This Maharashtra assembly election of 2019 will witness an unprecedented event. An individual from the founding family of the Shiv Sena, the Thackerays is in the electoral fray for the first time. Aditya Thackeray is the first among the three generations of the Thackeray family to fight a democratic election. The seat chosen is a party stronghold of Worli dominated by the working class and Marathi speaking voters. His grandfather the late Balasaheb, father Uddhav and estranged uncle Raj have been in politics for more than fifty years. But they never fought an election personally. Infact Balasaheb proudly referred to himself as the remote control, who orders the democratically elected chief minister of the state.
Aditya’s great grandfather Prabodhankar Keshav Sitaram Thackeray was a social reformer and was never into politics. But his cartoonist son Bal entered agitational politics with the Samyukta Maharashtra andolan, which resulted in bifurcation of the Mumbai state into Maharashtra and Gujarat. Areas like Marathwada and Vidarbha were merged into the new Maratha speaking state. But the real agitation happened to get Mumbai included in the Maharashtra state. Despite opposition of Pandit Nehru and Bombay province CM Morarji Desai, the andolan succeeded. The andolan brought together strange bedfellows, from the communists to right wingers like Prabodhankar Thackeray and his son.
Prabodhankar’s son was to emerge as a colossus of Maharashtra politics in the next three decades, and be named the Hindu hriday samrat Balasaheb. The first non Congress government was formed by Balasaheb in 1995. His partnership with the Late Pramod Mahajan heralded the creation of the Shiv Sena-BJP yuti (alliance). After Balasaheb’s demise, the Sena looked on shaky ground especially after the charismatic Raj Thackeray walked out and formed his own party. However, Uddhav has managed to not only maintain the Sena’s base, but also get it over to the ruling side. Though he did not enjoy absolute power like his father, Uddhav has brought the Shiv Sena in power in 2014, as a junior partner of the BJP.
So what prompted Uddhav Thackeray to blood his eldest son Aditya in the electoral battle. Why change a decades old family practise of not contesting elections ? The sudden rise of the BJP nationally under Modi from 2014 and in the state under Fadnavis after that, upset the equilibrium in the yuti. After getting 282 seats nationally in the summer of 2014, the BJP broke the twenty-five year old alliance over three seats. The BJP wanted to fight more seats in the Modi era and wanted the Sena to come down from 171 to 148 seats. The Sena wanted a minimum of 151 seats as Aditya’s “Mission 151” had been launched already.
The Sena had to scramble around to get suitable candidates for fighting majority of the seats and intact they did well by winning 63 seats without an alliance. But what shocked them was BJP’s leap to 122 seats. With the BJP around 23 seats short of the magic figure of 145 (simple majority), Uddhav was ready to extract his pound of flesh. The Sena had lost the war but looked like winning in the peace talks. But that’s where the old wily fox from Baramati struck. He announced outside support to the BJP even before the final result was out. Uddhav had been robbed of a great chance. Once Fadnavis govt got the support of the lower house in a craftily arranged voice vote, Uddhav lost whatever bargaining power he had. He joined the govt as a minor ally with no real power.
Sena tried running with the hares (act as an opposition party) while hunting with the hounds (having ministers in the government). But the Modi juggernaut grew stronger in 2019 with 302 seats. Fadnavis also ran a largely controversy free government and did more than enough to merit re-election. With the opposition Cong-NCP in dire straits, Uddhav had an option of emerging as a new opposition voice. But there was a major risk. The Congress and NCP have stuck together unlike 2014. What if the Sena is reduced to 40 seats as a distant third force after the BJP and the UPA alliance. Uddhav chose the safety of being with the strong BJP in this election cycle and decimating the Congress and NCP. This would mean that the UPA twins would be badly mauled and out of reckoning in 2024. This would be when the Saffron allies would fight their own battle of dominance.
In this era of a strong Chief Minister face, Uddhav understood that he cannot alone counter Fadnavis, who is growing in stature after every passing year. Hence he chose the option of launching his son Aditya in legislative politics, in a war that has been won before the first shot has been fired. As Uddhav explains that Aditya has a liking for parliamentary procedure and he has given his son five years to find his feet in it. The Sena realized that they cannot compete with the development politics of Fadnavis any more with thhe emotional Marathi manoos blackmail.. That blackmail is losing efficacy after being used once too often. How can the Sena compete with the major infra work Fadnavis is doing in major urban centers in the state? Sena has nothing to showcase in the few municipalities that it holds. Nor can agitating about complete farm waiver or attacking insurance companies on crop insurance have the same effect as Rs. 6000 credited to a farmers account from the Prime Minister Kisan Sanman Nidhi.
In the current era of politics, you have to build a face to win the trust of voters. Fadnavis has built trust through his work and hence Modi needs to campaign a lot less in Maharashtra this time. Sena’s problem is that the upper middle class voters are increasingly shunning the Sena and moving towards the BJP. Sena is restricted to getting the lower middle class and poor Marathi votes. Sena hopes that Aditya can reverse this trend. He is a young urbane face who can attract the youth and the Marathi manoos back. Aditya can also help them attract some non Marathi votes. In the near term, the entry of candidate Aditya in Worli will enthuse the Sena cadre in Mumbai, especially in the old city. This could help the Sena punch above its weight in difficult seats like Byculla, Mumbadevi in Central Mumbai as well as in the adjoining Central suburbs.
Aditya’s candidature is a positive move by the Shiv Sena in my opinion. Aditya’s future course of politics is not known as of now. He is influenced by the liberal crowd as can be seen by his position during the Aarey metro depot controversy. So no one can really predict if he would be successful in taking on the BJP. Also Uddhav does not enjoy the best of health and that could be a limitation for the party. Giving a 29 year old leader a chance (even though he is a dynast) augurs well for the Sena. Aditya gives the Sena a chance to compete against Devendra Fadnavis. Aditya has five years to emerge as a leader of any consequence. Infact his first challenge will be quite earlier, in the 2022 BMC election where the BJP and Sena are expected to square off against each other. As I have explained in an earlier post, the BJP is expected to beat the Sena in the BMC election of 2022. Aditya’s electoral debut is designed as an important countermeasure towards stalling the rise of the BJP in urban areas, especially in Mumbai.
Aditya has a great chance to become a minister in the Devendra Fadnavis cabinet and learn the nitty gritties of politics and administration. He would do well to get some tips in administration from their friend and foe, Devendra Fadnavis. I hope the Sena do not commit the same mistake made by the Congress, of not making Rahul Gandhi a minister in the UPA II government. If they had done so, no one could have accused Rahul Gandhi of lacking in administration skills. Aditya Thackeray will face the same questions later if he remains just a MLA. The Sena would be better served of not falling in the trap of thinking that only the Deputy Chief Minister is fit for Aditya’s stature. A stint as a cabinet minister in the next five years would do Aditya a world of good.
In conclusion, irrespective of how the next five years pan out for Aditya; I see it as a bold and positive move by the Sena to ensure its survival and well-being in the coming 10-15 years. To compete with the BJP, you would need a strong face with a positive message and some good work under the belt. For Aditya as a cabinet minister it would be like baptism under fire. And through such challenges you acquire a strong face and following.