With the Shiv Sena registering a stunning performance in the Lok Sabha elections, winning 17 of the 20 seats it contested, the party is now gearing up to ensure that its leader Uddhav Thackeray becomes the next chief minister of Maharashtra.
The state elections are due in October and the party has fine-tuned its plan to win a sufficiently large number of seats to propel Uddhav to the chief minister's chair. It is planning a Modi-type campaign to project Uddhav as the next chief minister.
The Lok Sabha polls were a major test for Uddhav, who was leading his first major campaign since the passing away of his father and Sena founder Bal Thackeray in November 2012, and the party's success strengthens his position significantly.
Party leaders admit that with its partner the BJP in a strong position at the Centre, seat-sharing for the assembly polls could get tougher. "The BJP has the upper hand in Delhi and will use this to try and get a lion's share of the seats. In previous state elections, our party has contested more seats than the BJP. So we hope this will be maintained in the upcoming polls," a Sena leader said.
After Bal Thackeray's death, critics speculated that thousands of Shiv Sainiks would desert the party and join the Maharashtra Navnirman Sena (MNS) formed by Uddhav's cousin Raj Thackeray. But no such thing has happened as Uddhav maintained a firm grip on the organisation.
With much at stake in the Lok Sabha polls, Uddhav began the party's preparations quietly, ahead of most others. "Uddhav handpicked the party's candidates after consulting party cadres in the respective constituencies. His son Aditya was also involved in the exercise. Many candidates, like Rahul Shewale, were directed to begin their campaigns well before the announcement of the election schedule," said Anil Desai, Sena member of the Rajya Sabha and a confidante of the party chief.
Anil Parab, member of the legislative council, said Uddhav visited party shakhas exhorting cadres to enrol new voters. "He emphasised organisational unity and focused on keeping the morale of the rank and file high," Parab said.
"Uddhav addressed 34 mega rallies across the state, exploiting the anti-incumbency sentiment against the Congress-NCP to the fullest," observed Desai. The strenuous effort must be viewed in the context of the coronary bypass procedure he underwent 18 months ago.
Then just as the campaign was hotting up, BJP leader Nitin Gadkari provoked Uddhav by cozying up to Raj Thackeray. The Sena chief spoke directly to BJP president Rajnath Singh and senior leader LK Advani, asking them to clear their position on the Maharashtra Navnirman Sena. The leadership got the message and kept the MNS away.
Party leaders say the success of his efforts have demonstrated that he is a capable successor of Bal Thackeray. This has not only strengthened his position, but in a way has helped him to emerge as a major leader in his own right in the state.