Mumbai: There are two political events in Mumbai where crowds do not have to be hired and trucked in to create a false show of strength: the death anniversary of B.R. Ambedkar on 6 December and the annual Dusshera rally addressed by Shiv Sena supremo Bal Thackeray. These are the two days when loyalists come on their own in packed trains, alight at Dadar railway station and then walk another 15 minutes to reach the Shivaji Park area where the city’s big political rallies are traditionally held.
So old timers in Maharashtrian-dominated area took notice of the fact that this was happening all over again when Raj Thackeray held a political rally. It was an advance warning to other political parties that the leader of the Maharashtra Navnirman Sena (MNS) had struck a chord with his growing band of supporters, even as his divisive political acts threatened Mumbai’s famed cosmopolitan culture and made him the man many love to hate.
There were similar reports from other urban centres in Maharashtra, of teeming crowds listening with rapt attention when Raj Thackeray spoke. “You could feel the electricity in the air during his campaign speeches,” said Avinash Gowariker, a photographer and close friend of Raj Thackeray, who went along for many of the rallies. “He has Balasaheb’s skills of oratory. But that’s not all. Raj did not go around making empty promises as most politicians do. It almost seemed as if he was shaking people out of their inertia. Every rally was like a wake-up call,” he added.
Illustration: Jayachandran / Mint
The results of the state assembly elections, out on Thursday, show that Raj Thackeray and his party have made huge inroads into the Shiv Sena’s voter base in cities such as Mumbai, Thane, Pune and Nashik. His party’s own tally is a modest 13 in a 288 seat state assembly. But the MNS split the opposition vote and helped the Congress-Nationalist Congress Party combination return to power for a third time in a row.
“The MNS has decimated the Shiv Sena, especially in urban areas and, to some extent, even in rural areas. The MNS is trying to occupy the opposition space which the Shiv Sena and Bharatiya Janata Party, or BJP, have failed to do. However, we must remember the divisive politics of the MNS are not good for a cosmopolitan city like Mumbai. Since the three years that he formed the MNS, apart from his own charisma, a combination of factors helped Raj Thackeray. To begin with, the media gave him ample publicity. Two, the NCP helped it to an extent by going soft on it on several issues. Three, he managed to capture the constituency that Shiv Sena has been losing,” said B. Venkatesh Kumar, professor of political science at Mumbai University
The “MNS factor” is a phrase that now slips easily off the tongues of political analysts. To rub salt into the Shiv Sena’s wounds, the MNS captured seats in the former’s Mumbai strongholds such as Mahim, Bhandup (West), Vikhroli, Ghatkopar (West) and Sewri, areas where the Marathi middle-class has a strong presence. However, some political analysts said that there is more to the losses borne by the BJP-Shiv Sena alliance than the MNS’ strong showing. “Raj Thackeray has undoubtedly stolen the Shiv Sena’s thunder but that is not the entire story. There has been a secular decline in the fortunes of the BJP-Sena alliance since the 1995 state elections, when they benefited from the Hindutva consolidation. They are now back to where they were in 1990, in terms of the number of seats won,” said Mahesh Rangarajan, an independent political analyst.
Three years after he walked out of the Shiv Sena after losing an internal power struggle with cousin Uddhav Thackeray, the MNS leader can feel vindicated on two counts. One, he has proved that there is still juice left in the Shiv Sena’s original sons-of-the-soil agenda that was gradually abandoned after the 1980s, when it clambered on to the Hindutva wagon. Two, he kept a punishing schedule during the campaign, addressing around three to four rallies a day, in contrast with the widespread view that he did not have the capacity for hard work; Sharad Pawar had bitingly said when the MNS was formed that those who wake up at mid-day cannot make a mark in politics. By these elections Pawar had changed his tune: Raj Thackeray, he said, sometimes reminded him (Pawar) of Bal Thackeray at his prime.
Raj Thackeray brings out extreme reactions from people. The attacks on migrants from north India into Mumbai in early 2008 led to demands for his arrest and a ban on his party. “MNS should be banned. (The) Thackeray family has become a chronic problem for Maharashtra and Raj Thackeray, in particular, has become a mental case,” said then railway minister Lalu Prasad. Other ministers in the first United Progressive Alliance government such as Ram Vilas Paswan and Subodh Kant Sahay also called for a ban on the MNS.
Controversy comes easily to Raj Thackeray. He has been mired in any number of controversies: street fights between MNS and Shiv Sena activists, arm-twisting producer Karan Johar to apologize for using the word Bombay rather than Mumbai in his new film Wake Up Sid! and forcing Jet Airways Ltd to reinstate sacked employees, for example.
But Thackeray has no shortage of friends and supporters. Childhood friends know him as Raja, and he often enjoys a Sunday morning game of underhand cricket in the bylanes around Shivaji Park, where he lives. His father Srikant Thackeray was a composer who created several Marathi melodies rendered by Mohammad Rafi. The son’s tastes in music are eclectic, from English pop to Hindi and Marathi popular music; R.D. Burman is one favourite.
While the names of his two dogs—James and Bond—may be an indication of his tastes in films, Raj Thackeray is also known to admire Richard Attenborough’s biopic on Mahatma Gandhi, and paradoxically—given the street fights and bullying his party has been known for—has several biographies of the Gandhi in his library. “He has gifted me Gandhiji’s beautiful photo-biography and has written a note, ‘when you read this book you understand the values you must live (by)’, ” writes Raju Parulekar, a journalist and friend, in an article published on the MNS website. Besides this, Thackeray also likes good food and is, like his uncle, an accomplished cartoonist who loves the work of David Low, the 20th century British cartoonist.
The national election in May and the state election in October have provided Raj Thackeray with his first taste of political success. His big challenge now will be to build on his initial victories. “It’s early days yet. The Shiv Sena evolved since it was formed in the 1960s and it is quite likely that MNS too will evolve in the future,” said Rangarajan.
Mumbai has seen many stormy petrels over the decades: the communist S.A. Dange, who organized mill workers in the 1930s; George Fernandes and his pioneering bandhs and gheraos in the 1960s; Bal Thackeray and his anti-south Indian campaigns in the early years of the Shiv Sena; and trade unionist Datta Samanth during the long textile strike in the 1980s. None but Bal Thackeray could transform their initial gains into a lasting political capital. It is to be seen if his rebellious nephew can outdo him.
MNS insiders said they are aware on the need to chalk out a growth strategy after these initial victories. The nativist platform has its limitations in the Mumbai-Thane belt where the Maharashtrian community accounts for only around a third of the total electoral base. And an anti-outsider campaign will have less resonance in other parts of the state where immigration from other states is not a major issue.
An MNS official said that the party has set up a Maharashtra Navnirman Samajik Akademi in Pune, a research group and think tank headed by Anil Shidore, which has begun studying problems such as the power shortage in Maharashtra, water, education and roads. “We will continue to raise the issue of Marathi asmita, or self respect, but are also paying attention to various development issues,” said the MNS official, who requested anonymity.
“He will try and make advances in the Bombay Municipal Corporation elections due in less than a year. If you look at Mumbai politics, taking ownership of the city by heading the BMC has always been crucial and the Shiv Sena has worked that way. The MNS will now try to challenge that,” said Kumar of Mumbai University.
Ruhi Tewari contributed to this story.