Mumbai: As workers of the Maharashtra Navnirman Sena (MNS) roamed Maharashtra’s streets this Wednesday, scouting for mosques that used loudspeakers and then playing the Hanuman Chalisa in front of them, party chief Raj Thackeray shared a video on his Twitter account.
It was an old clip of his uncle, Shiv Sena founder Bal Thackeray, respectfully known as ‘Balasaheb’, addressing a rally with a saffron shawl draped around his shoulders.
In the video, Bal Thackeray can be heard saying, “The day my government comes to power in Maharashtra, we will not stay without shutting down the practice of reading namaz on the roads… If our Hindu religion is bothering people anywhere, they should come and tell us…The mosques on loudspeakers will come down. Band.”
— Raj Thackeray (@RajThackeray) May 4, 2022
But even as Raj Thackeray hinted that he was the ideological successor of his uncle, Shiv Sena leaders circulated videos on WhatsApp of Balasaheb castigating his nephew, who split from the party and started the MNS in 2006.
In one video, the date of which is not clear, the senior Thackeray says: “Amcha putanyane jhak marli. Kay tyacha dokyat shirla kahi kalat nahi (My nephew is just whiling away his time. I can’t understand what went into his head).”
Wednesday’s video war is just another episode in the long-standing feud between Raj Thackeray and his cousin Uddhav — Bal Thackeray’s son — over who is the true heir of the Shiv Sena founder’s legacy.
The cousins parted ways over this dispute in 2006, going from family and political co-workers to bitter rivals. Since then, their political fortunes have also diverged.
Today, Shiv Sena leader Uddhav is the Chief Minister of Maharashtra while Raj Thackeray’s MNS is struggling to stay relevant, with just one seat each in the Maharashtra assembly and the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC), elections to which are slated to take place later this year.
Now, the MNS chief is targeting a huge chink in the Shiv Sena’s armour: Its partnership with the Congress and NCP, both former ideological and political opponents, in the Maha Vikas Aghadi (MVA) coalition government. This alliance has disenchanted core Shiv Sena voters, which is something that the MNS is seeking to capitalise on by reclaiming Hindutva icon Balasaheb’s legacy as its own in the renewed Thackeray-versus-Thackeray tussle.
Posters and saffron shawls
Between the two cousins, it was nephew Raj, rather than son Uddhav, who was said to bear the greatest resemblance to Bal Thackeray in appearance, oratory, and aggression.
“Uddhavsaheb is an excellent administrator. It was seen in the way he handled the Covid-19 pandemic, when the state needed a CEO, and not a politician. But, Rajsaheb inherited Balasaheb’s leadership qualities, charisma, and his ideology — which the Shiv Sena has diluted,” an MNS leader who did not wish to be named said. “We don’t need to speak about it. It is obvious.”
If this was “obvious” earlier, it has been even more so of late.
Raj Thackeray is now seen at events with a saffron shawl draped around his shoulders, while party functionaries have been running a poster campaign, pitching the nephew as the one truly entitled to Bal Thackeray’s legacy.
Last month, the MNS put up a poster drumming home this point outside the Shiv Sena’s headquarters in Dadar. Styled like a letter to Balasaheb Thackeray, it said: “If anyone is carrying forward your legacy and is your true heir, it is only Raj Thackeray.”
Ahead of Raj Thackeray’s 1 May rally at Aurangabad too (for which the leader was booked for making a provocative speech), MNS leaders put up posters of their party chief in his newfound fashion statement of the saffron shawl.
Shiv Sena members, in turn, put up their own hoardings, alluding to those trying to “imitate” the party’s founder. “Hindu hriday samrat Balasaheb Thackeray, ya sam dusre hone nahi (Hindu king of hearts Balasaheb Thackeray, there cannot be another one like him),” it said.
Speaking to ThePrint, political analyst Hemant Desai said that the MNS was using Bal Thackeray’s image to target the Shiv Sena.
“Raj Thackeray has not just taken a saffron shawl, but he has draped it around himself in the exact same manner that Balasaheb used to. In some ways, the MNS is using Bal Thackeray’s name as its political weapon and directly targeting Uddhav Thackeray,” he said.
Desai added the MNS at one point also used Balasaheb’s image in its rallies but stopped when the Shiv Sena “strongly objected”, but Raj Thackeray nevertheless continues to bring up his early years with the family patriarch in interviews.
Shiv Sena leaders, on their part, dismiss Raj Thackeray’s emulation of Balasaheb as mere mimicry.
“He (Raj Thackeray) has always tried to copy Balasaheb’s style. His hand gestures are like that, he tries to imitate Balasaheb in his speeches. But, one can’t become an heir by sheer imitation,” senior Shiv Sena leader Ravindra Mirlekar told ThePrint.
Indeed, in Wednesday’s video war, Shiv Sena leaders unearthed and shared an old clip in which Balasaheb himself mocks those who “imitate” him — a clear reference to his nephew.
Perched on a chair next to son Uddhav, Bal Thackeray says in the video: “They say someone has picked my style of speaking, I don’t know who…what is important is ideology.”
For all the cheap copies, a lesson: People who copy will always be not just one step, but several steps behind. pic.twitter.com/m9J9RYIX1E
— Priyanka Chaturvedi🇮🇳 (@priyankac19) May 4, 2022
MNS leaders, however, have a ready retort: The Shiv Sena has veered away from its original ideology, while the MNS continues to uphold it.
“After the MVA’s formation, everyone can see that the Shiv Sena has wavered from its original ideology. I know that being a CM, Uddhav Thackeray needs to take everyone along, but issues related to Hindus cannot be sidelined,” senior MNS leader Shalini Thackeray told ThePrint. Shalini is married to Jeetendra Thackeray, Raj and Uddhav’s cousin.
“Hindus are disillusioned, and it is the need of the hour for someone to fill that space and represent them. That space has been created, and the MNS is consciously trying to occupy it. After all, if Rajsaheb doesn’t occupy Balasaheb’s ideological space, who will?” she added.
The beginnings of a blood feud
On 30 January 2003, at the Shiv Sena’s conclave in Mahabaleshwar, the party chose Uddhav Thackeray as its working president.
Although it was Raj Thackeray who formally put forward the proposal, all was not well between the two cousins, who both harboured ambitions of being second-in-command to Bal Thackeray.
Raj Thackeray had been the head of the Bharatiya Vidyarthi Sena, the student wing of the Shiv Sena, and had garnered immense support and popularity within the party cadre.
On the face of it, Raj Thackeray seemed like the ideal bearer of Balasaheb’s mantle.
He was outspoken and aggressive like the Shiv Sena founder, more comfortable leading from the front, campaigning, and delivering edgy speeches. Uddhav Thackeray was more even-tempered and polite, and considered more adept at backroom management. Right from the start, therefore, there was speculation that Uddhav was chosen merely because he had closer blood ties to Balasaheb.
Veteran Sena leaders, however, deny this and say that Balasaheb’s sharp political instincts led him to pick son over nephew.
“It is not correct to say that Balasaheb chose Uddhavsaheb to be his successor simply because he was his son. Balasaheb had vision, and he saw certain skills, leadership qualities in Uddhavsaheb that may not have been obvious to others at that time. But, if you see now, Balasaheb’s vision has paid off. [Uddhav] is handling the state administration and the party in a way that no one could have imagined back then,” said a Shiv Sena old-timer who did not wish to be identified.
According to this leader, Raj Thackeray may have modelled his mannerisms after the Sena supremo, but did not share his vision.
“If he did have his vision, he would have stayed in the party as the second tallest leader. Today, when Uddhavsaheb is CM, the entire party administration could have been under Raj Thackeray. At the very least, if he had vision, his party would not have been struggling,” he said.
Raj Thackeray walked out of the Shiv Sena in 2005 and formed the MNS in 2006. He first adopted an anti-migrant agenda in a manner that reminded political watchers of the Shiv Sena’s aggression on the issue in the party’s early years.
While the MNS got some quick success in the Mumbai civic body and the state assembly, it has faced an electoral rout since 2014. Currently, the MNS has just one MLA and one corporator, and the party has faced criticism from its rivals for its flip-flops — first praising Narendra Modi ahead of the 2014 polls, then lashing out against his regime before the 2019 elections, and now again appropriating a Hindutva tone much like the BJP’s.
According to the MNS leader who spoke on the condition of anonymity, Raj Thackeray has always taken stands based on his convictions, praising someone for doing the right thing and calling out non-performance. “We know that this does not sit well politically, and we have borne the brunt of it electorally. But it is what it is,” he said.
Raj Thackeray’s relation with his uncle and cousin grew choppier after he walked out of the party and fought elections on the ‘Marathi manoos’ plank, originally identified with the Shiv Sena.
Uddhav and Raj have shown up for each other on certain delicate personal occasions, such as when Bal Thackeray died in 2012, or when Uddhav underwent an angioplasty the same year. Similarly, in 2014, Uddhav visited Raj Thackeray’s daughter, Urvashi, in the hospital when she fractured her leg in an accident.
However, by and large, relations between the two cousins have soured, leaders from both parties say.
There were occasions when both sides tried to extend an olive branch, but without much response from the other.
In 2012, in an interview to senior journalist Nikhil Wagle, Bal Thackeray admitted that he would love to see his son and nephew come together, but added that he could not force the issue.
The following year, after Bal Thackeray’s death, Uddhav had in an interview to Saamana, the Shiv Sena’s mouthpiece, said he would welcome any offer of an alliance between him and Raj Thackeray, “but one cannot clap with a single hand”.
The MNS president had rebuffed the statement, saying he had no intention of aligning with anyone and that “alliance talks don’t happen through newspapers”.
A few years later, the tables turned.
Before the 2017 Mumbai civic body polls, the MNS, which was on a weak wicket after its debacle in the 2014 Lok Sabha and assembly polls, made an unconditional offer to the Shiv Sena for an alliance for the larger benefit of the city’s Marathi population. The Shiv Sena spurned the proposal by not responding at all.
External attempts to stage a rapprochement failed too.
Between 2010 and 2014, a group of Marathi professionals and Shiv Sena supporters launched a ‘Thackeray jodo’ campaign with the intention of uniting the two cousins and preventing a divide in the Marathi votes like in the 2009 Lok Sabha and state assembly elections.
“We started the campaign in September 2010 with a silent rally. We gave memorandums to both leaders before that. Raj Thackeray did not respond at all. Uddhavji… came outside Matoshree (his residence) to speak to us, and told us to stay with the Shiv Sena and have faith in the party,” Satish Walanju, the convenor of the campaign, told ThePrint.
Walanju said Balasaheb had told him about his desire to see his son and nephew reunited, but it now seemed like a lost cause.
“Eventually, we stopped our efforts to unite the brothers. Raj Thackeray kept changing his political stand, starting his party with a secular idea, then moving to Marathi, and now Hindutva,” he said.
(Edited by Asavari Singh)