The Shiv Sena, like other political parties, has its traditions and rituals. The annual Dussehra Melava, or meet-and-greet, at Mumbai’s iconic Shivaji Park with lakhs of party workers in attendance and a Thackeray – Prabodhankar, then Balasaheb – giving the keynote address is among its most revered ceremonies.
For the first time in its 54 years, a Thackeray is also chief minister of Maharashtra. Its Melava on Sunday evening might have rocked the Park had it been held there but COVID-19 restrictions meant the party’s iconic event was scaled down to an auditorium with only 50 people. Uddhav Thackeray did not allow this to come in the way of his words or intent.
A relatively genial and mild-mannered Thackeray, Uddhav has steered away from the muscle-flexing, belligerence and coarse language associated with the party and Thackerays.
He is not known for his sharp oratory, he is uneasy with English and Hindi, and has been compared poorly with his father and cousin Raj. However, on Sunday, he seemed to rise above his limitations to thunder, to rant, to challenge, to avenge and warn: do not mess with Maharashtra, my family and me.
In a full-frontal attack, Thackeray took on Prime Minister Narendra Modi, slammed the BJP for its dirty tricks and politics quoting – ironically – RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat’s words, boldly defended his Hindutva, and retaliated heavily with every insult and innuendo sent his way last few months.
In both his choice of words and the manner in which he hit out, it was Uddhav Thackeray 2.0. Whether it was the confidence that comes from being in power or the suppressed rage of one targeted, he held nothing back.
"“There’s something strange going on in the country, it’s an invitation to chaos…(PM Modi) first protect your government, you think there’s no one to replace you but people are already saying ‘anyone is okay but you’…You cannot break us, you cannot break Mumbai or Maharashtra. We are quiet but it doesn’t mean we are impotent.” "
He demanded that Modi accept that GST was a mistake and rectify it, or replace it with the old tax regime; he also invited all chief ministers to join forces on this issue. “The Centre owes Maharashtra Rs 38,000 crores. I’m asking for money that’s rightfully due to my state. Why are you putting the loan burden on me?”
Thackeray was at his most acerbic while taking on the BJP for its shadowy games to topple the Maharashtra Vikas Aghadi government.
“You give dates upon dates, you see dreams (of forming a government). If you have the guts, topple my government. I challenge you,” he thundered.
The Shiv Sena and BJP were allies for 30 years till last year. Thackeray’s ferocity and scorn hit the highest pitch when he called out – without taking names – Maharashtra’s governor, BJP leaders and its informal allies-friends for targeting the MVA government and Aaditya Thackeray after actor Sushant Singh Rajput’s death by suicide.
“Those who wear black topis (referring to Governor Bhagat Singh Koshyari) must reflect on what the RSS chief said this morning about Hindutva, those who come to Mumbai for livelihood abuse Mumbai by comparing it to Pakistan-occupied Kashmir (referring to actor Kangana Ranaut), those who speak of the man gone as ‘Bihar Putra’ are slinging mud on Maharashtra’s sons, the Mumbai Police, the Thackeray family and Aaditya (referring to BJP ecosystem which circulated innuendos about the younger Thackeray in Rajput’s case),” Uddhav Thackeray bellowed.
‘The Gomutra Jibe’
And in what came close to the coarse language that had become the calling card of his father, Thackeray said to the BJP: “With cow dung in your mouth, you launched an attack on us, with gomutra in your mouth you sputtered at us…it’s your mouth and your dhoti (a reference to Brahminical BJP) that’s stinking…Maharashtra’s culture is to have a tulsi plant in a house, not charas-ganja plants that you speak of, there’s no movie called ‘Main Ganja Tere Ghar Ka’ (referring to ‘Main Tulsi Tere Angan Ki’)”.
He then likened Maharashtrians – especially Shiv Sainiks – to ideological descendants of Chhatrapati Shivaji who was firm that “one should not attack but one shouldn’t keep quiet if attacked from behind”.
Thackeray did not name his predecessor Devendra Fadnavis but said, “I am asking the state BJP to do right by your soil, your mother” and added that he would – as the head of the state that’s his “family” – take everyone along including the Maratha lobby that’s pushing for reservations to be implemented.
Thackeray’s words of unrestrained attack must delight his allies, the Nationalist Congress Party and the Congress – more the former and its boss Sharad Pawar who has stood by Thackeray like a rock.
Pawar had shot off a letter to PM Modi earlier this month pointing out the unconstitutional behaviour of Governor BS Koshyari in writing to the CM to reopen places of worship (read temples), asking if Thackeray had suddenly become “secular”.
The motivated and malicious campaign by a section of the media to somehow turn Rajput’s suicide into a murder conspiracy, deride Mumbai Police for its investigation, selectively slander Hindi film industry as a den of vice and narcotics with Ranaut virtually essaying the BJP’s script has angered large sections of Maharashtrians.
Thackeray’s words resounded with many and he managed to convince the skeptics – especially in Shiv Sena – that he can retort like his father.
Thackeray Walking a Tightrope
However, his stance and a renewed commitment to Hindutva will make Congress uncomfortable.
To the BJP, Thackeray said, “My Hindutva is not merely reopening temples. Those who question our Hindutva were hiding after the Babri Masjid was demolished…Your Hindutva is about clanging bells and vessels; that is not my Hindutva. My Hindutva comes from Chhatrapati Shivaji, my father and others; it’s about hitting the enemy, it’s about nationalism”.
Thackeray might have felt the need to reassert his commitment to Hindutva in a demonstrable way in order to keep his flock together who wonder if he has turned a paler shade of saffron after allying with the NCP and Congress.
He has walked the tightrope for a year now; there is really no middle ground on this and he seems aware of it. The dichotomy reveals itself in the stinging retort he wrote to the Governor about secularism being part of the Constitution last fortnight and his renewed commitment to “my Hindutva” at the Melava.
The BJP, too, knows that this is Thackeray’s Achilles heel and has assiduously exploited it.
The Sunday Melava turned into an attack against his critics, especially the BJP, to an extent that it left little room or mood for Thackeray to showcase the governance that the MVA government had managed to do in an unprecedented pandemic.
It would have been an ideal occasion for the first-time administrator to speak about the positives – he made a brief reference to saving the Aarey forest in Mumbai and providing relief for farmers – but his focus was on counter-attacking his friends-turned-foes, the BJP.
He even warned Nitish Kumar in Bihar that the BJP might do with him what it did in Maharashtra to its ally – use and discard. “I ask the BJP who’s offering free vaccines in Bihar if all other states are Bangladesh, Pakistan or Kazakhistan,” Thackeray said, “I wonder who vaccinated whom. Did you vaccinate Nitish Kumar of ‘sangh-mukt-Bharat’ fame with Hindutva vaccine or did he give you vaccine of secularism?”
The more Thackeray spoke about Hindutva to hit out at the BJP, the more he sounded like the Shiv Sena chief and less the chief minister of Maharashtra. His command over the party is stronger than it has been in a long time, his tenure as chief minister has been largely free of controversies though not spectacular, his manner and poise worthy of the office he holds. This was the occasion for him to put his best foot forward and showcase his successes – however modest – and chart out his plans for the state, speak about his vision for Mumbai-Pune-Thane in post-COVID time. In that sense, it was an opportunity lost.
But Uddhav Thackeray left no doubt that he had imbibed the aggression, the pugnaciousness, which was so far associated only with his father. That’s not necessarily a good thing
(Smruti Koppikar, a Mumbai-based senior journalist, writes on politics, cities, gender and media. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)
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