Out of my mind: Is it time for Uddhav to go national?

Meghnad Desai
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Now, with a new coalition at his back, Uddhav is in a hurry to differentiate his party from the BJP. Twice in recent weeks, he has said the most radical things of any politician

What is Uddhav Thackeray up to? He has been in politics a long time. He sat at the feet of his father who innovated a new style of politics in India. Reviled as a fascist, Bal Thackeray succeeded in establishing street-fighting Right Wing Regional Populism as a brand. Whatever the established political parties may have thought, he captured Mumbai.

Whatever the current fortunes of the BJP and Shiv Sena, it was the Shiv Sena which succeeded politically in launching Hindutva (with a Marathi angle) as a viable political brand. It is this perhaps that Uddhav is now keen to reestablish. Since the 1990s when the Sena was the senior partner in Maharashtra, it has had to play second fiddle. During the 2014 Modi government, its MPs felt slighted but bore up.

Now, with a new coalition at his back, Uddhav is in a hurry to differentiate his party from the BJP. Twice in recent weeks, he has said the most radical things of any politician. Thus he compared the JNU incidents to the attack on Mumbai on 26/11. Narendra Modi loves to tar his critics with the Pakistan brush. Uddhav has now returned the compliment in the most hurting way possible by comparing the JNU perpetrators with a Pakistani terrorist outfit.

Then, he has opened up the protest against Article 370 in a way bolder than the ‘secular’ parties have dared. The ‘Free Kashmir’ banner carried at a Mumbai procession would not have been carried a yard without the Sena’s permission. This is the most extreme harsh difference Uddhav has articulated with the BJP.

For the first time, there is a deliberate split on the Hindutva Right. It is as if Uddhav has read the tea leaves and decided that, given his age and his tightly disciplined party, plus the strategic support of the NCP’s Sharad Pawar, he can offer himself as a rival to the BJP. The calculation must be that there is no prospect of the Congress ever coming back, not while Rahul Gandhi is in the way of a better leader emerging. If there was any doubt, the Congress idea of attacking Savarkar for his alleged homosexuality (is the Congress for retention of Section 377 and homophobic?) is remarkably ill advised.

There is no other force on the secular Liberal front with a strong regional base. Mamata Banerjee will lose West Bengal soon enough. Mayawati and Akhilesh Yadav are unlikely to gain much traction in Uttar Pradesh. Stalin has yet to win Tamil Nadu. Uddhav as Maharashtra Chief Minister is a plausible leader of the anti-BJP coalition in 2024. No doubt there will be ups and downs but Uddhav’s advantage is that he will eat into the BJP’s Hindu support not just in Maharashtra but wherever there are unhappy BJP supporters due to the economic slowdown and problems of the Citizenship (Amendment) Act. He has inducted Muslims in his Cabinet.

These are early days but then it will take full four years to build up his credibility as a national leader. It cannot be sudden. Uddhav has had a long time waiting in Matoshree to think how to fulfill his father’s dream — a Maratha Prime Minister in Delhi. The time is near.

This article first appeared in the print edition on January 12, 2020 under the title ‘Is it time for Uddhav to go national’.

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