Uddhav Thackeray, Chief Minister of Maharashtra, currently facing a revolt from his own Shiv Sainiks this evening spoke his heart out to Maharashtra and his party - all on a webcast given his Covid positive status.
Uddhav Thackeray, usually considered a reticent leader, especially when compared to his fire-breathing father Bal Thackeray, realized during the second wave of the pandemic that communication can be a remedy - he used regular fireside chats to assure Mumbai that his government was available at all hours to help the city survive the onslaught of a raging positivity rate.
It is therefore ironic that the current crisis - nearly 30 of his party's 57 MLAs have turned against him - has been pumped up by the impression that Thackeray, 61, is an uncommunicative leader, impossible to reach. In today's webcast, which lasted 18 minutes, Thackeray was emotionally available, often teary-eyed.
Faced with the very real possibility that his party could split - rival Eknath Shinde needs just another 7 MLAs to make that possible - Uddhav Thackeray was unguarded, stating that he is ready to quit as Chief Minister. "My letter of resignation is ready," he offered, if Eknath Shinde guarantees that only another Sainik will replace him in office.
It was a truth-or-dare challenge thrown by Uddhav Thackeray at Eknath Shinde, explicitly asking the rebel to prove that his sole motive is not to ensure the return to power of his sponsors, Devendra Fadnavis and the BJP.
Uddhav Thackeray also declared, "I am the son of Bala Saheb, I am not hungry for any post," refuting Eknath Shinde's claim to be the true successor of the founder of their party. Much of the speech was infused with his typical self-deprecatory style, honed over years of living in Bal Thackeray's shadow.
Uddhav Thackeray also made it clear that Sharad Pawar and Kamal Nath, both senior leaders of his allies, have assured him of their continued support.
Sharad Pawar, who put together the three parties in an unlikely mash-up in 2019, came in for particular notice with Uddhav Thackeray saying he had told him to become the Chief Minister and an incredulous Thackeray thought it was a joke because he had no administrative experience.
Uddhav Thackeray spoke without the aid of a teleprompter and you could hear the homey sounds of traffic and birds chirping in the background, adding to the portrait of a wounded man let down by his own.
Significantly, Uddhav Thackeray did not once mention the BJP by name though the distrust created by it was the subtext of the entire address. The BJP is now giving up the pretense that it has nothing to do with the Sena rebellion and is owning it publicly, with the rebels having moved from the party citadel of Gujarat to another BJP-governed state, Assam, where Himanta Biswa Sarma, increasingly trusted by party boss Amit Shah as a trouble-shooter, took time out from the disaster management of the floods to meet-and-greet the Sena rebels. After Uddhav Thackeray's aides were able to meet the rebels in Gujarat, the BJP deemed it safer to fly them to the North East, where it will be tougher for Team Thackeray to make effective overtures.
Two rebels have signed out of Eknath Shinde's camp with wild tales of kidnapping and injections being forced on them. Sources say that in fact, Eknath Shinde claimed that he was taking them to a Sena dinner in Thane where they found officials of the Gujarat police waiting to escort them to Surat and the waiting BJP.
The Thackeray family and the Sainiks have a particularly emotional connect. Uddhav Thackeray's intent was to invoke that and have the cadre come to his rescue. The damage report for the Chief Minister is pretty grave - he stands to lose not just his office but control of the political party created and run for decades by his father. Earlier stalwarts who quit like Raj Thackeray and Narayan Rane did not veer close to bringing down the house of Thackeray - that distinction now rests with Shinde.
It is significant that Thackeray, right after his webcast, met with Sharad Pawar. To win the fight of his life, he needs the senior mastermind as much as the Sainiks.
(Swati Chaturvedi is an author and a journalist who has worked with The Indian Express, The Statesman and The Hindustan Times.)
Disclaimer: These are the personal opinions of the author.