“The resolution is that the national executive appoints Shiv Sena leader Uddhav Thackeray to the new post of working president,” announced Raj Thackeray, speaking on a chilly winter day at Mahabaleshwar on 30 January 2003.
A smiling Raj then asked the executive to approve the motion, which, needless to say, was carried through unanimously amidst applause. Raj then invited Uddhav on the dais and garlanded him amid slogans of “Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj ki jai” and “Shiv Sena pramukh Balasaheb Thackerayncha vijay aso (Victory to Shiv Sena chief Bal Thackeray).”
At the conclave at the hill station, the Shiv Sena’s succession battle had finally swung Uddhav’s way, with Raj suggesting his name for the working president’s post. This meant that Uddhav had been formally anointed as his father’s political heir.
Later, after Raj’s estrangement, Bal Thackeray would point to how his nephew had suggested his elder cousin’s name for the post and claimed he had no knowledge that this would happen.
“He tabled the motion,” said Bal Thackeray, claiming he was not there when it happened. “I was at a friend’s bungalow at Mahabaleshwar and had told them to call me when the speeches were over. When I went there, I saw a heap of garlands and bouquets, and when I asked, I was told Uddhav had become working president. I was angry and said I did not agree with what had happened, I asked [delegates] to fearlessly tell me if they did not agree with this appointment. I will cancel it immediately,” he said, adding that all those present had given their consent.
However, Raj would later say that his hand had been forced. “I had no powers to appoint a shakha pramukh, but I appointed an executive president? Even before the Mahabaleshwar conclave, Balasaheb wanted to do this but felt I would be a hindrance. I could understand this,” said Raj, while speaking at a rally at Dombivli in 2010. “Hence, I said I will declare this if you want it...this is your party.”
In 1989, the Shiv Sena drafted its first constitution, with the Shiv Sena pramukh being vested with supreme powers. In 1997, the Election Commission of India (ECI) objected to the constitution which anointed Bal Thackeray as chief for life and threatened derecognition as a political party if organisational elections were not held.
This set the wheels rolling within the Sena for a fresh party constitution and the creation of a new post of working president, who would be “elected” by the national executive for a five-year period. The working president would be responsible for daily affairs and management of the party.
However, some party leaders, who were against a parallel power centre to the supremo being created, were not amenable to the proposal.
“While framing a party constitution, we were thinking of keeping Balasaheb as party chief for life with a new post of working president, who would be re-elected every five years. Uddhav was an obvious choice. This would formally anoint him as his father’s political heir. Raj initially held out against the idea, but had to succumb,” explained the former Sena leader who was involved in the process. “The logic is simple. I have a son and a nephew and I love both. But when it comes to bequeathing my property, I will naturally choose my son and not my nephew.”
A senior editor from the vernacular press, who is close to Raj, claimed when it came to this incident, Raj, who otherwise venerated and loved his uncle even after forming his own party, was “slightly bitter”.
Though Raj fell in line, Narayan Rane opposed Uddhav’s becoming working president. “When I reached Mahabaleshwar, the meeting had begun. I directly went to saheb [Bal Thackeray] who was not at the conclave and told him this decision was against the party’s interests and would eat into his authority. However, saheb said, ‘Narayan, the decision has been taken,’” Rane said in 2015.
Raj was given charge of areas like Nashik and Pune while Uddhav was supposed to call the shots in Mumbai and Thane. “But Uddhav would often call meetings with office-bearers from Pune and Nashik keeping Raj in the dark. Raj felt stifled at Uddhav’s interference on his turf,” recalled senior journalist Sandeep Pradhan.
Earlier, the 2002 BMC election were completely Uddhav’s show. He sidelined Narayan Rane and Raj and took charge of the nomination process. Apart from the Congress and NCP, the Shiv Sena faced a fresh challenge from underworld don Arun Gawli’s Akhil Bhartiya Sena (ABS) and from party rebels.
Raj, who had been privately complaining to his uncle and close friends about no longer being consulted in party affairs, went public with his criticism for the first time and said he had no say in granting party tickets in the Mumbai civic polls.
The Shiv Sena and BJP retained power with ninety-eight and thirty-five seats in the 227-member house. The Congress won sixty seats, while the NCP and Samajwadi Party notched up twelve and ten wins respectively. The Sena’s tally fell marginally from 104 in 1997, but the win cemented Uddhav’s hold over the party.
Uddhav had risked expanding the Shiv Sena’s base vertically, beyond its traditional “Marathi manoos” electoral catchment. In February 2003, soon after being appointed working president, he reached out to Buddhist Dalits during a ceremony to unveil a portrait of his grandfather at the department of Marathi in the University of Mumbai. He also held a “Shivshakti-Bhimshakti” rally in Sharad Pawar’s stronghold of Baramati, where he called on Dalits to stop voting for the Congress.
The symbolism was significant as the Shiv Sena had crossed swords with Buddhist Dalits in the past. In the 1974 riots at Worli, the Sena clashed with the militant Dalit Panthers and had opposed renaming the Marathwada University after Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar (the Namantar [renaming] movement as it was called, ran from 1978-94) and the Maharashtra government printing Ambedkar’s book, Riddles in Hinduism, with its controversial references to Hindu deities (1987).
The Shiv Sena had a base among Hindu Dalits, who resented the dominance of Buddhist Dalits in the larger Dalit movement; and Marathas and the intermediate classes, who found it difficult to come to terms with their upward mobility. In the Buddhist Dalits, the Sena had found a social force capable of standing up to them in the use of raw muscle power on Mumbai’s streets and was hence hostile towards them.
Uddhav’s campaign saw an old Sena foe – Dalit Panther leader Namdeo Dhasal – bite the bait.
One of the most charismatic Dalit leaders in Maharashtra, Dhasal was among those who birthed the Panthers, modelled along the lines of the Black Panthers in the United States. Formed in 1972, the thrust of the Dalit Panthers was to “universalise the dalit identity as proletarian experience”, and according to scholar Gail Omvedt, sparked a series of such protests across India.
However, by 2003, the Panthers and Dhasal, a Sahitya Akademi Award–winning poet and avant-garde writer, who had once written angry poems with lines like “Tyanchi sanatan daya Falkland Road chya bhadwyahun uncha naahi (Their ancient sense of pity is not taller than the pimp in the flesh trade district)“, were pale shadows of their former selves.
Similar attempts to forge unity between these two forces had failed earlier. On 26 February 1978, Bal Thackeray had sketched the Shiv Sena’s tiger and the Black Panther on the cover issue of Marmik, seeking that the two forces unite for the assembly elections that year. Though the social outreach was swept away in the Janata wave that followed the Emergency, JP Ghatge of a Panther faction was later elected to the BMC from Bhandup in an alliance with the Sena.172 In the official biography of his party, Joshi admits that if the two social forces of “Shivshakti” and “Bhimshakti” were to join hands, the scenario in Maharashtra would have changed.
The other effort by Uddhav was more audacious. Hindi speakers had emerged as a formidable force in and around Mumbai with the Maharashtrians, who were the Shiv Sena’s natural catchment, being gradually outnumbered.
“Uddhav may be a non-charismatic leader and a poor orator, but he is open-minded, liberal and a believer in inclusive politics,” said Sanjay Nirupam. “I had been stressing the need for berjeche rajkaran [a term popularised by late Congress stalwart Yashwantrao Chavan which means politics of inclusion] by the party. The Shiv Sena had alienated Muslims and sections of the Dalits and north Indians. It was necessary for it to rope in new voters considering that Marathi speakers were being gradually outnumbered by others in Mumbai. The non-Maharashtrians were contributing to population growth.
“North Indians, Gujaratis and Jains were staying in Mumbai for generations and there was no chance that they would just ‘disappear’ because the Shiv Sena rejected them for its politics,” said Nirupam.
With a year to go for the 2004 state assembly polls, Uddhav launched a campaign termed “Mee Mumbaikar” to reach out to people across linguistic denominations. It was perched precariously from its very inception – reaching out to north Indians, who competed with Maharashtrians for access to jobs and resources – and stood the risk of the Sena drifting away from its core vote base.
“Mumbai served those who came here...hence, it is essential to dump narrow identities like religion and caste to work for Mumbai and ensure that it regains its past glory,” said Uddhav. Bal Thackeray too urged everyone to join hands in the struggle to save Mumbai.
After the Shiv Sena embraced hard-line Hindutva in the late 1980s and took an aggressive stance during the Ram temple movement and 1992-93 Mumbai riots, Bal Thackeray was projected as a Hindu Hriday Samrat (Emperor of Hindu hearts), which necessitated the need for the party to create an auxiliary constituency among non-Marathi Hindus. The Shiv Sena had launched a Hindi eveninger Dopahar Ka Saamna, in 1993, with Nirupam, who had been brought in from the Express Group’s Jansatta as executive editor.
This also required a delicate balancing act between the interests and aspirations of its core Maharashtrian constituency and non-Marathi voters including Hindi and Gujarati speakers.
Though Ghanshyam Dube was the first north Indian to become its MLC in the 1990s, the Shiv Sena’s outreach towards a growing number of Hindi-speaking migrants from states like Bihar and Uttar Pradesh picked up after Uddhav became working president.
Sachin Parab, who covered the Shiv Sena as a reporter during this period, noted that Uddhav was trying to give the party a liberal image through campaigns like “Shiv Shakti-Bhim Shakti” and “Mee Mumbaikar”.
“The launch of ‘Mee Mumbaikar’ at Bandra saw a massive response. Shiv Sena shakhas in Mumbai and Thane saw at least one non-Maharashtrian deputy shakha chief being appointed. The Shiv Sena was finally in the process of getting a long-overdue makeover,” said Parab.
Excerpted with permission from The Cousins Thackeray: Uddhav, Raj And The Shadow Of Their Senas, Dhaval Kulkarni, Pebnguin Ebury.