Bhujbal, with whom Raj later crossed swords, was obliquely responsible for his rise within the Shiv Sena.
‘After (Chhagan) Bhujbal’s exit, the Shiv Sena had few central, Mumbai-based leaders capable of touring rural Maharashtra and striking a chord with voters. Leaders like Manohar Joshi, Sudhir Joshi and Pramod Navalkar were from the white-collared class and did not have Bhujbal’s rousing oratory. It was here that Raj, with his mannerisms modelled on his uncle, came into the picture,’ noted a journalist familiar with the Shiv Sena and Raj at the time.
Uddhav too continued to work for the party in the shadows. Though he lacked his cousin’s charisma, he held an undeniable hold over Shiv Sainiks as their party supremo’s son. In 1994, Uddhav played a pivotal role in organizing a party conclave at Nashik during the Kumbh Mela. Uddhav, Subhash Desai, Shishir Shinde and legislator Babanrao Gholap ensured that this was done in just thirteen days.
Sanjay Nirupam, who was then editor of the Shiv Sena’s newly launched Hindi eveninger Dopahar ka Saamna, and was gradually emerging as the party’s poster boy for north Indians, recalled how journalists at the convention spoke in murmurs about the vivad (rift) between the cousins.
Nirupam remembers how Uddhav used to be petrified of speaking at public meetings. ‘I had organized rallies for him at locations like Andheri and Asalpha. He used to be wary of addressing the people or the media.’
Shishir Shinde said he had asked for Uddhav to be fielded from Mulund in the 1995 polls. ‘I said Uddhavji should come only to submit his nomination form and then collect his certificate as the victor. We will handle the rest.’
In the 1995 campaign, Bal Thackeray addressed around 100 public meetings, while Raj attended over 150. Uddhav spoke at about eighty. The party cadre would ask for Raj wherever ‘Balasaheb’ could not go. ‘There is another irony here – just as Bhujbal’s exit was responsible for Raj’s growth in the Sena – he had to quit it like Bhujbal himself after feeling boxed in and marginalized,’ said the journalist quoted earlier.
While Raj was being pitched as Bal Thackeray’s political successor, Uddhav was gradually working on himself. Those familiar with the elder Thackeray cousin noted that despite his underrated style, Uddhav was a persistent learner.
One of Raj’s friends had an interesting anecdote to narrate. ‘Around 1997, Raj felt like learning badminton and we would play at Dadar. May be because age was on our side, we picked up fast. Soon, Uddhav also joined us. Once, while playing, Uddhav fell down and we laughed. He did not say anything then, but stopped coming to play from the next day onwards. He however enrolled for classes at Bandra’s MIG Club and soon attained a commendable mastery over the game,’ he added.
Former Shiv Sena MLA Bhaskar Jadhav said some in the party were rooting for Uddhav as they felt Raj and his coterie were too brash. ‘For instance, at the Shiv Sena’s convention in 2000 at Amravati, the ego projections of Raj and his men rubbed people, including senior leaders and elected representatives, the wrong way. On the contrary, Uddhav came across as calm and soft-spoken, and reminded us of Maasaheb (Meenatai), who was like a mother to us.’
Jadhav rebelled after being denied the Sena nomination from his Chiplun assembly constituency in Ratnagiri district in 2004 in favour of Uddhav loyalist Prabhakar Shinde. He later joined the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) and became a minister of state and the party’s Maharashtra president.
While Uddhav prepared an audio-visual campaign through video tapes like ‘Ajinkya’, Raj fine-tuned the party’s campaign strategy including that for audio-visual media. The Shiv Sena’s use of songs lampooning the Sharad Pawar-led Congress regime with songs like ‘Baramati, Baramati kiti mothi tyanchi sheti (The man from Baramati, i.e., Pawar, has huge landholdings)’ turned out to be popular. So did another one: ‘PM tera CM diwana,
Dawood ko dale daana’ – a take on allegations that Pawar was in cahoots with underworld don Dawood Ibrahim.
‘Raj came out with a “Shiv Sena Top 10” song compilation that became popular. These were remixes of old Hindi film songs with a take on the political scenario. Balasaheb wanted us to harness the audio-visual media’s impact, and Uddhav led the ideation of a video called Avhan aani Aavahan (The challenge and the appeal) which explained the Shiv Sena’s ideology and our plans for Maharashtra if we were elected,’ said a member of the ideation team.
The younger generation, which was the natural electoral catchment of the Shiv Sena, tried to locate Bal Thackeray in his nephew’s persona.
In the assembly elections, Raj ensured that many of his loyalists, including Arjun Khotkar (a Shiv Sena minister in the Maharashtra government), were nominated by the party.
The Shiv Sena-BJP’s charge paid off. The Shiv Sena managed to win seventy-three seats followed by the BJP’s sixty-five, while the Congress could manage only eighty seats. The saffron alliance secured the support of independents, most of whom were Congressmen who contested sans the party symbol because of the infighting between factions led by Sharad Pawar and Sudhakarrao Naik and formed the first non-Congress government in Maharashtra.
Manohar Joshi was sworn in as chief minister before a crowd of lakhs in a public ceremony at Shivaji Park. This was the first government headed by parties which did not have their ideological moorings in the Congress.
‘There were four factors responsible for the victory of the Shiv Sena and BJP in 1995. This included Balasaheb’s image and persona, BJP leader Gopinath Munde’s charges against Sharad Pawar, 1992-93 communal riots in Mumbai and Raj’s statewide tours and the BVS campaign,’ said an MNS functionary associated with Raj since his BVS years.
One of Raj’s friends claimed his leader had ‘helped Shiv Sainiks’ during the 1992-93 Mumbai riots, especially in the conflagration that took place after the March 1993 bomb blasts but refused to elaborate further. ‘Then, the circumstances were such that even a calm man like Uddhav was incensed. During a visit to Matoshree, I recall an angry Uddhav saying something had to be done,’ he added.
‘Before the results, Uddhavji, Manohar and Sudhir Joshi and I myself toured Maharashtra to solicit the support of independent candidates, who we thought could be elected, and secure their commitments,’ said Shishir Shinde. ‘I stayed with Uddhavji in a room at Hotel Centre Point in Nagpur. We managed to bring independents like Anil Deshmukh and Harshavardhan Patil on board.’
‘After the Shiv Sena-BJP government came to power, both Uddhav and Raj acquired clout. They would sit in the Saamna office, where Uddhavji’s cabin was sober yet impressive, while that of Raj saheb had interiors that jelled with his personality,’ remembered Shinde.
Kiran Wadhivkar, a secretary of the Shiv Sena, who quit the party with Narayan Rane in 2005, recalled that both Raj and Uddhav were frequent visitors to Shivalaya, the party office near the state secretariat at Nariman Point.
Raj was gradually emerging as a power centre and influencing appointments within the party and government. But there was a section within the Shiv Sena that wanted his wings clipped. Sena ministers who wanted to be on his right side were quick to put up his photographs along with those of the party chief in their cabins. ‘But they were asked by the powers that be to remove Raj’s photos,’ said one of Raj’s former business partners.
Raj’s company, Matoshree Realtors (later rechristened as Matoshree Infrastructure Private Limited after being converted from a partnership firm to a private limited company and headed by Rajan Shirodkar), forayed into the construction industry in 1991 as civil contractors for a large turnkey project. After the Shiv Sena-BJP government came to power, the firm ventured into slum rehabilitation schemes, which were among the regime’s most ambitious yet controversial projects.
‘Matoshree started developing a scheme at Dadar. Dadar was seen as Manohar Joshi’s area, and Joshi sir perhaps did not take too kindly to it. Gradually, there was an attempt from within the party, especially by the old guard which felt threatened at his rise, to ensure anything Raj did would acquire a hue of controversy,’ noted one of Raj’s associates.
Another associate of Raj’s, who has stayed with him through thick and thin, noted that Joshi seemed to be uncomfortable at Raj’s growing influence.
Uddhav’s gradual rise within the party was meant to counter Raj’s influence. However, in an interview to Saamna, Uddhav claimed that his decision to join politics was meant to ‘only help his father’, that he had no political ambition and was not eager to accept any responsibility within the party.
A senior journalist recalls how a senior Shiv Sena leader, now a minister in the Devendra Fadnavis government, talked down to Raj. ‘We were in the Saamna office at Prabhadevi with Raj when the
leader entered. The Shiv Sena had launched a membership drive and Raj told him to visit Konkan to oversee its progress. The Sena leader was livid and questioned Raj’s authority to give him orders.’
The journalist, who has tracked Raj’s career since his early days, claimed some Shiv Sena ministers had clear instructions – in no condition were they supposed to complete works sought by either Raj or his men unless they were given explicit orders by the party leadership.
A former Shiv Sena leader denies this charge. ‘Though Raj met Balasaheb frequently, Uddhav and Smita [the wife of Bal Thackeray’s second son, Jaidev] had better access to Balasaheb as they stayed close to him, be it at Matoshree or at Dadar, where he shifted when Matoshree was being reconstructed during the Sena-BJP regime. While Smita would see that her instructions were relayed via Balasaheb, Uddhav would often tell ministers or Shiv Sena leaders in Balasaheb’s presence about things he wanted done. This implied Balasaheb’s concurrence.’
This excerpt from The Cousins Thackeray: Uddhav, Raj and the Shadow of their Senas by Dhaval Kulkarni has been published with permission from Penguin Random House India.