thehindu.com/news/national/other-states/reluctant-sainik-the-rise-and-fall-of-uddhav-thackeray/article65598966.ece