NAGPUR, Maharashtra — On Monday Aaditya Thackeray, grandson of Mumbai’s erstwhile strongman Bal Thackeray, the Shiv Sena’s heir apparent, president of the party’s youth wing, and the first Thackeray to contest an election, wrote a long blog on his party’s position on his government’s destruction of the Aarey forest in Mumbai.
At first sight, the Mumbai Metro Rail Corporation (MMRC)’s decision to hack down over 2000 trees in the dead of night appeared tailor-made for the young Thackeray. The Shiv Sena had long opposed a plan to clear the forest to make way for a Metro car shed, putting it at odds with its alliance partner, the Bharatiya Janata Party.
The sanctity forest had quickly become an emotive issue for young, environmentally conscious, social media savvy Mumbaikars — precisely the target demographic for 29-year-old Thackeray, who is looking to broaden the Sena’s diminishing appeal. And finally, the Shiv Sena had a long history of ignoring the law and taking to the streets to fulfill its demands.
Three weeks before an election in which the Shiv Sena has struggled to get out the BJP’s long shadow, this was Thackeray’s moment to prove his readiness for the bare-knuckled world of street politics.
But he blew it.
Rather than hit the streets with his youth army, Thackeray tweeted his support, even as the police roughed up and detained social activists and protestors. Opposition politicians like Prakash Ambedkar, the chief of the Vanchit Bahujan Aghadi, the Nationalist Congress Party’s Member of Legislative Assembly Jitendra Avhad and several Shiv Sena activists were detained by the police, but Aadtiya Thackeray stayed home.
On social media, the blowback was vicious.
When the Twitter storm finally subsided, Thackeray’s reputation — carefully cultivated through choreographed statewide ‘Jan Ashirvad yatra’ — lay in tatters and his team disconsolate. The Aarey Forest issue had established what the Shiv Sena’s political opponents had long alleged — that the party was little more than the B team of the BJP.
“There could not have been a bigger opportunity to shine for him than Aarey protest. Even if he had visited the protestors once, it would have done the job,” said a member of Aaditya’s campaign team. “We don’t know what went wrong with him and why he caved in. It looks like the pressure to keep the alliance with BJP intact made him commit this blunder.”
Thackeray’s blog on Monday appeared to an attempt at damage control, but to his detractors, and many on the fence, he now appears to be just another privileged child who expects everything — even his election victory — to be handed to him on a platter.
Even members of his own Yuva Sena found it hard to summon a defence.
“See, you have to understand this Thackeray is different. He has been raised in a protected atmosphere with security guards around him all the time,” said a Yuva Sena member, who himself is the son of an MLA. “His grandfather was a street warrior but he is not.”
But they certainly tried.
“This Thackeray is an urban and elite one, but he is accessible, unlike his father. He has just arrived on the scene,” the Yuva Sena member continued. “Give him some time before you judge him. Such little instances like Aarey would keep on happening.”
NCP, Congress Sense Possibility
Thackeray’s opponents have smelt an opportunity to draw blood. When the Shiv Sena first announced he would contest from Worli, the result was considered a foregone conclusion.
In 2014, the party’s current MLA, Sunil Shinde, won the seat with nearly 40% of the popular vote. His closest rival was Sachin Ahir, the Mumbai chief of the National Congress Party, who had won the seat in 2009. In June this year, Ahir joined the Shiv Sena, paving the way for an ascension thinly disguised as an election.
Now suddenly, his opponents are speaking up.
“We will tell the people how they have been deceived by Sena chief Uddhav Thackeray and Aaditya on Aarey issue despite their promise of not allowing tree cutting in Aarey,” Suresh Mane, founder and national president of the Bahujan Republican Socialist Party (BRSP), who is contesting on NCP symbol from Worli seat told Indian Express. “We will highlight that it was Sena’s failure that permission to cut trees was granted by Sena-controlled BMC.”
While it is true that the Sena controls the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation, Thackery’s blog was at pains to point out that it was the Mumbai Metro Rail Corporation that actually cut the trees.
But the larger point had been made: if the BJP doesn’t really care what its ally thinks, why is the Shiv Sena part of the government?
The Shiv Sena’s spokesperson Priyanka Chaturvedi had a different opinion.
“All his party people were there. All of us got detained. He is speaking up for Aarey, while being a part of the government,” Chaturvedi said. “I think leadership is about being able to take a stance. It is extremely unfortunate for people to say why wasn’t he there. His party was there and as a leader, he can give directions to his party.”
“Trolling is not a judgment of how people actually think of us on the ground,” Chaturvedi said. “We will not let go people who cut the trees at midnight scot free. It was Shiv Sena who went to the high court after the tree authority meeting.”