Maharashtra | Shiv Sena’s big gamble
Shiv Sena scion Aaditya Thackeray was at a party-organised students’ interaction in Yavatmal on August 25, talking about exams and semester system shortfalls when a political question threw him off balance. The region has seen a spike in farmer suicides and a student, Rahul Patil, wanted to know why the Sena had not withdrawn support to the Devendra Fadnavis-led BJP government over the issue. Aaditya lost his cool and asked the student which party he belonged to. He later tried to explain how the BJP-Sena government was farmer-friendly, how it had distributed seeds, fodder and fertiliser and constructed ponds, but by then the 500-strong audience had gone cold on him.
Aaditya, the elder son of Shiv Sena chief Uddhav Thackeray, has been on a statewide ‘Jan Ashirwad Yatra’ to get feedback on people’s expectations from the party. It has created some curiosity among party sympathisers, but has been unable to offer more than freebies like loan waivers besides making claims that the Sena was a catalyst in getting crop insurance worth Rs 960 crore to 1 million farmers. At the Yavatmal gathering, when a student pointed out that there were frogs in the college water tank, Aaditya assured him he would send a water purifier in five days.
Aaditya’s promotion has been the Shiv Sena’s biggest gamble in the run-up to the Maharashtra assembly election. A source in the Sena says Uddhav wants Aaditya to be his eyes and ears as there are restrictions on his travel because of health issues. Apart from touring the rural areas, the junior Thackeray is also engaged in discussions with non-Marathi cultural leaders and entrepreneurs to improve his ‘acceptability’. At the first of these meetings on August 18, Aaditya talked about a new Maharashtra that caters to “every resident’s growth and prosperity”. A platform called ‘Friends of Aaditya Thackeray’ has been created to conduct such activities. “The platform will invite people from across the state to participate in a dialogue, handle challenges and shape policies,” says Rahul Kanal, one of the organisers.
In a tactical move, Uddhav has kept Aaditya away from the seat-sharing negotiations with the BJP, possibly fearing a repeat of the 2014 fiasco. Thackeray Jr had been adamant on contesting 151 assembly seats (of the total 288), which led to the BJP breaking the alliance, all over a dispute about just three seats. As a result, the BJP emerged as the single largest party, taking the chief minister’s post and shattering any hopes Uddhav might have had of ruling the state. “The seat-sharing formula will be finalised after discussions between me, Devendra Fadnavis and (BJP president) Amit Shah,” he has announced.
This time around, it seems it is Aaditya who is eyeing the high office. Shiv Sena leader Anil Parab announced that the party has chosen the Worli constituency in Mumbai for his debut in electoral politics. Aaditya too has not hidden his ambitions. “I will contest if the people give me the mandate,” he says.
Political commentator Hemant Desai believes “Uddhav is setting things up for Aaditya, but the party will not get any immediate benefits from it. So far, he (Aaditya) has not shown us anything to convince that he can take up the reins. All these exercises will help him build his own brand and network, though.”
Meanwhile, a senior Sena leader says the transition will not be so smooth. He points to powerful leaders like Eknath Shinde, who demonstrated at Aaditya’s birthday celebrations that he had the backing of 40 of 63 Shiv Sena MLAs. When Shiv Sena founder Bal Thackeray chose Uddhav as his successor in 2003, the coterie around the latter ensured that the transfer of power led to a rift between him and cousin Raj. As a result, Raj Thackeray quit the party to start the Maharashtra Navnirman Sena (MNS). Aaditya too has a coterie around him, and it will be no surprise if the Sena sees some turbulence soon.