Many pundits would've foretold that in the 2014 Maharashtra Assembly polls stars were aligned in favour of Uddhav Thackeray. With a prolific show by his party— Shiv Sena —in the recently-concluded Lok Sabha polls and a battered NCP-Congress alliance, the odds were stacked heavily in the favour of the NDA parties.
The stage in this elections was set for Uddhav and Shiv Sena one felt. For starters the NCP-Congress combine was facing an anti-incumbency wave like it had never encountered in its past two returns to power in the state. Umpteen stories of misgovernance like the irrigation scam and Adarsh fiasco had dented its credibility. And a mighty push from the BJP-Sena combine could've shaken Prithviraj Chavan's hopes of ringing in the seats for his alliance the fourth time.
Secondly, BJP and Shiv Sena's opposition - the NCP-Congress combine - was crumbling owing to share-sharing issues. And the 15-year-old alliance eventually broke-off leaving others to wrestle for the spoils. Sharad Pawar-led NCP was put off by the May '14 debacle that the UPA faced and going alone in its stronghold seemed like a more logical proposition for the party. A divided opposition looked like easy pickings for both the BJP and the Shiv Sena.
And lastly, the winds produced by a persistent 'Modi wave' would've worked in Uddhav's favour as he commandeered Shiv Sena's boat single-handedly in the state polls.
But all this was not to be. The Shiv Sena broke off its 25-year-old alliance with the BJP and Uddhav now faces fire from four quarters. And the Thackerays have always never been shy of throwing a punch at their rivals, but the 2014 Assembly polls could end up becoming a tricky proposition for Uddhav and Shiv Sena.
This was to be the first Assembly election that the Sena would've fought since the demise of Sena founder Balasaheb Thackeray in 2012. Sena, and the BJP to a large extent, relinquished their Hindutva agenda and went to the General Elections riding on the 'Modi wave' of development and anti-corruption in the state. And it worked well for them considering that Sena bagged 18 of the 48 seats in Maharashtra on its own and alongwith the BJP ended up with 41 seats. Such numbers perhaps gave Uddhav enough confidence to test the strength of his party by going it alone in the Assembly polls. But what will be his agenda this time round? NDA's development plank? Or will he return to seek refuge in Sena's belief in Maratha pride — the ideology that potentially alienates outsiders in the state and the persistent practice of which has begun to borne fruit for his cousin's MNS.
Raj Thackeray and his party Maharashtra Navnirman Sena (MNS) have tilled the soil of Maharashtra hard and brandished the art of muscle politics perfectly in the state. Uddhav, the soft-spoken son of Bal Thackeray, could find hard return to arm-wrestle with Raj's brand of politics so close to the polls. Also, the cousins know very that a direct Thackeray versus Thackeray duel over Maratha pride will leave the field wide open for the Congress, NCP and the BJP.
Though the cold vibes between the cousins is well-known, Raj has confirmed that that he did twice try to reach out to Uddhav and sent out feelers after the Sena-BJP seat-sharing formula fell through, but both the times failed to elicit a positive response from the Matoshree. Many family members did try to iron out the political differences between the two brothers but failed. However, neither of the two have ruled out a post-poll alliance yet. A patch-up between the two Thackerays could potentially turn Maharashtra politics on its head, but signs of that happening look unlikely. However, stranger things have happened in politics.
It will therefore be interesting to see which of the three saffron flags manages to sail aflutter in Maharashtra—Shiv Sena's, MNS' or the BJP's. And it is anyone's guess whether Maharashtrians decide to side with the BJP's 'development-for-all' mantra or will Maratha pride once again take centrestage. However, Uddhav will hope that the sabres from the BJP camp are friendly-fires, and that the Congress's descent down the rabbit-hole continues and that the NCP fails to shed its tag of being a Congress-ally—a monicker which has attained dubious distinctions post the Lok Sabha elections.
In a free-for-all election, Uddhav Thackeray does find himself better off than either the NCP or the Congress, but it is not the old enemies that pose the real threat for Shiv Sena. It's but the estranged Thackeray brother and broken-up (alliance) partner he will have to be wary of —the two who will likely gain the most from the divorce of the year.