In a period where the Bharatiya Janata Party has been on a triumphant election roll, the one sliver of good news for the opposition has come from Maharashtra where in the recent legislative council elections the ruling Maharashtra Vikas Aghadi coalition wrested four of the six seats, including winning the prestigious Nagpur graduates constituency after more than five decades.

For a “three-wheeler” coalition government that is seemingly operating on a weekly ventilator, the results that coincide with a year in power will offer some relief and resuscitation. More so for Chief Minister Uddhav Thackeray, who has been written off almost from the time he entered politics over two decades ago and yet is proving to be more than just a political survivor.

It can’t be easy being the son (or grandson for that matter) of the late Bal Thackeray. The Shiv Sena’s self-styled supremo was a domineering figure both within the Thackeray parivar and outside. That photographer-son Uddhav’s shy, reticent persona was seen as the polar opposite of the father’s flamboyant image made it even more difficult to visualise him as the natural heir apparent.

That grandson Aaditya Thackeray was schooled in an English-speaking liberal eco-system made one wonder how he would adjust to the Marathi manoos regional chauvinism that was at the core of the Sena’s ethos.

Some clues

A year after Thackeray has been leading an uneasy coalition government in Maharashtra, we finally might have some clues. The jury is still out on the longevity of the Maharashtra Vikas Aghadi (Maharashtra Development Front) government but one thing is apparent: the next generation Thackerays have actually done what even their formidable patriarch avoided all his life by steadfastly governing a state through tough and chaotic times rather than seeking to remote control it. The shrill demagoguery of the past has been replaced by a steely determination in the present.

Uddhav Thackeray is an accidental chief minister. It has been reported that the Nationalist Congress Party chief Sharad Pawar had to goad the reluctant Sena leader to take the plunge. Since Uddhav Thackeray had no administrative experience while heading a three-party government comprising several senior, ambitious politicians made it even more difficult to see how he could survive, leave aside succeed.

Having controversially broken ties with his longstanding ally, the BJP, Thackeray’s anointment was made amidst unusual turbulence in Maharashtra’s traditionally calm political waters. The storms are still gathering in the Arabian Sea but the man who was seemingly doomed to be swept away by the BJP’s rising tide has actually managed to stay afloat so far.

Sharad Pawar and Uddhay Thackeray. Credit: PTI

Lets be clear: the mandate of the 2019 Maharashtra elections was for a BJP-Sena government to be led by Devendra Fadnavis. The Sena decision to break away was naturally seen by the BJP as an unforgiveable act of betrayal. What has followed since is an untrammeled desire to take revenge at all costs: a low-level, high-decibel campaign in which every institution and individual available have been misused to try and topple the Maharashtra Vikas Aghadi government.

From a brazenly partisan governor to a publicity-hungry film star to loudmouth television anchors acting as political proxies, every attempt has been made to bring down the Maharashtra government. The Sushant Singh Rajput case is a textbook example in particular of how law enforcement agencies are a handmaiden for political agendas: a perfidious attempt to manufacture a conspiracy theory with the aid of a pliant media with the sole purpose of somehow involving the Thackerays in a ‘crime’ that never was.

That these machinations were engaged in at a time when Maharashtra was at the epicentre of the Covid-19 outbreak only reveals how crude political power games go well beyond the public health concerns of the citizenry. Maharashtra has always prided itself as a socially progressive, economically vibrant state, not trapped in the feudal battles of the vengeful, caste-ridden societies of North India or the personality clashes down south.

And yet, in the last 12 months, we have witnessed a Bollywood-style soap opera which has only served to destabilise the government in India’s commercial hub. In the latest act, the Enforcement Directorate now wants to act against an aggressive Sena leader who was leading the charge against the government’s critics. That in this toxic atmosphere, the state administration has actually managed to get on with governance is an achievement in itself.

A stunning transformation

Perhaps the biggest transformation has been in Uddhav Thackeray himself. Where once he was accused of being an invisible leader, he now routinely addresses the people of the state on television, adopting a more statesman-like role of a hands-on, compassionate leader in Covid times. His soft-spoken demeanor has led to charges of his being excessively cautious and heavily dependent on the bureaucracy but the understated manner may also ironically be his strength: he rarely seems to offend anyone in a coalition of king-size political egos.

While he appears to lack the dynamism of his youthful predecessor Fadnavis, neither is he a pushover. Misusing state power and the Mumbai police to settle scores with those who have pointed fingers at him is a sign of a hardnosed leader who isn’t above the odd counter-punch. In a recent interview to the Sena mouthpiece Saamna, he warned his critics: “You have a family too, you must look in the mirror. You are not clean either. If I get after you.. though that is not my tendency.”

This is perhaps the closest he has come in his political career to taking a leaf from the Bal Thackeray playbook of political thokshahi (rule of force).

The Central government used the death by suicide of Bollywood actor Sushant Singh Rajput to put pressure on the Maharashtra government. Credit: Indranil Mukherjee/ AFP

None of this means that Uddhav Thackeray’s political future or that of the Maharashtra Vikas Aghadi government is secure yet. Far from it. The Sharad Pawar-led Nationalist Congress Party is a party riven by internal power tussles, held together only by the stature of its leader who turns 80 this week. A restive deputy chief minister, Ajit Pawar could still explore alternate options if given half a chance. The once mighty Congress is clearly now a junior partner in the coalition, leaderless and drifting into nothingness, and remains perhaps the most vulnerable to poaching.

Certainly, an expansionist BJP hasn’t given up on a Madhya Pradesh-style “cash and carry” operation to deliver an even bigger prize like Maharashtra. Its state leadership claims that the Thackeray-led government will fall in the next two to three months, another signal of its unalloyed ambition to effect a coup at the earliest opportunity.

But perhaps the key to the Thackerays’ future lies in the Sena itself. A party that was forged on sharp identity politics, first Maharashtrian asmita (pride) and later Hindutva, is now having to adjust to a more inclusive governance model. For now, the glue of being in power holds the Sena together as a political force and prevents any existential cracks from widening further. But when an Aaditya Thackeray for example talks passionately about environmental protection, you wonder how many Shiv Sainiks can identify with the new age vocabulary of greening cities. When Uddhav Thackeray resisted the opening up of temples in the age of a pandemic, questions were raised whether he could defy Hindu sentiment by appealing to common sense.

A tiger doesn’t change its stripes overnight and the Sena’s blood-stained history remains an intrinsic part of the Bal Thackeray legacy. But if the gen-next Thackerays can show that the Sena can govern by consensus and not conflict, by reaching out to farmers and urbanites alike, and thereby widen its appeal beyond its core nativistic base, the party has a fair chance of evolving into a regional party of substance where the “Jai Maharashtra” slogan resonates more effectively.

Post-script: Like Uddhav Thackeray, another accidental chief minister is Odisha’s Naveen Patnaik. He too carries a formidable family inheritance as Biju Babu’s son. Written off when he first took office, he has now been chief minister for a remarkable two decades. In his case too, the silent, taciturn image of a privileged dynast was often mistaken as a sign of weakness. Maybe there is still a leadership space in Indian politics for those who don’t have to flex their muscles or raise their voice to be heard.

Rajdeep Sardesai is a senior journalist and author of 2019: How Modi won India.