Raj Thackeray has added real flavor to the national election campaign in Maharashtra. And his Maharashtra Navnirman Sena (MNS) is not even contesting. His speeches have been seen as the most clinical takedowns of the BJP and its top two, Prime Minister Narendra Modi and party president Amit Shah.
Whether this campaign can transfer votes to the Congress-Nationalist Congress Party is, of course, debatable.
Raj Thackeray is a crowd puller and not a vote puller - that is how political analysts often describe him. His party's legislative presence is negligible and the MNS does not have a single candidate.
Yet he has manage to create ripples by simply churning out analysis, complete with sound bites, visuals and newspaper clips to target Modi and Shah. He backs it up with government data.
"Lau re," he says, motioning at a giant digital screen, after delivering a sharp critique of the Prime Minister. The phrase, which means "play the clip", draws whistles and claps from his audience at rallies and has become his signature. The clips are prepared by his party men.
As a journalist watching one such video report from Harisal, a village in Maharashtra's Amravati district that voted in the second phase of the staggered election, I was surprised. The leader who visited Harisal to record the clip told me, "We learnt from you guys". When I asked him what it was like to do a reality check from a remote village and how he got the idea, he said: "Someone has to do it and if the media doesn't, then we have to step in."
Harisal was projected as the first digital village of Maharashtra. At his Gudi Padva rally in Mumbai, Raj Thackeray simply played out a video showing how the digital village was struggling with power supply and internet connectivity. The video featured a model who had featured in an advertisement on the village. Thackeray even brought the man on the stage with him in Solapur; he confirmed that the 'digital village' was, in fact, far from it.
In Pune, Thackeray told his supporters, "People have been requesting me to visit north India after hearing my speeches to take on Amit Shah and Narendra Modi, but I am comfortable here only."
As he uses visuals and sound bites to explain his point, he adds cutting commentary to make it politically relevant. He has pulled no punches and even BJP leaders, off camera, admit the man is doing the opposition's job. Of course, they do allege that the script is dictated by NCP chief Sharad Pawar, whom Raj Thackeray has met several times in the past year.
"Earlier he (PM Modi) was seeking votes in the name of air strikes and Wing Commander Abhinandan. Now he has stooped to seeking votes in the name of his caste. He has forgotten about the attacks on Dalits during his tenure? Why did he not open his mouth when these incidents were happening," Raj Thackeray questioned in Pune after playing out an NDTV report on the Una incident.
Does this mean there is a shift in Raj Thackeray's politics or style?
"I don't care if Rahul Gandhi becomes Prime Minister. He may just do a good job," he said at one rally. Such comments signal he is anti-BJP while keeping a distance from the Congress-NCP.
Thackeray has addressed rallies in Mumbai, Solapur, Latur, Satara and Pune. Each rally has seen huge crowds listening with rapt attention. The theme is mostly the Modi government, its promises and its performance. Apart from live telecasts by regional news channels, clips of his rallies are being circulated extensively on social media.
One clip that has become popular is his "fact check" on the government's claim of building toilets. He took apart the claim of "8.50 lakh toilets in one week" using humour and math. "8.50 lakh toilets in a week means 84 toilets in one minute. That means seven toilets every five seconds... it is impossible. It (bowel movement) doesn't even happen so fast and that is the the speed at which he claims toilets have been built," he says with a vague gesture downwards, leading to claps and cheers from the crowd that clearly laps up this kind of humour.
Raj Thackeray's political impact may not be substantial but he is definitely teaching the opposition a thing or two on how to effectively broadcast the failings of the government.
The key words are research, and a bit of real journalism.
(Saurabh Gupta is Bureau Chief - Mumbai at NDTV India)
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