How the Shiv Sena ensured Aaditya Thackeray’s election victory
Was the Thackeray scion handed the throne too easily? Lounge speaks to his opposition and old loyalists to deconstruct his win
For someone who has just lost an election, Suresh Mane appears unusually sanguine. Relaxing at his Mumbai apartment a few days after the Maharashtra assembly poll results, he admits that the odds were stacked against him. After all, he was up against Aaditya Thackeray, then being talked about as the potential chief minister of Maharashtra.
“They had said they would win by a margin of a lakh," he recalls. “They had said all candidates would forfeit their deposit."
Aaditya’s victory margin was 67,427. Mane, founder-president of the Ambedkarite outfit Bahujan Republican Socialist Party (BRSP), an alliance partner of the NCP (Nationalist Congress Party), stood second with 21,821 votes. Of the 12 other contestants, he was the only one who did not lose his deposit.
Aaditya’s candidature was the first time a Thackeray was contesting elections. Though he had no administrative experience, Sanjay Raut, Shiv Sena spokesperson and member of Parliament, had declared that his party would seek the “sixth floor of Mantralaya", or the chief minister’s chambers, for Aaditya. In interviews, party elders portrayed him as “dynamic" and “visionary". In a bid to appear inclusive, the Marathi-first party had also put up Aaditya’s campaign inauguration posters in Urdu, Hindi, Telugu and Gujarati, featuring non sequiturs like “Kem cho Worli?"
Given its dense network of shakhas (units) and a dominant Marathi population, Worli is regarded as a “safe seat" for the Sena. The party gave it all it had. “In some pockets of Parel, Worli Koliwada and BDD chawls, I heard of voters getting around ₹10,000," Mane alleges. “They also distributed saris and other things." Even if it hadn’t, he doesn’t think he would have won, Mane adds. “My voter was a floater."
Even as Shiv Sena continues to negotiate for equal representation in the cabinet, with the tenure of the chief minister to be split equally between Aaditya and Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leader and Maharashtra chief minister Devendra Fadnavis, a close reading of Aaditya’s electoral campaign confirms that it was a high-stakes battle for the Shiv Sena. In a constituency with nearly 123,000 voters, it aimed for a victory margin of 100,000. The mandate it sought was thus both electoral and symbolic.
“If Thackeray had lost, it would have been the collapse of the entire family," says Mane. “It was almost a matter of life and death for them."
CLEARING THE STAGE
Aaditya first came into the limelight in 2010. As a student of St Xavier’s College, Mumbai, he successfully led an agitation to remove Rohinton Mistry’s novel Such A Long Journey from the university reading list. Portions in the book, he claimed, were “offensive" to his grandfather Bal Thackeray and the Maharashtrian community. A month later, his grandfather, the late Sena chief, announced the formation of the party’s youth wing. Aaditya, 20, was appointed its head.
Mistry released a statement expressing “pity, disappointment and compassion" for Aaditya. “Twenty years old, the beneficiary of a good education, he is about to embark down the Sena’s well-trodden path, to appeal, like those before him, to all that is worst in human nature."
Despite the bumpy start, the Yuva Sena began crafting an image of a savvy, irreverent and accessible politician. Aaditya, whose party was in the ruling alliance with the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) since 2014, lobbied for a ban on plastic, supported the Save Aarey movement to prevent felling of trees and proposed the revival of Mumbai’s nightlife by allowing malls and restaurants to stay open all night. He also created a network in Bollywood, roping in big stars as the face of Shiv Sena initiatives. He launched a sanitation drive with Salman Khan and a martial arts training institute for women with Akshay Kumar.
In this period, Aaditya had grown a beard and made jackets and white shirts with rolled-up sleeves his trademark look. He explained his grooming choices after winning the Most Stylish Award from a leading Marathi newspaper in 2017: “Earlier, when I would go to protests, meet ministers, lead delegations, people would pull my cheeks and say, ‘Yeh to mera bachcha hai.’ I thought, this would be the end of my career."
In July, a few months ahead of the Maharashtra assembly elections, he set off on a state wide Jan Ashirwad Yatra. For nearly three weeks, he toured the party strongholds in western and central Maharashtra, promising that he would make the state “drought-free, unemployment-free and pollution-free".
When he announced his candidature from Worli in October, it was clear that the Thackerays wouldn’t be facing a stiff contest. His closest rival, ex-MLA Sachin Ahir from the NCP, had defected to the Shiv Sena. Raj Thackeray, Maharashtra Navnirman Sena chief and Aaditya’s uncle, had decided not to field a candidate. Even the NCP seemed to back off, for, though it fielded its alliance partner Mane, none of its leaders came to Worli to lend support. At a press conference in Mumbai on 4 October, Maharashtra chief minister Devendra Fadnavis, running for re-election from Nagpur, said Aaditya would win with the highest vote margin in Maharashtra—he didn’t.
On his part, Aaditya wasn’t too visible in Worli. In the two-week campaign window, he was visible for all of four days. Most often, these would feature roadshows: Aaditya standing atop a pick-up truck, waving at residents, accepting garlands and posing for selfies. He gave no speeches, was absent at several pre-planned public appearances, and appeared only at one interaction with a citizens’ group. For the most part, he accompanied his father, Uddhav, to rallies outside Mumbai, exhorting voters to create a “new Maharashtra".
A leader of the Worli Koliwada Nakhwa Matsya Vyavasay Sahkari Society says Aaditya barely touched upon local issues or interacted with locals during the campaign. “We have been facing a huge problem due to the extended rainy season this year. But when Aaditya visited us in Koliwada, he went to a Dussehra pandal, took darshan and left."
Shiv Sena MLA Sunil Shinde, who made way for Aaditya in Worli, says he was only too happy to put in the legwork instead. “Balasaheb made me a shakha-pramukh, Uddhavji made me an MLA. They are our malik (owners), our boss. We had given them our word—don’t worry, we will work as a team and get the maximum votes."
Shinde disagrees that Aaditya was largely missing from his own constituency. “He made it a point to go for Ganpati darshan and visit all Navratri pandals," he says. “Where the car couldn’t reach, he went walking. In fact, some of us karyakartas (party workers) became lazy because we didn’t feel there was an opposition at all."
What about allegations of voter bribery? “Shiv Sena has never indulged in money politics or sari politics," he says. “We have maintained a standard. I can tell you 1,000% our people weren’t involved. If there are any such allegations, the Election Commission must probe it."
CARROTS AND STICKS
Vanchit Bahujan Aghadi (VBA) candidate Gautam Gaikwad stood third in the Worli race with nearly 7,000 votes. A retired police inspector, Gaikwad claims he has personally witnessed the violence the Sena is capable of. But Aaditya, he adds, represents change in the old order. “We are happy for him and respect him for it."
On winning the election, Aaditya tweeted that the results were “truly the real voice of democracy and informed voters". After he collected his winning certificate, Sunil Shinde carried him on his shoulders in a celebratory jig. In the days that followed, posters came up in parts of Mumbai, renewing the demand for Aaditya’s elevation to chief ministership. “It reminded me of the climax of 3 Idiots," says Mane. “Someone does the work, another gets the certificate."
Veteran journalist Dhaval Kulkarni, author of The Cousins Thackeray: Uddhav, Raj And The Shadow Of Their Senas, says Aaditya’s elevation was part of the party’s long-term plans. “Balasaheb Thackeray had initially opposed dynasty politics. But he had seen his CM appointees, Manohar Joshi and Narayan Rane, let their interests and ambitions get in the way of Thackeray’s…. My sources told me that after the assembly elections of 2014, the BJP had offered Shiv Sena the post of deputy CM. Sena didn’t take up the offer because they didn’t want a challenger to Aaditya."
“But having won, his main challenge is, now what? Over the years, a nativist Shiv Sena has watched its core vote base diminish under their watch. The upper castes have moved to the BJP. The young Marathi voter is aspirational, not influenced by linguistic politics. Aaditya will have to manage his core supporters along with the auxiliary, and expand Shiv Sena beyond the Mumbai, Thane and Konkan belt. His political adversary is not the Congress or the NCP. It is the BJP."
FIRST PUBLISHED01.11.2019 | 08:45 AM IST