Post Bal Thackeray, Sena and son Uddhav on test regarding party's future
MUMBAI: In 46 years of its existence, the Shiv Sena has been the ruling party once, sat in the opposition many times and continues to hold a vice-like grip on some of Maharashtra's biggest city corporations. Though it has never enjoyed untrammeled power like the Congress, its status as the state's principal and largest opposition party has never been questioned. Until now, that is.
Bal Thackeray's death on Saturday is likely to thrust uncomfortable questions about the future of the party into the limelight. They include the future of the Sena without the larger-than-life presence of Thackeray, heir apparent Uddhav Thackeray's leadership qualities and the relations between warring cousins, Raj and Uddhav.
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In 2005, the sniping between the two went out of control, triggering the first-ever major split in the party, and the formation of the Maharashtra Navnirman Sena (MNS) led by Raj Thackeray.
Though Uddhav has been in charge of day-to-day affairs of the party in the past few years, Balasaheb has remained the go-to man for all major party decisions. Despite Uddhav's second-in-command status, many old Shiv Sainiks preferred Balasaheb for all major decisions.
Almost all political rallies were dominated by him and the audience and the cadre responded only to him. This style of functioning alienated many old-timers but enabled him to impose his will on the party.
Can Uddhav do the same? Considering the difference in personality, stature and temperament, it will be difficult. But political realities will force Uddhav to find a way to hold the party together without his father's charisma to help him.
The second major challenge relates to the party's relations with alliance partner BJP. Many leaders of the BJP's Maharashtra unit have been speaking of forging ties with Raj's MNS. Raj's recent visit to Gujarat and the reception he received from Gujarat BJP CM Narendra Modi has made the Sena uncomfortable.
Bal Thackeray's personal relations with senior BJP leaders like AB Vajpayee and LK Advani had helped hold the alliance together. Uddhav does not enjoy such a rapport but for the sake of the party and its future he will have to build new ties.
If the Sena cadre and lower-level leaders, restive over the party's opposition status since 1999, sense a weakness in Uddhav, they will defect to Raj or the BJP, damaging the Sena's long-term prospects forever. Defection to the Congress or the NCP was seen as a taboo by most party cadre, but defection to Raj Thackeray's MNS is an acceptable option for many.
Battle for Legacy
Many have speculated that Uddhav and Raj may come together after Balasaheb's death, but insiders say that this seems impossible. Raj, according to people close to the matter, has received a cold reception in Matoshree even when Balasaheb was bedridden. The body language between Uddhav and Raj suggests that the battle to claim Balasaheb's legacy will only hot up.
The MNS has done well in recent elections to city corporations in the state. Though the Sena retained power in Mumbai, the MNS managed to win a string of wards in the Sena heartland of Dadar, Shivaji Park, dealing a humiliating blow to the party founded in 1966. Another challenge for Uddhav is his health. He has gone through two angioplasties recently.
Without doubt, the pressure to hold the party together and keep Raj and the BJP at bay while expanding the Sena's position in the state ahead of 2014 elections will be tremendous.