Mumbai after Thackeray

For now, it is advantage Uddhav
Phew!
TOGETHER IN GRIEF (L-R) Cousins Raj and Uddhav put aside their differences briefly to perform the last rites of Bal Thackeray at Mumbai’s Shivaji Park
Aditya Thackeray with his supporters in October 2011 at a Yuva Sena function
Sharmila (L) and Rashmi Thackeray at the funeral

Mumbaikars can heave a sigh of relief at the death of Shiv Sena Chief Bal Thackeray. At long last, an era of violent agitations has drawn to a close. Business houses, the media and the film fraternity can breathe easy, as neither the Shiv Sena nor Maharashtra Navnirman Sena (MNS) will resort to violent means to achieve its goals.

Violence was central to the late leader’s idea of identity politics. He thrived as an opposition figure, and seemed to enjoy not only the sway he held over street sentiment, but also the menace he could pose to those in power. It was this that gave him his popular appeal, not what the Sena-BJP government under his control achieved for electors in its sole stint in power (from 1995 to 2000; he himself was never CM). It was how he saw himself—a man with a growl, a veto holder.

The same cannot be said of his son and appointed successor Uddhav Thackeray, executive president of the Shiv Sena. Nor of the late leader’s nephew Raj Thackeray, chief of the MNS. Both these next-generation leaders are keen on assuming chief ministership of Maharashtra. So while they will also count on the support of the so-called Marathi manoos, the cousins will make the compromises needed to attain power—eschewing violent politics, for example.

How valid are these assumptions?

The dynamics of the rivalry between the cousins in their bid for power could determine the answer. Since Thackeray’s death, there has been much talk of Uddhav and Raj burying their differences and merging their parties to form a formidable force in the state. However, this is an unlikely event. Instead, both are likely to retain  independent identities and play on the same turf and appeal to the same constituents.

With the Shiv Sena’s supremo gone, the party’s vote bank will be up for grabs, and its already-loosening grip over Mumbai will loosen further. Traditional Sena voters may be drawn not just to the MNS, but also Sharad Pawar’s Nationalist Congress Party (NCP), which has been eyeing the rural base of the saffron party to consolidate itself against its ally in power, the Congress. Sharad Pawar has cosied up to the Sena leadership in the past, and his party has welcomed the latter’s defectors—like Chhagan Bhujbal, Ganesh Naik, Bhaskar Jadhav and Kiran Pawaskar. Now Sharad Pawar’s nephew Ajit Pawar is trying to turn the NCP even more regional in its orientation. He has been poaching Sena activists and taking ideological stances on Marathi issues that play to the same galleries. It is for such reasons that Sena voters who were loyal to Thackeray could shift their favour to the NCP.

Though Raj is seen to have some of his uncle’s charisma, it is clear that his party will not be able to fill the vacuum left by the post-Thackeray Sena. Most analysts agree that the MNS could act as an intimidatory force, but cannot create an identity as strong as the Shiv Sena’s.

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Before his death, Thackeray had called Uddhav and Raj and asked them to join forces in the form of a single political entity in the interests of sons-of-the-soil. Taking a cue from this, Chandumama Vaidya, maternal uncle of Uddhav and Raj, has publicly pledged to fulfil this dream of the departed Sena chief. But a truce between the warring cousins will not be easy to achieve.

A joint platform is not on either’s mind. Both have come a long way since Raj walked out on his uncle, Uddhav and the Shiv Sena seven years ago to set up his MNS. Even if they forge a common agenda, the question of top leadership—who runs the show?—will surely jeopardise relations. Neither is prepared to play second-fiddle to the other. They are equally ambitious. And this goes for their spouses as well. Uddhav’s wife Rashmi and Raj’s wife Sharmila both foresee roles as behind-the-CM’s-throne forces for themselves, and now that the Sena chief is no longer around, there is no elderly voice in the family to restrain their ambitions.

All this rules out a merger between the Shiv Sena and MNS.

Thackeray’s death has not led to a reconciliation. Though the cousins consoled each other in their hour of grief, they are still not on speaking terms, by and large, and observers see through their public efforts at being cordial with each other. Sources say that when Raj was all set to lift his uncle’s body onto the decorated vehicle at Matoshree (the Thackeray residence) for the funeral procession, he was stopped by an Uddhav aide saying that Sainiks will carry the body. Angered, Raj walked out of Matoshree and chose to walk to Shivaji Park along with the procession. He left immediately after his uncle’s pyre was lit and has not been seen at Matoshree since.      

During Thackeray’s funeral, though Rashmi and Sharmila were seated next to each other, they were clearly divided in their grief. They looked in opposite directions, never at each other. Perhaps the most bereaved daughter-in-law, though, is Smita Thackeray, the divorced wife of Jaidev, Uddhav’s estranged elder brother. While Jaidev’s relations with his father had been strained, Smita had retained her ties with her father-in-law, opting to stay at Matoshree after the divorce. The late Sena chief doted on Smita and her children, yet they found themselves thrown out of the house as Uddhav and Rashmi were averse to their continued presence. Without Thackeray there, she might be unwelcome even as a visitor.

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If Thackeray’s days on his deathbed were an emotional period for Sainiks and Marathi manoos, his funeral was an all-out tearjerker. Uddhav’s sobbing figure, by common assessment, has given him an edge over his cousin in the sympathy stakes. And he might yet make a go of the Sena’s leadership. Sources say that Thackeray’s successor is keen on infusing the party with young blood. The old guard, so central to his father’s planning, will find no role in Uddhav’s Sena. This spells the end of the political careers of Manohar Joshi, Subhash Desai and a host of other senior leaders, as a new team takes charge. Uddhav’s son Aditya, as a youth mascot, will have a bigger role to play in the Sena’s future. Together, the father and son may even reposition the party as one less hostile to ‘outsiders’.

Raj, as one who sees himself better placed to claim his uncle’s political legacy, will probably bide his time over the next few months, waiting for dismayed Sainiks to come his way. The MNS chief may have Thackeray’s oratory skills, but is seen to lack his organisational capabilities. In has been seven years since he started the MNS, but the party’s ground presence in the state remains too sparse for electoral success. Raj has concentrated his efforts only on Mumbai and Nasik so far.

 

Though Raj’s party blueprint envisioned  shakhas to be set up along the lines of the Shiv Sena, no move has been initiated in that direction. This has stunted the breakaway party’s growth, resulting in a reverse exodus of its members back to the Shiv Sena. Raj’s habit of taking extended breaks from interactions with his activists may yet be his undoing, and the MNS could end up as just a splinter of the older party.

Uddhav may lack his cousin’s flair for fiery speeches, but is a shrewd organiser. In the battle for supremacy, Raj has a tougher job. Interestingly, both men are close to spiritual guru Bhayyu Maharaj (refer to ‘The New Godman in Town’, Open, 12 September 2011), who had been advising Uddhav on the course to adopt while Thackeray was alive. Raj often seeks the guru’s counsel too, and the godman will have to decide whom to go with. Sources close to Maharaj say that he has been trying to effect a patch-up between the two, has attained some measure of success, but remains sceptical of a political unification.

Other such patch-up efforts have been made  too—at least one of which has accorded itself the status of a public cause.

Some months ago, a group of Marathi businessmen, artistes and writers set up a forum called Majhi Chalwal, Mee Maharashtracha (‘My Movement, I belong to Maharashtra’) to push the cousins together in the larger interests of the Marathi manoos. “We want to build a powerful pressure group of Maharashtra loving people who can exert influence on the Shiv Sena and MNS to bury their differences,” said Satish Walanju, a businessman and spokesman of the forum, “Non-Marathis can also be part of this forum.”

Walanju intends to enrol 700 prominent Marathi speakers in the first phase of the campaign, and expects the support of actors like Nana Patekar, Milind Gunaji, Aadesh Bandekar, Bharat Jadhav and Kedar Shinde, who are close friends of the cousins. The forum has set a budget of Rs 35 lakh to achieve the aim of a handshake between the two, and money is to be raised publicly. Those keen on a patch-up are asked to fork out Rs 5,000 by either cash or cheque. How the money is used will be revealed once the mission is accomplished, says Walanju.

There is not much time. Maharashtra’s Assembly polls are slated for 2014. Observers, meanwhile, are tracking not the money but the tempers that could be raised in the months ahead. If both the cousins’ parties end up vying for the same political space and constituents, then there could be clashes between the two. These could turn violent, echoing perhaps the battles between the Shiv Sena and communists that began in the 1960s, when the young Sena was used as a handy tool by the Congress to smash labour unions, and lasted till the early 1990s, by when saffron politics had gained ascendancy.

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The Sena may have clobbered leftist trade unions, but has exercised its own thuggish clout over industrial workers—not to mention retailers—in the city ever since. With Thackeray’s death, however, business houses and shopkeepers expect the Sena’s ability to dictate terms and command ‘donations’ to decline. To hedge their interests and co-opt the cousins, though, business owners have been turning over big sums of money to both the Sena and MNS. The new patterns of patronage that emerge are under close watch.

According to sources, Rajan Raje, a former aide of Raj, left the party and set up his own outfit in Thane after a verbal diatribe by the MNS chief for protesting outside the office of a company owned by a north Indian. Raje’s protest, demanding recruitment and promotion rights for Marathi speakers, evoked Raj’s fury. The company’s owner was a personal friend.

The late Thackeray would rarely let his social ties get in the way of his politics, though many prominent people tried to win his favour in the hope of gentler treatment at Sainik hands. Those equations are now in the past.

The film fraternity, naturally, also expects to be relieved of the need to kowtow to Matoshree just to shield themselves and their interests from the Sena chief’s disfavour. Uddhav, they believe, will not be as disruptive as his father was. Nor would Raj.

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Also under watch is the extent to which the MNS and Sena diverge in ideology and what this might imply. Given Uddhav’s hints of a repositioned Sena, the party looks set to play down (if not abandon) its old agitational politics. If it takes a turn for moderation, the worst of its strongarm tactics may be a thing of the past. Uddhav has said he is keen on taking ‘all sections’ along. This would dilute the Sena’s hardline appeal, a risk he seems ready to take. However, if this happens, the MNS might move aggressively to take over that game; its 2009-10 bashing of north Indian migrants in Mumbai has already signalled such an agenda. If this is the MNS’s idea of populism, then the city’s identity-vote calculus is such that Raj could be tempted to victimise other minorities as well. Raj is known to issue ultimatums and threats, but even so, how far he has the gall to take them is far from clear. 

The tussle between the cousins could have another fallout: the doom of the BJP in Maharashtra. If this national-level saffron party keeps its alliance with Uddhav’s Sena, its Hindutva ideology may have to stage a tactical retreat. If it switches to the MNS, it will rupture its ground network that operates with Sainiks. Either way, it is in trouble.

All considered, Mumbaikars who look forward to a calm city—one less likely to be roiled by petty politics—are not being unrealistic. Among those who watched the Sena phenomenon on the edge of their seats have been Mumbai’s Muslims. Acutely aware of its role in the 1992-93 post-Babri riots, as exposed by the Srikrishna Commission Report, many of them have held their collective breath this past fortnight. The medical help rendered by a team of Muslim doctors, led by Dr Jameel Parkar, to an ailing Thackeray has been widely spoken of in Mumbai, and this has generated goodwill among the late leader’s followers. Attacks on Muslims, verbal or otherwise, may be a thing of the past too.

That does not mean the public sphere will now be a picture of politeness. Much of the Marathi media is split vertically between Uddhav and Raj supporters, widening the gap between the two leaders. Both have ‘friends’ in the media who act as their PR agents. And neither cousin will wave a white flag at the other.