In Maharashtra, Uddhav Thackeray has become the Opposition’s trump card - Hindustan Times

In Maharashtra, Uddhav Thackeray has become the Opposition’s trump card

May 05, 2024 10:00 AM IST

Uddhav Thackeray's transformation into a formidable Opposition leader could present a tough challenge for the BJP in the state.

At a jam-packed ground in Kolhapur, during an election rally held on May 1, Shiv Sena leader and Bal Thackeray’s heir apparent Uddhav Thackeray asked the audience, “Raise your hands if you have received 15 lakh in your account. Did your income double in all these years since the Bharatiya Janata Party came to power?” “No!” responded the crowd in unison. Through such stirring speeches, Uddhav Thackeray has emerged as the strongest and most popular face of the Maha Vikas Aghadi (MVA) and the Opposition’s INDIA bloc, as the political battleground in Maharashtra heats up with crucial constituencies like Baramati, Satara, Kolhapur, and Ratnagiri-Sindhudurg going to polls on May 7.

Shiv Sena (UBT) chief Uddhav Thackeray(HT_PRINT) PREMIUM
Shiv Sena (UBT) chief Uddhav Thackeray(HT_PRINT)

Less than three years after Union home minister Amit Shah took a jibe at the MVA (an alliance of the Shiv Sena, the Congress and the Nationalist Congress Party) by calling it a “triple wheel auto rickshaw”, his own party has now become a vehicle finding it difficult to balance itself. Once considered a dominant force in the state, the BJP now faces internal challenges and a resurgent Opposition, despite engineering splits in the Shiv Sena and the NCP. Quite interestingly, the toughest and fiercest opposition that the party faces today is from Thackeray, with whose support the BJP had managed to make a mark in the state as part of the saffron alliance.

The confrontation between Thackeray and the BJP began after the 2019 assembly elections in the state. Prior to these elections, the Shiv Sena and the BJP had been together on various occasions in the state as part of a saffron alliance. Despite disagreements, the parties stuck together to consolidate the Hindu and Marathi vote with the Sena playing the big brother in the state and the BJP playing the same role at the Centre. However, following the elections, which saw both parties contesting independently, there was a breakdown in their alliance due to disagreements over power-sharing and the chief minister's position. This tension intensified when the Shiv Sena joined hands with the NCP and the Congress to form the MVA government in Maharashtra. This move was perceived as a direct challenge to the BJP's dominance in the state.

The nail in the coffin, however, was the BJP’s attempt to engineer a split in the Shiv Sena and its capture of power in Maharashtra with the help of Sena leader Eknath Shinde. The exodus in Shiv Sena and the BJP’s attempt to undertake a similar split in the NCP with the support of NCP leader Ajit Pawar pushed Thackeray to launch a staunch attack on the BJP.

Thackeray has undertaken a relentless campaign across Maharashtra, reshaping his image and asserting his leadership within the INDIA bloc.

Over the last few months, he has had to rebuild the party from scratch by inducting new leaders, forming new alliances and building a cadre on the ground. His strategy is an eclectic mix of various elements that have a separate and collective appeal among a vast number of voters in Maharashtra. To begin with, it has turned the BJP’s narrative of being a “party with a difference” by questioning the induction of leaders such as Ajit Pawar and Ashok Chavan, once targeted for their involvement in scams such as Irrigation scam and the Adarsh Housing Society scam. Taking a jibe at Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Thackeray said, “He says ‘mai akela sab pe bhari’ (alone, I am enough to deal with everyone) but actually he is in the company of the corrupt”.

Mumbai-based political strategist Ravindra Swami said that Thackeray has become one of the strongest faces of the Opposition in the state and at the national level today. “His speeches have a good balance of political rhetoric as well as key issues that the rural population as well as urban middle classes can relate to. On the one hand, he is trying to retain the traditional Marathi and Hindu vote by invoking Marathi and Hindu asmita (pride), while on the other, his work during Covid-19 as a chief minister, and his progressive stance on issues has created a new support base for his Shiv Sena faction. This is evident from the response his speeches get on the ground as well as on social media. It is no wonder hence that the Opposition sees him as a key face and changemaker in these elections,” he said.

Thackeray's optimism projects a future where the INDIA bloc secures more than 300 seats, a bold assertion that has resonated with the electorate. Also central to his strategy is the emphasis on Maharashtra's pride and the alleged injustices inflicted upon the state by the BJP-led central government. He has criticised the BJP for diverting investments and projects away from Maharashtra (some examples being Vedanta-Foxconn and the Tata Airbus project), symbolising his fight as a battle for the state's autonomy and dignity. For a party like Shiv Sena, which thrives on Maharashtrian identity and the symbols of vernacularised Hindutva, this is a significant invocation to retain its strong cadre despite the internal split. His rejection of the “Shendi and Janwa" aspects of Hindutva (a version of Hindutva dominated by Brahminical practices) has garnered a broader appeal across communities in Maharashtra. He constantly appeals to the followers of the Maratha warrior king, Shivaji — whose appeal transcends boundaries in the state — to be a sainik (honest warrior) and support the Shiv Sena (Uddhav Bal Thackeray). Unlike the past, when the Sena mostly banked on the politics of identity as its main poll plank, Uddhav is repeatedly seen talking about issues of social justice, governance and democracy, a positive turn for a party that once thrived on the “us vs. them” narrative against outsiders in Maharashtra. In his speeches, he is seen talking about agrarian distress in the state, the state of unemployment and the economy, striking a chord with those disillusioned by the BJP's policies.

Senior political analyst Prakash Akolkar said that Uddhav’s fiery stance and the support he is gaining show an interesting journey. “When he became the CM in 2019, many questioned his ability to govern saying that he has no experience of running a political office. From strategising for the Sena in a boardroom, to now covering the length and the breadth of the state, he has come a long way. The kind of crowd that is turning out to his election rallies and public meetings reminds me of Balasaheb Thackeray's first-ever tour of Maharashtra in 1989. Currently, Thackeray is much more than a Shiv Sena leader. He is one of the very few leaders in the country who has shown immense guts to take the Modi-Shah duo and the BJP head-on.”

One of the major challenges ahead of Uddhav is the allegation that under Uddhav, the Sena had softened its stand on Hindutva thus posing a threat to its core cadre which can easily swing to the BJP due to its broader Hindutva appeal. Similarly, Shinde's appeal as a grassroots leader and the clout and accessibility that the current Mahayuti commands owing to its influence at the Centre and the state is another key factor that can make it difficult for local leadership to stand behind what remains of Uddhav's Shiv Sena. A senior Sena worker from Jogeshwari said, "Many ordinary sainiks who continue to back him due to their loyalty to the Thackeray family do not understand his new, liberal views on issues such as environment and governance as the very basis of Sena's appeal lies in street politics. The older generation of cadre is very much behind him but retaining their support would require the leader to take them into confidence at every point."

It is important to note that despite all his shortcomings and challenges that lie ahead, Uddhav Thackeray's emergence as a formidable Opposition leader in Maharashtra signifies an important shift in the state's political landscape. His navigation of complex alliances, spirited campaigning, and emphasis on issues that resonate with diverse sections of society have bolstered his standing as a leader capable of challenging the BJP's dominance. From inheriting a party legacy to shaping a robust political strategy, Thackeray’s journey also underlines his evolution as a key figure not just within Shiv Sena but also on the national stage. While we have to wait to see how much of an impact this has on votes, there is no doubt that the electoral battle will be fiercely contested, an important indicator for a thriving democracy.

Dr. Sanjay Patil is a Mumbai-based researcher who works on Maharashtra Politics and Urban Informality. His doctoral work looks at the journey of Shiv Sena between 1985 and 2022.

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