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Opinion: Uddhav changes, Modi won’t

Aejaz Ashraf

Seldom does a day pass without someone or other calling me up in Delhi to praise Chief Minister and Shiv Sena leader Uddhav Thackeray for not blaming either the Muslims or the outstate migrants for Maharashtra’s Coronavirus woes. These were the two groups whom the Sena had viciously targetted to acquire notoriety and power. What explains the change? Uddhav’s compulsion as he heads a coalition comprising centrist parties?

Curious, I called several Mumbaikars, including TV personality Aadesh Bandekar, who recalled that when he was appointed the chairman of the Shree Siddhivinayak Ganapati Temple Trust in 2017, he went to meet Uddhav. Guess his advice? Uddhav said that just as slippers are taken off before entering a temple, Bandekar should keep aside religion and caste while identifying beneficiaries of the trust’s charity. “It is you all who are seeing the same man in a new light,” Bandekar said.

We are seeing him in a new light because the supporters of the Bharatiya Janata Party have been complicit in communalising the Coronavirus. Yet Prime Minister Narendra Modi did not admonish them until, under pressure from the Middle-East Twitterati, he said last week: “The virus does not see race, religion, colour, caste, creed, language or border before striking.” Uddhav, by contrast, has persistently argued against perceiving the Coronavirus as a jihadi conspiracy.

We are surprised perhaps because we assumed Uddhav would imitate his father, Bal Thackeray, who was deified as the Hindu Hriday Samrat for fanning Mumbai’s 1992-93 communal fire. Yet Thackeray Senior was not ideological. He would appropriate ideas and then mothball them, as woollens are at the passing away of winter. He came to Hindutva after championing the Marathi Manoos or common man, targetting South Indians, then becoming the capitalist’s paw to smash trade unions, and then going on to mock the Jana Sangh, the BJP’s earlier avatar, before supporting Indira Gandhi. He, ultimately, riveted the Marathi Manoos plank to Hindutva to propel the Sena-BJP alliance into power in 1995.

Yet the Marathi Manoos slogan was doomed to yield diminishing returns as outstate migrants continued to flock to the Mumbai Metropolitan Region, where they now constitute nearly 25 per cent of its population. The MMR accounts for nearly one-fifth of the Vidhan Sabha’s strength. The Sena’s strategy of targetting migrants was as good as writing off their votes. Add to this the Muslims and the Buddhist Dalits, whom the Sena had alienated.

It is hard to tell whether Uddhav’s liberalism or pragmatism prompted him to launch the Mee Mumbaikar, or I am Mumbaikar, campaign in 2004, to widen the party’s appeal beyond the Marathis. That campaign failed, but this became the only buoy for the Sena as a substantial segment of the middle class identified Modi as Hindutva’s mascot in 2014, and the BJP, under Amit Shah, began to play the Big Brother. The Sena’s lack of a strong rural base implied a slow death for it now.

The urban context of the Coronavirus has provided Uddhav the opportunity to widen his appeal in cities by forging social unity, which is recognised as vital to check its spread. It makes political sense for Uddhav not to communalise the virus, as it is for him to voice migrants’ wish to return to their natal States. Do not think Uddhav wants to efface his party’s Hindu personality. He was, for instance, effusive over the Ayodhya judgement and favoured the Bharat Ratna award for VD Savarkar. He seems headed to turning the Sena into an inclusive Hindu party, a desi version of Christian Democrats, so to speak.

An inclusive Hindu party is certainly not what the BJP is. Indeed, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh has inculcated in a large segment of Hindus a deep hatred for minorities and liberal, secular, communist, Leftist Hindus. No BJP leader can afford to alienate these radical Hindus, not even Modi, who will not do it also because of his insatiable appetite for domination. Modi’s ace is to fan the anxiety of Hindus to win elections, failing which the BJP splits parties to acquire a majority.

Since Maharashtra’s coalition has not collapsed, there are already speculations that the rise in Coronavirus cases in Mumbai could have the Centre impose the President’s Rule on the State and use the period to split parties to cobble a majority for the BJP. There is also the alternative of blocking Uddhav from becoming a member of the Legislative Council, which he must before May 27, failing which he will have to resign. However, the Council elections have been postponed because of the Coronavirus, and the Governor is dillydallying in appointing Uddhav to one of the two nominated seats lying vacant.

The coalition can indeed elect a new chief minister, but it will be denied the purchase it has had because of Uddhav’s understated and unassuming style of leadership, which has touched a universal chord. Prepare for a tug of war between the Uddhav who has changed, and Modi and Shah who have not, will not and cannot.

The writer is a senior journalist and a regular contributor to this newspaper.

The views expressed in this column are the individual’s and don’t represent those of the paper.