"Veer Savarkar is our idol and his insult will not be tolerated if we have to fight together to protect our democracy. Savarkar suffered unimaginable torture in the Andaman cellular jail for 14 years. We can only read the sufferings. It is a form of sacrifice," said an irked Uddhav Thackeray at a rally in Nashik on Sunday, 26 March.
Thackeray's 'warning' was for the Congress party, its ally in the Maha Vikas Aghadi (MVA) in Maharashtra, after Rahul Gandhi's recent jibe at Savarkar.
A day after he was disqualified from the Lok Sabha for his conviction in a defamation case, Rahul Gandhi was answering a question by a reporter who asked if he would apologise for his 'Modi surname' remarks in 2019.
"I am a Gandhi, not a Savarkar. A Gandhi never apologises," said Rahul to an applause from fellow party workers and leaders.
While the comment led to strong criticism by the Bhatariya Janata Party (BJP) in Delhi, with union ministers including Anurag Thakur and Hardeep Puri issuing strong statements, it also brought the cracks in the MVA to the fore and enabled the BJP and Shiv Sena (Shinde faction) to corner Thackeray.
Speaking to the media, Shiv Sena (Uddhav Balasaheb Thackeray (UBT)) leader and MP Sanjay Raut on Monday said that "he will meet Rahul in New Delhi" to discuss the remarks. After a few hours, the Shiv Sena (UBT) backed out from a joint Opposition meeting called by Congress chief Mallikarjun Kharge on Monday night.
The article will detail the following aspects of the controversy:
How the Uddhav Thackeray camp attempted 'damage control'.
What led to Thackeray lodging a stronger protest on the matter than before?
How the Shinde-BJP faction in Maharashtra is fanning the fire for Thackeray
How the Maharashtra Congress is tacking the controversy
How and why it is getting difficult for Uddhav to deal with the Savarkar issue within MVA
Praise For Savarkar, Advice for Rahul Gandhi in Thackeray Sena's Mouthpiece
The comments by Uddhav in Nashik were followed by an editorial in Sena mouthpiece Saamana on Monday morning.
"The sentencing of Rahul Gandhi in the defamation case is unjust but the truth he is fighting for cannot be won by defaming Savarkar," the editorial read.
Further saying that 'Rahul Gandhi belongs to a family of martyrs', the editorial said that Savarkar had made equal contributions to India's freedom struggle. "You need a big heart and a tiger's will to understand Veer Savarkar," the editorial said.
It further said that the comments are going to adversely affect the Congress in Maharashtra, since Savarkar is an idol in every village of the state. It further blamed the Congress for bringing in two 'autocratic' laws with the Prevention of Money Laundering Act (PMLA) and the law of disqualification of lawmakers if they are sentenced for two years, both of which are now haunting the Opposition leaders.
The Pressure Within Maharashtra
From "will have a discussion on the issue" to deciding to skip Kharge's meet, the stand of Shiv Sena (UBT) on Rahul's comments on Savarkar toughened as the day progressed, but not without the pressure of local politics.
Ever since the Sena-BJP alliance broke after the 2019 Assembly polls and Uddhav allied with the Congress-NCP, the discussion around Savarkar has been a bone of contention for the alliance and ammunition for the Maharashtra BJP against Thackeray.
Maharashtra CM Eknath Shinde, whose faction had cited unwillingness to 'keep allying with those who insult Savarkar' as one of the prime reasons during the MVA split, was quick to charge.
Taking a jibe at Thackeray, Shinde said: "Why were his (Uddhav's) lawmakers silent in the House today in the ongoing Assrmbly session? For the sake of politics? For the sake of Maha Vikas Aghadi? He said yesterday at a gathering that Savarkar's insult will not be tolerated. I want to ask him, what action is he going to take?" Shinde asked.
Showing a picture of Bal Thackeray slapping Mani Shankar Aiyar's effigy with a footwear, a campaign that the Shiv Sena had kickstarted in 2004 over the latter's comments on Savarkar, Shinde said: "Will you be able to do the same? They reacted only when they faced condemnation from all sides."
Shinde then announced that a public movement called 'Savarkar Gaurav Yatra' will be conducted in every district and constituency of the state in order to pay tribute to Savarkar's contributions.
BJP leader and Shinde's deputy, Devendra Fadnavis said that the Uddhav faction cannot compromise on power at any cost. "They can invoke Savarkar only in their words, not in their deeds. The Shiv Sena and BJP will condemn Rahul and highlight Savarkar's contributions in every district and constituency during the 'Savarkar Gaurav Yatra'."
Shinde also changed the display picture of all his social media handles to a picture of Savarkar saying 'Aamhi saare Savarkar' (All of us are Savarkars).
Maharashtra BJP MPs, led by Union Minister Prakash Javadekar, staged a protest in front of the Shivaji statue in Parliament House against Rahul Gandhi's comments.
Several state leaders of the Shinde-BJP alliance, including Chandrashekhar Bawankule, Ram Shinde, and Ramdas Kadam, rallied on Monday to attack Thackeray for keeping his alliance with Congress intact despite repeated attacks by the party on Savarkar.
Maharashtra Congress Alleges Conspiracy to Divide MVA
The Maharashtra Congress, meanwhile, is fanning the fire with several MVA leaders repeating their stands of the past on the issue.
Maharashtra Congress chief Nana Patole alleged 'conspiracy' to make it look like a divide in the MVA by constantly raking up Savarkar.
Speaking to the media, Patole said: "The fact that the Shiv Sena and Congress have had differing views on Savarkar is not hidden. The Congress has never compromised on its ideology. The party respects all religions and we believe in equality," adding that Thackeray and Rahul Gandhi 'might have a discussion over the matter soon.'
"The three parties came together in order to save the democracy and the Constitution. That battle against the BJP is more important. The Congress party's stand on Savarkar is not new," he said.
"There is a conspiracy by our opponents to create differences in the MVA by bringing up issues like Savarkar constantly. There are bigger burning questions before the nation which the BJP does not have the answers to and they keep raking up issues like these to shed responsibility," Patole said while talking to the media.
A Tough Protest, But Uddhav May Have to Do Much More
While this is the strongest protest Thackeray has registered publicly against Congress' statements on Savarkar so far, it still might not be enough to get the party and its followers out of the prolonged predicament on the issue.
With the Shinde-BJP alliance going all guns blazing on the issue with the 'Savarkar Gaurav Yatra', Uddhav Thackeray and his faction will have to do much more than resorting to 'whataboutery'.
Senior political analyst Hemant Desai says that as long as the MVA stands united, Uddhav will always be trapped into the debate.
"There was a difference between the idea of Prabodhankar Thackeray's Hindutva and that of Savarkar's. Prabodhankar Thackeray was a supporter of Savarkar, yes, he did fully acknowledge Savarkar's contribution to the freedom struggle, but there are instances, writings, and speeches to show that he did not entirely believe in Savarkar's ideas of Hindutva that are perceived as regressive," Desai said.
"Now, it is up to Uddhav how to get Prabodhankar's message through his followers, because mere speeches and editorials will not do the job considering how much of an issue the Shinde-BJP alliance is making of it," he added.
The Saamana editorial on Monday claimed that the Congress will be on a backfoot in Maharashtra when it comes to Savarkar whose prominence in the state has historically been much more than it has been in the rest of the country,
"The Sena is right when it says that the more the Congress fans the issue of Savarkar, the more it will suffer in Maharashtra. Since 2014, the BJP has been able to put Savarkar on a higher pedestal as a freedom fighter despite his controversial views on many issues. With the declaration of the yatra, the Shinde-Fadnavis government has clearly decided to use all the machinery it has to show that the Congress disrespects Savarkar and Uddhav sides with them. The Congress, on the other hand, has weakened in the state and does not have the machinery to counter the BJP's charges. If the Congress leadership in Delhi keeps taking the stand it does and the state unit keeps catering to it, it might harm the party in the state, which might consequently harm Uddhav and the MVA," Desai said.