Mumbai: Jalgaon on Thursday, Dhule on Friday, Nashik on Saturday and Sunday and Ahmednagar on Monday. Twenty-nine-year-old Aaditya Thackeray has been on the road every day for the last five days in the garb of a quintessential politician — a sharp white kurta pyjama, a red tika on his forehead and a serpentine garland to greet him at most places he visits.
The Thackeray scion, already informally anointed as the undisputed third-generation leader of the Shiv Sena after incumbent party president Uddhav Thackeray, is a man on a mission.
The party officially maintains that Aaditya’s ‘Jan Aashirwad Yatra’, a tour of the 288 assembly constituencies of Maharashtra ahead of assembly polls in the state, is just an exercise to thank voters for supporting the Sena during the Lok Sabha elections and to seek their blessings.
In every district, Aaditya starts his tour with a temple visit — Ganesh mandir in Jalgaon, Ram mandir in Dhule, Triambakeshwar in Nashik and Shirdi in Ahmednagar, followed by rallies, speeches and programmes with youngsters, farmers and the party’s cadre.
“I call it a Jan Aashirwad Yatra (tour to get public blessings), but in reality, it is a tirth yatra (pilgrimage) for me. My grandfather and father have taught me that in this country if we really want blessings, we should seek them from people,” Thackeray said in a public address at Chopda in the Jalgaon district on Thursday, repeating it several times during the first phase of his yatra that ends on Monday.
Read between the lines, however, and the yatra becomes a tool that helps the party in several ways. It projects Aaditya, who was until two years ago just the face of the Yuva Sena and that too with a very urban identity, as a mass leader capable of leading the state. It helps the party reiterate its independent identity despite being in an alliance with the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).
Most importantly, it helps the Sena send a message to its cadre that it is still the ‘elder brother’ of the saffron alliance in Maharashtra amid a growing debate between Shiv Sena and BJP leaders over which of the two parties will install the next chief minister of Maharashtra in case they win.
‘Mass leader and future CM’
Aaditya formally entered politics in 2010, when his grandfather, Bal Thackeray, handed him a symbolic sword at the party’s annual Dussehra rally at Mumbai’s landmark Shivaji Park.
Over the past nine years, his influence in the party has grown phenomenally.
By the time the Shiv Sena joined the BJP-led government in Maharashtra in 2014, most Sena ministers had three photos in their cabins — Bal Thackeray, Uddhav Thackeray and Aaditya Thackeray. In 2017, Aaditya was a key campaigner, only second to his father, for the Mumbai civic polls, the most prestigious election for the Shiv Sena.
In 2018, the arts and law graduate was formally appointed as a Shiv Sena neta, part of the senior-most rung of leadership.
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Not just an urban leader
Aaditya brought a different dimension to the traditional, Right-wing nativist party by firmly establishing the Shiv Sena’s presence on social media, campaigning for football grounds and open spaces, rooftop restaurants, a 24/7 nightlife, open gyms, and self-defence training for girls, among others. But these issues, which Aaditya vociferously took up, gave him an image of a leader largely with an urban connect.
Over the past year, the party has made a deliberate effort to change that. This is perhaps Aaditya’s third tour of the hinterland in seven months, the first being a tour of Maharashtra’s drought-affected regions with his father in January. Then, closer to the Lok Sabha election, Aaditya held a bunch of interactions with college students from across Maharashtra’s small towns and cities in a programme called ‘Aaditya samvad,’. The third is his current yatra.
“He is not just an urban leader now. People have started seeing Aaditya saheb as a leader who is working for everyone, whether it is a farmer, labourer, an industrywala or a student, with humility at such a young age,” said Chandrakant Sonawane, a Shiv Sena MLA from Chopda.
“His mission of environment conservation, plastic ban are all fresh topics you don’t usually hear politicians speak about and makes him stand out as a sensitive leader,” he added.
“The way he works is just like how a chief minister administers. If he hears of a project that is stalled, he calls the relevant minister and fast-tracks it,” said Sonawane.
Not just Sonawane, but even some of the party’s senior-most leaders such as Rajya Sabha MP Sanjay Raut have publicly hailed Aaditya as Maharashtra’s next CM.
Aaditya is more diplomatic, telling reporters it is the people who will decide, and not him. Speaking at a rally in Dharangaon in Jalgaon Thursday, the leader said, “I am not here for issues of who will become CM. I want to shape Maharashtra, not a CM.”
Aaditya’s yatra more to enthuse Sena cadre
The ‘Jan Aashirvad Yatra’ comes at a time when there is a growing unease among BJP and Shiv Sena leaders over which party will get to install the next CM of Maharashtra if the alliance wins the election.
Senior leaders of both parties have staked claims even as Uddhav Thackeray and the incumbent CM Devendra Fadnavis have maintained that everything is smooth sailing in the alliance. The duo has been claiming that all modalities of the alliance have been pre-decided and these cards will be opened for everyone to see when the time is right.
Multiple party sources also said the Shiv Sena deliberately timed Aaditya’s tour such that it happens before CM Fadnavis’ campaign tour across the state to avoid making it look like a reaction to the BJP’s campaign and emphasise the Shiv Sena’s independent existence irrespective of the alliance with the BJP.
“Right now, projecting Aaditya as the next CM of Maharashtra is simply posturing for the party’s cadre,” political commentator Prakash Bal said. “Ultimately, in the current situation, the BJP will win more seats than the Sena and is unlikely to leave the CM’s post. The Shiv Sena cadre too knows this and is still a bit apprehensive about how the alliance will shape up for the assembly polls.
“Aaditya as CM is currently all empty talk. You hear his speeches and you know that he is still raw,” Bal added.
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