The coming Lok Sabha elections will have a major bearing on the political career of Shiv Sena chief Uddhav Thackeray (53). This is the first major political challenge he is facing after the death of his father Bal Thackeray, who died in November, 2012.
For a person who has always lived in overawe of his father, Uddhav is today leading his party into the poll battlefield with steely determination. Many of his critics, including his arch rival Raj Thackeray, felt that after the demise of Bal Thackeray, who led the militant organisation for over four decades, Uddhav will not be able to keep the party together. But, Uddhav has proved them wrong.
The defections are marginal and the Sena as a whole is in tact. For good measure, he has started grooming his son, Aditya, who is connecting with young voters, specially in urban areas. One of the main reasons for Uddhav's firm grip over the party is his selection of hardcore loyalists as vibhag pramukhs and sampark pramukhs. He has also built up a second line of command which includes Eknath Shinde, the strongman of Thane. He is also in constant communication with the cadres.
Uddhav has set up a war room which comprises close aides like Diwakar Raote, Anil Desai, Sanjay Raut, editor of Sena mouthpiece Saamna and Milind Narvekar, his trusted aide of several years who are working out the logistics and tactics of the campaign. Uddhav himself is extensively campaigning throughout the state despite the fact that several stents have been implanted in him following a cardiac problem.
Apart from confronting the ruling Congress-Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) alliance, Uddhav also has to constantly field the barbs hurled at him by Raj, who heads the Maharashtra Navnirman Sena (MNS).
The fight between the cousins had become extremely personal with Raj accusing Uddhav of feeding an ailing Bal Thackeray only batata wadas while he (Raj) used to send hot chicken soup to his uncle residing at Matoshree bungalow in Bandra. "Fully knowing that the MNS is trying to divert his attention away from the ruling alliance, Uddhav has declared that he will not respond to any of the charges, but has challenged Raj to a public debate after the elections are over," Raote observed.
Raj has mostly fielded his candidates against Sena nominees and hardly any against the BJP which makes his intention clear. And the intention is to ensure the defeat of Sena nominees so that the poll outcome adversely impacts on Uddhav. Ironically, Raj's cold tactics has only made Uddhav and his team more determined to outsmart Raj. Raj supporters like Shishir Shinde, however, say that the Sena will perform poorly because of Uddhav's "weak leadership."
Uddhav also faced a major hurdle when senior BJP leader Nitin Gadkari openly flirted with Raj. The alliance between the Sena and the BJP almost reached the brink. Instead of confronting Gadkari, Uddhav quietly bypassed him and successfully sought the intervention of BJP president Raj Nath Singh, who stated categorically that the BJP will not have any truck with the MNS. Uddhav is aware that successful performance in the Lok Sabha polls will help him majorly in the assembly polls which is almost around the corner. "Victory in the polls will be the best tribute to my father who wanted to see the saffron flag atop Parliament and Vidhan Bhavan," Uddhav says wistfully.