Mumbai: The more things change, the more they stay the same, at least in Shiv Sena and his first family. The party has so far seen four major rebellions – led by Chhagan Bhujbal (1991), Narayan Rane and Raj Thackeray (2005) and Eknath Shinde (2022). While Bhujbal rebelled against late Sena leader Bal Thackeray after being ignored for the position of opposition leader over Manohar Joshi, the other three mutinies were aimed at Uddhav Thackeray and his leadership.
A common thread runs through the rebellions against Uddhav – his inaccessibility, his clique and gatekeepers who often rub people in the wrong direction, his esoteric inner circle, the detachment and separation from his men and his aloof approach. Uddhav’s modus operandi is often blamed as the root cause behind the buckshot of these revolts, helping them rally support on the ground.
Unlike the three previous revolts, Shinde’s rebellion poses the greatest threat to the existence of the Sena, having exposed cracks in Uddhav’s abilities as Chief Minister and shattered the aura of infallibility around the Thackerays.
Even the most die-hard Uddhav loyalists admit that the charge that Uddhav was cut off by his men and Deputy Prime Minister Ajit Pawar and the government’s dominant Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) has merit. It was Uddhav’s unavailability that caused most party ministers and MPs to meet and eventually close with Shinde for work.
Although senior ministers in the Maharashtra Vikas Aghadi (MVA) admit that Shinde was known for having a group of around 15 loyalists, including independent MLAs like Rajendra Patil Yadravkar, who was appointed Minister of State by the Sena Quota and eventually joined the rebels The scale and intensity of the revolt caught everyone off guard. This suggests that the anger and upset, while subtle, was widespread. The rebel ranks were also strengthened by the presence of hardened Sainiks like Aurangabad MLA Pradeep Jaiswal and Minister Gulabrao Patil.
Rane’s rebellion in 2005 was the result of a clash with Uddhav’s growing ambitions and increasing role in the Sena. Rane and his followers had attacked Uddhav’s controversial personal assistant, Milind Narvekar. Known for being introverted and reserved with people outside his immediate circle, Uddhav chose Narvekar as his gatekeeper in the 1990s. Narvekar soon became one of the most powerful figures in the Sena and, alongside Rane and his men, he was blamed by leaders such as Bhaskar Jadhav (2004) and Mohan Rawle (2014) for their decisions to leave the party. However, it is said that in ‘Matoshree’, the Thackeray family’s Bandra East residence, parallel centers of power and gatekeepers have evolved to undermine Narvekar.
When Rane rebelled in 2005, the muscle-bound Shiv Sena who dominated the streets of Mumbai was pushed to the back foot. Raj’s move to leave the party and blame a clique including his uncle Bal Thackeray for his decision also shook the Sena that year. However, it was Shiv Sena’s late chief who took charge of the situation and personally guided the party through these troubled times.
Uddhav, who was the working chairman of the Shiv Sena, also used the party’s ironclad organization and the emotional connection the cadre has with the Thackays to build his leadership, and did so in 2014, despite the BJP’s alliance with the Sena for the assembly polls won 63 seats, up from the previous tally of 44.
However, Shinde’s mutiny goes well beyond that of either Rane or Raj, as it poses a greater existential threat to the Shiv Sena. Accusations that the NCP has grown at the expense of the Shiv Sena have resonated with some of the Sainiks, and claims that the party is diluting its commitment to Hindutva by allying itself with the “secular” Congress and the NCP has gained traction their very raison d’être questioned ‘être.
Like his father in 2005, the revolt is an opportunity for his son and offspring Aaditya Thackeray, state environment minister and head of the Yuva Sena, to prove and establish his leadership.
Although Aaditya has taken the initiative to take to the ground and lead rallies against the rebels, there are allegations that he too is being led by a clique that leaves little access to humble Shiv Sainik. Notwithstanding the short-term political and electoral setback, Shinde and his group of men may have been a golden opportunity for Aaditya to lead the fight and prove his leadership, although it would require a massive reorientation of his working style to reach people beyond his immediate circle and become a 24X7 politician like the BJP top.
Soft-spoken like his father and well-read with a keen interest in international affairs, Babus in Mantralaya praises Aaditya – the first in the Thackay family to run for public office – for bringing a much-needed breath of fresh air. However, Sena observers admit that there are many places where the organizational details are lacking.
Despite the current crisis, even those who know Uddhav claim that behind the soft facade he is a fighter who will show his pugilistic instincts when thrown into the political ring.
An anecdote told by Raj’s friends says a lot about Uddhav’s spirit. Around 1997, Raj and his friends started learning badminton and started playing at Dadar. Soon Uddhav joined them. Once Uddhav fell while playing and everyone laughed. If Uddhav was upset, he would not reveal it at the time, but did not come to play from the next day. However, he took badminton lessons from Bandra and, the friend said, mastered the game in a way that could shame those who laughed at him.
Uddhav, the man who often falsely claimed to be a “reluctant politician,” had first spoken out about his ambitions as prime minister in 1999, and after Rane and Raj left, senior Shiv Sena leaders often slyly suggested that Uddhav would be her candidate for chief minister. The prime minister’s chair, which Uddhav was able to fill two decades later, had been shaken by the shocks of the revolt. Will these instincts kick in as a fighter, albeit undervalued, or have age and health taken their toll? Only time can tell.