Mr Thackeray's comments were part of an interview that appeared today in his party mouthpiece Saamna. Responding to who would be the ideal choice for the PM's job from the BJP, Mr Thackeray said, "At present, there is only one person who is intelligent, brilliant - Sushma Swaraj." Lavishing further praise on the seasoned BJP leader, the Sena patriarch added, "I have said this many times...She would be a great choice for PM's post. She is a deserving, intelligent woman. She would deliver a great performance."
Mr Thackeray's comments come in the wake of his recent meeting with Ms Swaraj as part of her party's campaign against the Centre over the coal block allocation controversy. More significantly, it's probably the first time that an ally has hinted at supporting a BJP leader as a prime ministerial hopeful. For some time now, Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi has been the only BJP leader who has been widely pitched as a potential prime ministerial candidate, even though his party has consistently refrained from projecting him as one. This could largely be attributed to the strong discomfort among its allies, most notably Nitish Kumar's Janata Dal(United) which has made it amply clear that Mr Modi would not be acceptable as the NDA's prime ministerial candidate. Mr Kumar, the chief minister of Bihar, did not name his Gujarat counterpart, but said a contender for PM must have "clean and secular" credentials. This was more than hint for Mr Modi who has been battling the shadow of the communal riots in his state in 2002.
Hence, Mr Thackeray's seeming support for Ms Swaraj could well be viewed by many as another thumbs down to Mr Modi as the PM candidate.
The BJP reacted cautiously to the Sena chief's remarks. "Bhartiya Janata Party has the blessings of God. We have self-dependent leaders who can make for an able PM. Our existence is not dependent on a single family and, therefore, different people see different leaders in our party who can lead the country in these difficult times. And we welcome what Balasaheb has said," party spokesperson Balbir Punj said.
The Congress, though, seized upon the opportunity to take a dig at the BJP-led NDA combine. ""The larger NDA suffers from a unique malady of anointing prime ministers without awaiting for people's verdict...The NDA/BJP should not count their chickens before they hatch," party spokesperson Manish Tewari said.
In his interview, Mr Thackeray also expressed dismay over senior BJP leader LK Advani's recent prediction that the next government could be formed by a non-NDA, non-UPA front. The BJP leads the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) which has the Shiv Sena as a key constituent. "I find it difficult to say anything beyond (what he said). What should one expect from these people? Why did he say so?" he said.
To another question on whether the alliance between the BJP and the Shiv Sena was "strong", Mr Thackeray said, "Now (I) can't use the word strong. Thinking has changed, there are personal animosities, animosities between the parties. NDA of the past had a leader like Vajpayee, now there is no such leadership. But I am talking about NDA, not BJP."
The BJP has been avoiding a call on the leadership issue despite the need to project one as the Congress' slide continues. But the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) and the party top brass know that the leadership issue will end the fragile peace within the party as rising number of aspirants may trigger an ugly war for the top job. The RSS is also worried that in order to improve their chances in 2014, the contenders within the BJP itself may try to get the allies onto their side, thus pitting parties in the coalition against each other. That could be a reason why the Sangh Parivar adopting a wait-and-watch policy ahead of 2014.
(With PTI inputs)