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A year since Bal Thackeray, Uddhav's challenge is about to begin

By Mahesh Vijapurkar
November 16, 2013 11:54 IST
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In the one year since his father, Shiv Sena founder Bal Thackeray's death, Uddhav may not have done much, but the coming months will show if it was time wasted or spent in useful strategy-making, says Mahesh Vijapurkar.

It is normal media practice to analyse and judge a person and the organisation he leads at the end of a year, especially the first year. In the Shiv Sena’s case, it turns out to be the absence of a person from the scene for an entire year, and the performance of the heir during the period.

Sena chief Uddhav Thackeray, of course, was an executive president for long even during his father and party founder Bal Thackeray’s reign.

Even during his declining health, Bal Thackeray’s presence was felt by all and sundry.

Whatever Uddhav did was seen as done with at least the tacit approval of his father.

Uddhav may or may not have been a party leader in his own right, but Bal Thackeray constantly cast his shadow on the son.

That helped -- the palace was working.

This, of course, was not discomfiting for Uddhav because he needed that paternal presence in the light of the rebellion in the party -- which led the formation of the Maharashtra Navnirman Sena.

Had Raj Thackaray not split the party during Bal Thackeray’s lifetime, it could have been an altogether different scenario.

Uddhav’s Sena may well have been a minor player, not Raj’s MNS which is still striving to prepare an agenda of its own without shedding the Bal Thackaray legacy.

To the MNS, too, the late Thackeray is an idol, and seemingly, ideal.

Raj’s rebellion, which had less to do with the party and more with Uddhav’s ways -- finding, if one were to look for a new benchmark, the experiment of keeping some restaurants open all night because of Aditya Thackeray’s (Uddhav’s son) demand -- was more a blow than past splits led by Chhagan Bhujbal and Narayan Rane.

So what has Uddhav managed in the past one year since his father’s demise with his unfettered leadership? Not much, one can say, apart from half-heartedly pushing his party’s one single purpose to have a memorial dedicated to Bal Thackeray.

Even that has turned out low key, just a small patch of earth with flowers on it. In the cadre’s mind, he deserved a bigger one.

This has been such an issue that even a senior leader like Manohar Joshi -- the party’s first chief minister, who was Lok Sabha Speaker despite the Sena’s ways not within the constitutionalism as we understand it -- had to finger Uddhav’s lack of aggression with regard to the memorial.

That Joshi paid a price is yet another story germane to the former’s leadership.

Though Bal Thackeray took his own decisions, even if they were whimsical, it was a fact that he had an informal council of leaders who were with him since the initial days of the party’s founding.

Some left the scene due to death, and some like Joshi are being kept out.

Now Uddhav, not known for his political acumen like Raj, has to make his own choices.

In the absence of wiser men, who were actually Bal Thackeray’s sounding boards, Uddhav risks poor decisions. It also shows an unseemly hurry to be on his own, directly trying to link himself with the cadre, and to shed the past baggage.

In all probability, he finds their presence oppressively avuncular. In the months before key elections, this is palpably dangerous.

The election schedule has much to do with it as much as the quality of leadership would.

The Lok Sabha elections are to precede the assembly polls in Maharashtra by a few months. The wins and losses in the former would impinge on the outcomes of the latter and the Lok Sabha is not necessarily its key focus; civic bodies and the state assembly decidedly are.

If the Sena performs relatively poorly compared to its past record, the chances of disenchantment withing the party could be significant to the future of the MNS.

A possible shift of support from among the cadre could be envisioned, for to the local party outfits who is an MLA matters more than who the MP is. The former carries bigger clout and can dispense useful patronage; an MP is someone distant or nebulous.

In all probability, due to the emergence of Narendra Modi, who earlier had clear Hindutva and anti-minority stance, the Sena may find that it gains due to the BJP.

In the past, the BJP gained with the Sena’s contribution. If at all, Modi may be Uddhav’s saviour. But Modi is unlikely to favour him alone. He owes, because of his need for numbers, Raj too.

How Modi works that out remains to be seen but his quiet, backroom, inside track attempt to reduce Uddhav’s animosity towards his cousin must be going on.

It would be surprising if it were not. Each and every parliamentary seat counts for Modi, if not to be the prime minister, at least to return the BJP to the status of the leading opposition party.

This is where Uddhav’s leadership and decision making ability would count.

Though each Lok Sabha seat won or lost cannot be divided by six -- each of the LS constituency generally comprises as many assembly constituencies -- the Lok Sabha outcome can reflect his capacity to lead the party into the decisive battle for the state assembly.

If he doesn’t, the winner would be Raj in the subsequent assembly polls.

If the past year has been spent in introspection, preparing battle plans to be unrolled months hence, the post-Thackeray days could be seen as a mere pause.

However, there are observers and analysts aplenty who see it as a wasted year.

The price for that could be hard to estimate, recovery from it quite hard. One needs to wait only months to know the truth.

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