Sullen Sainiks

Why Uddhav Thackeray is at risk of losing his party cadres
Qualms
NATURAL-BORN LEADER  After Bal Thackeray’s death, Shiv Sainiks accepted his son Uddhav as their leader, but now have second thoughts

When senior leaders of the Shiv Sena criticised the Congress for Rahul Gandhi’s elevation to its vice-presidency, terming it the “fruit of dynastic politics”, their words rang hollow. They seemed to have forgotten the anointment of their own executive president, Uddhav Thackeray, as the Sena’s new president. Son of the late Bal Thackeray, Uddhav is the natural choice of Sainiks, say the same leaders who accuse the Congress of perpetuating a dynasty. And Uddhav’s son Aditya is now expected—no less naturally—to assume office as the Sena’s executive president.

Yet, there is a difference between the succession stories of the two parties. While the Congress seems upbeat about its 2014 electoral prospects with Rahul at the party’s helm, not many Sainiks scent victory with Uddhav and Aditya at the top of Sena affairs. There is unease within the saffron party after it was announced that Uddhav will stay firmly in the saddle. Those who believe in his ability to lead the party to victory in Maharashtra and save it from another five-year term in opposition have dwindled. Sainiks have had enough time to assess Uddhav’s leadership; he has been handling party matters ever since his aged father’s illness (before he passed away). It is this assessment that has cast them in such gloom.

The Sena has now been out of power for 13 years, and this period has not been good to either party workers or supporters. Aspirations have grown. So has restlessness. While the recent patch-up between the Thackeray cousins—Uddhav and Maharashtra Navnirman Sena Chief Raj—offered them some hope of a renewed thrust for power, they still feel unsure of the future.

Predictably, a churn of cadres has started sending many Sainiks scouting for opportunities in other political parties. Surprisingly, however, not too many of them are moving towards the MNS, once considered their obvious option. In fact, it is the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP), the Congress’ junior partner in the state’s ruling alliance, that has emerged as the new hotspot for outbound Sainiks. The NCP’s head Sharad Pawar, remember, was a close friend of Bal Thackeray.

As the 2014 Assembly and Lok Sabha polls approach, it is clear that Uddhav will have it hard just keeping his flock together. The departures are not yet an exodus, say Sena insiders, but could easily pick up momentum soon and turn into one.

Aditya’s elevation to the post of executive president has not gone down well with partymen. Much of their disenchantment with Uddhav’s leadership, however, has to do with his style of operation. He runs the party through a tight coterie that includes his wife Rashmi, whose opinions he relies much on, and her confidant Milind Narvekar (also Uddhav’s personal secretary). Rashmi is said to hold considerable sway over her husband, and so, despite several complaints against Narvekar, he cannot be dislodged. Even cousin Raj had vented his anger against Narvekar once, suggesting that Uddhav was powerless in his presence. Complaints have been made against other members of the coterie too, but Uddhav has not initiated any known move to either drop them or clip their wings.

Unlike earlier, when the late Sena chief would use his charisma and oratory to pacify Sainiks when they grew restive, this time Uddhav is on his own. Though he toured Maharashtra in an exercise to bond with partymen after his father’s death, sources say no sympathy wave came his way.

In areas such as Nasik, Nagpur and Pune, where the party had deep electorate penetration and heavy cadre presence, Uddhav has been unable to retain much influence. The aggressive politicking of Sharad Pawar’s nephew Ajit, also the state’s deputy CM, is finding easy picks within the Sena. The MNS is seen as inconsistent in its politics, and its organisational structure in these parts is too weak to count.

Meanwhile, senior Sena leaders such as Manohar Joshi, Subhash Desai, Sanjay Raut, Diwakar Raote and a host of others know that their time is up, as members of Uddhav’s coterie start easing them out. This could heighten the Balasaheb nostalgia among Sainiks. Though Uddhav was instrumental in retaining power in the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC), most Sainiks refuse to credit him with the victory. “Balasaheb was very much there,” says a senior Sena leader, “People voted for Balasaheb, not for Uddhav saheb. The 2014 elections will be a true test for Uddhavji, as he is on his own now.”

Clearly, few Sainiks are convinced Uddhav has it in him. How can they trust their new president, many ask, if he does not even trust his own judgment? While his father relied on his own instinct, they say, Uddhav is too easily swayed by those around him. And unless he reaches out to establish a one-to-one rapport with party workers, he is likely to lose them. More than his cousin Raj, Uddhav should be wary of Ajit Pawar, who seems willing to poach members of all political parties. While Uddhav and Raj may not be too overt about their chief ministerial ambitions, the same cannot be said of Ajit. He has made it amply clear that he wants to be Chief Minister in 2014, and has been exploring the possibility of his party going it alone in the state and general elections due next year. An anti-Congress wave, he feels, could hurt the NCP’s chances in alliance with the older party. Confident of solo success, he has set the NCP a target of 100 MLAs, up from the party’s present 65, and 15 MPs, up from present nine. The Congress has 75 MLAs and the Shiv Sena has 45 at the moment.

Faced with Ajit’s aggression, Uddhav would have no choice but to raise the political pitch as well, if only to meet Sainik expectations. Can the Sena president do it? So far, he has seemed too hesitant and unsure of himself. To overcome that, observers say he would need a persona makeover. Apart from engaging Sainiks better, he would need to display strong oratory, organisational and other skills.

Uddhav’s well-wishers say it is time he turned to the leaders who stood by his father. He must seek their guidance instead of cutting them off. As a start, he has to start believing that loyalty does not mean subservience, and party democracy matters. His father may not have believed in such things, but times have changed. Today, the best poacher gets them all.