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Uddhav Thackeray is prodding his party of belligerence and nativism towards reason and inclusivity, save the occasional dial-back to Hindutva. (Photo: HT)
Uddhav Thackeray is prodding his party of belligerence and nativism towards reason and inclusivity, save the occasional dial-back to Hindutva. (Photo: HT)

How Uddhav Thackeray is becoming a man for all seasons

  • After a year of vendetta politics, the first-time CM has become the BJP’s nightmare. How will he govern the state?
  • The bets are off the table on how long the government will last but Sena, NCP and Congress are glued by the purpose of keeping the BJP out of power. The road ahead is anything but smooth.

MUMBAI : Diwali in Bollywood is a mega event. From the studios across Mumbai and ultra-luxe offices of stars and producers to sprawling mansions and seaside apartments of dream merchants, it is the time for big-budget releases, lavish parties and card sessions. All of it was missing this year. Diwali celebrations were intimate and cautious. Covid restrictions were a reason, but not the only one.

By mid-November, Bollywood had dealt with the vicious hate campaigns generated by TV channels and amplified on social media for months. Four associations and 34 leading producers dragged the media to court; their Diwali wishes acknowledged Uddhav Thackeray, chief of the Shiv Sena that shares a love-hate relationship with Bollywood. The two are now aligned against a common adversary: the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

Uddhav Balasaheb Thackeray, the reluctant chief minister of Maharashtra helming an improbable tri-party government, turned 60 this July; his government completes a year this week. It has been a fundamentally life-altering year, in non-covid political ways.

Thackeray is out of the shadow of his late father and Sena founder; he’s the pivot of a political experiment in which Sena shares power with Nationalist Congress Party and Congress. He’s prodding his party of belligerence and nativism towards reason and inclusivity, save the occasional dial-back to Hindutva. Why, Thackeray’s words and actions have even earned him brownie points from liberals.

Thackeray’s energies should have been focussed on the battle against covid-19 that hit Maharashtra badly – nearly 1.8 million cases and over 46,000 deaths so far. But with the BJP on the warpath, smarting from its electoral loss last year, his tenure has been defined by the response to BJP’s provocations and checkmating its powerful central leaders.

It’s like an obstacle race set up by the BJP that’s relentlessly trying to pull down the Maharashtra Vikas Aghadi government. The two parties were allies for nearly 30 years till last year; now, it’s an all-out proxy political battle playing out at the intersection of Bollywood, narcotics, television – and public perception.

There have been multiple lateral fights – between the centre and state, between the governor and chief minister, between BJP-aligned media houses and government, between TV channels that dragged Aaditya Thackeray into “Bollywood mafia" and the Thackerays, between Enforcement Directorate/Narcotics Control Bureau and the Shiv Sena, and between actor Kangana Ranaut and Mumbai’s Municipal Corporation.

Thackeray most recently focussed on one of BJP’s visible mascots, TV anchor Arnab Goswami. The common view is that Goswami’s single-salutation address to Thackeray on prime-time TV provoked the latter. It’s only partly true. After months, Thackeray eventually responded to son Aaditya being maligned in Sushant Singh Rajput’s suicide case, on television shows and WhatsApp campaigns.

By discrediting him, a minister in the Maharashtra government and a political advisor to his father, Uddhav would be shamed into stepping down – so the BJP believed. Sena sources said “this filthy politics" made Thackeray snap.

“When Uddhav took the calculated risk (of cutting ties with the BJP) last year, he knew it would not be easy though he may not have anticipated this level of combat," political analyst Suhas Palshikar told Mint, “But he realised that there’s no future in the alliance. The BJP gets into coalitions only to finish off the partner or render it irrelevant."

Mumbai Police registered cases against Goswami and his senior staff – and a few other channels – for rigging TRPs of their channels; the charge sheet was filed this week. The Anvay Naik suicide case of 2018, in which the architect named Goswami and two others in his suicide note, had been summarily closed when BJP’s Devendra Fadnavis was chief minister; it was re-opened earlier this year and has ensnared Goswami.

By then, Goswami’s crazed on-air challenge to actor Salman Khan, as a totem of Bollywood’s dirty underbelly and nepotism, had the industry in a tizzy; it looked towards the Sena.

Target Bollywood

Bollywood, an industry synonymous with Mumbai, has seen its biggest names openly align with the BJP; this evidently did not pay off. “Many A-listers were lamenting that last year’s jaunt in a private jet to meet the Prime Minister for a selfie had not saved us. A TV anchor was tearing into India’s most visible industry as if we were fish on his plate," said a well-known writer-director on condition of anonymity. This writer spoke to several in the industry; no one was willing to be identified.

“The targeting was a message to us that none of us is ‘safe’," said a source associated with a major production house, “The NCB just walks into the three-storey Nadiadwala bungalow in Juhu and arrests his wife for 10 grams of marijuana. This seems okay because of the huge build-up that Bollywood is a den of all vices, tv and social media mobilised that hate." Shabana Saeed, Nadiadwala’s wife, was arrested on 8 November and is out on bail.

Police investigations revealed nearly 80,000 fake social media accounts created to malign Mumbai cops and Facebook had dozens of pages totalling millions of followers spinning theories that Rajput was “murdered", linking actor Rhea Chakraborty to the “murder conspiracy" and “Bollywood mafia", targeting Mumbai Police for “shoddy" probe, and slanting it all to the Thackerays. Certain news channels had nightly broadcasts on these themes.

In September, the Producers Guild of India – Aditya Chopra, Karan Johar, Aamir Khan, Shah Rukh Khan are among its 130-odd members – asked the media to stop “peddling…clickbait journalism… to boost ratings, readership and page views". Last month, production houses filed a petition in Delhi high court asking that Goswami’s Republic TV, Times Now, and social media be restrained from “publishing irresponsible and defamatory" remarks.

In a parallel development, Maharashtra Police arrested Goswami in the Naik suicide case. “The message to Goswami and to his bosses was – you can’t play us this way," said an award-winning actor on condition of anonymity, “There’s been anger against the ruling regime but people fell in line like they did with the underworld in the 1990s."

Others spoke of how the industry is “still a secular place which the regime wants to fix". Actors and others have seen work dwindle after taking political stances. Some of the attacks came from within, like actor Kangana Ranaut, who the industry believes has political backing. She also targeted Uddhav Thackeray.

The NCB raids and arrests in the entertainment industry continue. However, contrary to perception, seizures and arrests from non-Bollywood sources are higher, going by the agency’s data. Maharashtra minister Nawab Malik asked if NCB was “protecting the traffickers" by focussing on Bollywood users.

Governance issues

Thackeray is aware that he will judged not on political fights but on substantive issues such as covid-19 management for which he has received mixed reactions; farmers’ loan waivers which he had championed before becoming CM; straightening out urban mess and improving life quality in cities, negotiating centre-state relations with the BJP; and of course on hard numbers that come from business-commerce-finance that Mumbai – and Maharashtra – sustain.

The MVA government was not going to rock the boat with business barons though many are BJP’s donors. Thackeray hasn’t changed his mind, Sena sources said. To counter the pandemic’s impact, he initiated a dialogue with a few in June and signed investment pacts worth 16,000 crore with 12 companies; MOUs worth nearly 35,000 crore with 15 more firms were signed this month.

Land allotment and formalities have begun for those who came on board in June. “It’s only industry and agriculture that’ll matter in the end. We are quietly doing work," a senior Sena minister told Mint.

The Sena is not known for its governance going by its track record in Mumbai’s municipal corporation, yet trenchant critics like journalist Nikhil Wagle are surprised by the party’s focus at the state level. In power and out of the BJP’s embrace, in the middle of the makeover that Thackeray is giving it, the party is finding its metier. It is also holding its peace in the face of provocations, including a raid by the ED on Sena MLA Pratap Sarnaik .

It helps that a veteran of political battles, NCP chief Sharad Pawar, is philosopher-guide-mentor to Thackeray. He is also ironically Thackeray’s remote control – a role the late Bal Thackeray revelled in during Sena-BJP government in 1995-99.

Pawar, on his part, is settling scores with the BJP. He rarely takes on opponents in a direct combat; Thackeray is using this mantra. Mumbai’s municipal corporation took on Ranaut for illegal construction; Maharashtra Assembly took on Goswami. Both were over-reaches but atypical Sena responses. However, it’s too early to write off its customary muscle-flexing behaviour.

In Thackeray’s and Sena’s makeover, Aaditya has had a role to play. “Aaditya has a great positive influence on his father. He, unlike Uddhav, doesn’t come from Marathi-medium middle-class upbringing; his worldview is from Bombay Scottish School–St Xavier’s College and brings that sensibility," remarked Wagle. Added Palshikar: “Uddhav is redefining the party based on his personality. Bal Thackeray’s last message to sainiks was to request cooperation for Uddhav and Aaditya, so they will fall in line even if unhappy."

The road ahead

The bets are off the table on how long the government will last but Sena, NCP and Congress are glued by the purpose of keeping the BJP out of power. “This government was a bold experiment. It’s given Shiv Sena a chance to survive and expand, else the BJP would have finished it off," said Palshikar, “The Congress still seems uncomfortable but Uddhav has managed the contradictions well."

Thackeray has periodically reaffirmed his commitment to Hindutva but with a caveat that it’s “not reduced to clanging plates or lighting diyas" – to distinguish it from the BJP’s. The Congress is not comfortable with this; it upsets the Thackerays that the Gandhis don’t claim the government as their own. Congressmen diminish Thackeray; one told Mint: “Uddhav is running the state like he heads a municipality, but we’ve no option".

Thackeray is trying to mould the Sena to his personality – open, non-extreme, and relatively inclusive. “There are transformative signs in the Sena but it’s too early to call it liberal," said Wagle, “Thackerays aren’t fundamentalist Hindutva-wadis in personal lives. Uddhav is making an honest attempt to be inclusive."

The road ahead is anything but smooth. For the Sena, Thackeray is too liberal; for the liberals, not enough yet. For the NCP-Congress, he’s the king on the chessboard – not the most powerful piece but cannot be vanquished. For the BJP, he’s the target but also a possible future ally. In this maze of contradictions, Thackeray has held a steady hand at the steering wheel and shown the humility to seek advice/expertise from a wide array of professionals.

His decisions on managing covid-19 were based on recommendations of the expert committee he instituted, his direct talk with citizens came after expert advice.

A pandemic is an incorrect lens through which to judge a first time chief minister. That said, many questions remain. Why, for instance, has his government not adopted a more reasonable stance on the arrests of activists and academics in the Bhima-Koregaon case? Why is his government silent on Judge BH Loya case that could spell trouble for BJP’s top brass? Also, why did the Thackerays battle hard to save Mumbai’s Aarey forest but are pushing the coastal road that could ruin its western shoreline?

The answers to these questions rest in the Pawar-Thackeray relationship, nuanced by their individual ambitions and responses to BJP’s provocations. Thackeray would have to look beyond the BJP’s proxy political battle. The day his governance counts, he would epitomise the Marathi saying “sandhi cha sona karne" – turned his opportunity golden. That day is still some distance away.

Smruti Koppikar is a Mumbai-based journalist and urban chronicler.

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