Guerrilla Fighter: How Raj Thackeray is making an unlikely political comeback
Raj Thackeray is leveraging oratory and earthy charisma to become a challenge for the BJP-Shiv Sena combine.
Raj Thackeray likes things a certain way. As the organiser of the south Mumbai edition of his ‘Modi-mukt Bharat’campaign, Sanjay Naik’s job is to do ensure it is so. The streets must be swept, the rally venue filled to the brim and the riff-raff kept out. The last part, however, can often get difficult.
“Naiksaheb,” an elderly man bursts onto the scene. “I want to give a speech tonight.”
It’s not the first time we have been interrupted. Ever since Naik showed up at our meeting at Shahid Bhagat Singh maidan in Kalachowki, a full 35 minutes late, he has had to fend off a coterie of workers jostling for his inputs: how many chairs to put up on stage; where do signs directing attendees to the venue go; can the entire setup be dismantled ahead of the BJP rally scheduled to be held at the venue the next day?
By the time he is done, he has walked the length of the maidan twice, micro-managed its flag-posts and backdoor exits, and is drenched in April sweat.
Naik is an affable apparatchik who followed Raj Thackeray from Shiv Sena to the Maharashtra Navnirman Sena when the leader famously broke away, in 2006, from the party his uncle founded. His reasons were personal — his time in the Sena was marked with infighting and glass ceilings. Under Thackeray’s tutelage, Naik contested (and lost) the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, accumulated two criminal cases, including rioting charges, and now leads the transport wing of the party.
Naik looks up at the latest intrusion. It is an old party hand, a 60-ish-year-old in an all-white neta gear. He has had a speech prepared, one of his acquaintances tells me, adding futilely, “He’s pretty good.”
Of course, I am not the one who needs to be impressed. But for an event of such scale, Naik is not the one calling the shots either. “I am only the anchor tonight,” Naik tells him. “I don’t get a say.”
The man persists. Apparently, some higher-ups had hinted at giving him a chance on stage. He had even been practising his delivery the previous night.
“Look here,” Naik says after attempts to reason with him fall flat. “Tuza lavda chhota aahe. Gandi madhe ghusla na tar dukhnaar nahi (You have a small penis. If you were to use it, it won’t hurt anyone.)”
The ones on stage, he adds, possess organs proportionate to their stature. The elderly man storms off.
Naik, affable as ever, turns to me: “Where were we?” His coterie, meanwhile, is rolling with laughter.
Setting the Stage
Such reverence for their leader’s gifts hangs over nearly every MNS worker I interact with that day. We are in a Marathi working class neighbourhood, the kinds where the native identity politics of the Shiv Sena and the MNS thrive.
The shop-fronts in Kalachowki bear Devnagari script; a Gandhi topi on an elderly resident looks perfectly in place and the Udupi restaurants request their patrons to “speak in Marathi wherever possible”.
“Rajsahebanchi manmaani (As per Raj Thackeray’s wishes),” the owner shrugs as he hands me a bill for a plate of rasam rice.
It is here, on the evening of April 23, that Thackeray addressed an audience of over 8,000.
The MNS is not contesting the Lok Sabha elections. Yet, Thackeray has become a formidable oppositional figure to the BJP-Shiv Sena combine in Maharashtra through a series of rallies across western Maharashtra over the past few weeks.
His unique style of video presentations on the failures of the current dispensation have turned him into an unlikely poster boy for the anti-Modi brigade. He calls Modi and BJP chief Amit Shah by their names, accuses them of spin, lies and deceit, and uses statistics, newspaper reports and onground interviews by his colleagues to convey their policy failures.
He asks questions, offers no particular solutions and professes impartiality. “I used to say that the Congress was bad,” he likes to say. “The BJP turned out to be worse.”
It is a remarkable about-turn. Five years ago, Thackeray had voluntarily declared his support for Modi’s bid for prime ministership. It had come after a nine-day ‘study tour’ of Gujarat. The people of Gujarat, he had said at the time, were “fortunate” to have Modi at the helm, focussed on the development of the state.
In hindsight, he smells conspiracy. “The bureaucrats I met were planted there to feed me [positive] information,” he said in an interview. “The overall picture emerged only later.”
For all his disdain for PM Modi, Raj Thackeray’s politics has more similarities with the PM’s than he cares to admit. Both parties revolve around the cult of a strongman whose profile and electoral fortunes rose following violent clashes between two communities.
While Modi had de-emphasised his Hindutva moorings with a high-decibel narrative on Gujarat’s economic development in the run up to the previous Lok Sabha elections, the MNS never completely shed its anti-migrant, xenophobic politics in spite of a successful debut in the Maharashtra assembly polls in 2009. By 2014, its seats in the 288-member assembly had shrunk from 12 to one.
In essence, it is impossible to overlook the hypocrisy of Raj Thackeray calling out the BJP for divisive politics. But his onstage charisma, facility for oratory, and an innate knack for salty barbs and earthy humour, reminiscent of his uncle, Bal Thackeray, helps.
While other Modi critics might be shouted down online with a barrage of labels such as ‘sickulars’, ‘presstitutes’ and ‘antinationals’, that is not a particular worry for Thackeray.
When a Mumbai resident posted derogatory comments against him recently, the MNS party workers showed up at his doorstep, assaulted him on camera and uploaded the video online. “If anybody speaks bad about the MNS chief, we are ready to thrash him,” the caption warned, plainly.
Political analysts credit Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) chief Sharad Pawar for Thackeray’s recent political revival. Last month, several media outlets quoted anonymous NCP leaders on their willingness to tie up with MNS. The deal, however, fell through after the Congress, its alliance partner, opposed it on ideological grounds. Even without an outright endorsement, it’s the Opposition led by the Congress and the NCP that stand to be the biggest beneficiaries of Thackeray’s popular tirades.
Maharashtra Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis has called Thackeray a “parrot reading out Pawar’s script”. For others, Raj Thackeray’s major achievement has been his ability to speak truth to power. In doing so, he has managed the unlikely feat of uniting the son-of-the-soil conservatives and the liberal intelligentsia.
As the evening draws on, yellow and white chairs mark every bit of the maidan. The MNS men I had met in the morning have swapped their sweaty shirts with crisp kurtas. The MNS women, conspicuous by their absence the entire day, are turning up by the bus-loads, wearing ironed sarees and crescent bindis.
I notice Sandeep Deshpande, MNS general secretary and one of Thackeray’s close associates, posing for selfies with the crowd of arriving supporters. I introduce myself. He grabs us two chairs.
Doesn’t he see any contradictions in criticising a party with similar ideological moorings: right-of-centre leanings, emphasis on native pride, support of the beef-ban and the Ayodhya temple, I ask. The MNS, says Deshpande, is committed to these issues but not at the cost of people’s well-being. Beef-ban is necessary, but need to be followed up with adequate cow shelters. Ayodhya temple should be made, but not as an election issue. “We haven’t changed,” he says. “The man we elected [Modi] did.”
So will the MNS capitalise on its newfound popularity to make a national footprint? “We’re still a state party. Our focus is still the same. We’re only looking to contest the upcoming assembly elections.”
Will the violence, like the recent assault on the Ghatkopar man, continue? “If you beat up a couple of people, others will draw a lesson.”
Isn’t that a criminal act? “Then we’re ready to face the consequences,” he says cheerfully.
The rally, scheduled for 5 pm, starts after 6.30 pm. The speakers are mostly men, each one angry and impassioned. Local representatives bemoan the rapid gentrification of their Marathi bastion; party leaders laud the impact of Thackeray’s speeches on the nation.
There are two podiums on the stage — the larger one at the centre for Thackeray, a smaller one on the left for others. Thackeray hasn’t arrived yet but each speaker begins his address with an obeisance to their leader: the “highly respected”, the “torch-bearer of Marathi pride”, the “emperor of Hindu hearts”.
Around 8.15 pm, an MNS leader, while in the midst of a diatribe on the rural distress in the country, freezes mid-sentence. Thackeray has arrived.
“Don’t worry, I’m stopping right away,” the leader mumbles before the loud speakers segue into a popular song from a Shivaji biopic. Thackeray ambles onto the stage. Fireworks rent the sky. He takes to his podium and glares at Naik as the fireworks last a few beats too long. Naik runs to the smaller podium. “Please stop the firecrackers,” he announces.
A silence falls over the maidan. A crowd of thousands, sitting on chairs, standing on its fringes, leaning out of balconies, is hanging on to every word, every pause. Thackeray is in a self-congratulatory mood. The ruling party, he begins, is in a state of shock. They can’t seem to handle his rising popularity. In desperation, they’ve resorted to calling him names like ‘Pawar’s parrot’. “Kapde aamhi tyanche kadhle ani tyanna aamcha popat disla? (I removed their clothes and they claim to have seen my parrot?)” The phallic-reference, my second in the day, has the crowd in splits. Thackeray, like a true performer, revels in it with a poker face.
Over the next 45 minutes, he follows the familiar script, criticising the government for corruption (Rafale jet controversy), compromising the judiciary (the death of Justice BH Loya) and independent institutions (resignation of RBI governors), withholding data (National Crime Records Bureau and unemployment statistics) and politicising cross-border conflict. At one point, he shows a photograph of a family a BJP fan-page has claimed were beneficiaries of Modi’s anti-poverty initiatives.
“Now let’s call them on stage.”
A family of five walks on stage. The audience jumps to its feet, whistling, delirious. The BJP IT Cell, claims Thackeray, stole their private photo off Facebook and used it as part of its propaganda. “That’s how they spent the last five years,” he sneers. A chant grows louder: “Chowkidar chor hai.”
“I am running this campaign because these two [Modi and Shah] are a threat to the nation,” Thackeray says towards the end. “If you vote for the BJP, you vote for these two. If you vote for the Shiv Sena, you still vote for these two. If you want to ensure that democracy survives, you need to sideline them. Don’t forget this.”
A couple of days later, I called up Sanjay Naik to gauge the outcome of the rally. Thackeray seemed pleased, he told me. “He patted me on the back.”
Naik had since been tasked with canvassing support for Milind Deora, the Congress candidate for South Mumbai Lok Sabha seat. “We hope they will remember it by the time of the assembly polls,” he said. Ideological dissimilarities didn’t seem to matter anymore. It was political pragmatism, he explained, in face of a common adversity.
The subtext, however, was simpler. A party worker had told me as much on the day of the rally: “For us, saheb sangtil ti purva disha (We go where saheb tells us to).”
(The writer is a freelance journalist)