He is not contesting the ongoing parliamentary polls. Yet, within a matter of a few weeks, he has emerged as one of the stars of Elections 2019. His party has not fielded a single candidate. Yet, his rallies in city after city in Maharashtra, are among the largest in this poll season. His politics is so far confined to only one state. Yet, what he says, and how he is saying it, is being avidly followed and debated across the country.
Yes, being a non-contestant whose party does not have a single MLA in his own state, he has no real need to stick his neck out in national elections. Yet, no campaigner in Maharashtra - very few campaigners anywhere outside too - has targeted Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Bharatiya Janata Party president Amit Shah with as much courage and creativity as him.
And make no mistake, he could well make a non-trivial impact on the outcome of the elections in his state.
The last time a prominent person who appealed to the people to vote for a party's victory - and for the incumbent ruling party's defeat -- without being a candidate himself was the venerable Jayaprakash Narayan in 1977.
Meet Raj Thackeray, Maharashtra's most charismatic, also controversial, leader who has begun to reinvent himself. He is no JP - not by a long margin - but the grit he is showing would make the Hero of the Anti-Emergency Battle proud.
All those who have known Raj and the politics of his party (Maharashtra Navnirman Sena) - his admirers as well as his critics - are astonished at his newly-minted persona. His many admirers and friends in the BJP are dumbstruck and deeply discomfited by his sharp attacks on the Modi-Shah duo. For he is mincing no words in appealing to the people of his state, and India in general, to bring an end to the Modi-Shah era. No leader of the Congress or the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP), which have forged an alliance against the rival alliance of the BJP and Shiv Sena (the two parties share power both at the centre and in the state), has been exposing the failures and betrayals of the Modi government as effectively as Raj is doing.
That he is the best public speaker in the state is well-known. However, unlike in the past, his speeches are making waves not only because of his oratorial flourish, but also on account of their well-researched counter to the Modi government's tall claims made through its loud and well-oiled propaganda machine. Demonetization, GST, youth unemployment, rural distress, water scarcity, Swacch Bharat Abhiyan, the Smart Cities project, the assurance of bringing back black money stashed away in foreign banks - there is no major issue associated with Modi's five-year tenure that escapes his attention as he lays bare the vast gap between the Prime Minister's tall promises and his government's poor performance. He frequently rips through the BJP's newly-acquired habit of calling its ideological critics and political rivals "anti-national". Unlike Modi's other political rivals, he does not even shy away from drilling holes in the Prime Minister's muscular claims about surgical strikes deep inside Pakistan. Furthermore, he cautions people to realize that India's democracy would be in danger "if you voters make the mistake of giving power to Modi and Shah again".
If all this has added to Raj's image as a fearless campaigner, people are also appreciating the unique innovation he has introduced in his oratory. To puncture the PM's promises and claims, he is deftly using relevant video clips (mostly from the speeches of Modi and Shah) - a technique that has become immensely popular. The Marathi line "Laav re toh clip..."(instructing his colleagues to show the video on large screens at the venues of his rallies) has become the signature tune of his campaign speeches. As soon as he says this line, the crowds cheer him lustily since they expect to see a new expose of Modi's rhetoric and reality.
The remarkable feature of Raj's rallies, the one that distinguishes them from the rallies of Modi, Shah and other political leaders, is that the crowds coming to listen to him are not "hired". They come out of their genuine interest. And this feature also points to another difference between his rallies and those of others. Empty chairs have been seen at several meetings addressed by Shah. Even in some of Modi's meetings, people could be seen leaving the venue in large numbers. In contrast, Raj's meetings remain jam-packed till the end.
If all this is causing concern to those in the BJP-Shiv Sena alliance, they are even more embarrassed by the fact that Raj often praises Jawaharlal Nehru and Indira Gandhi, whom Modi loves to hate.
This new-look Raj Thackeray has confounded his longtime critics, too, and their number is not insignificant. Ever since he broke away from the Shiv Sena and formed his own Maharashtra Navnirman Sena (MNS) in 2006, his politics has remained indistinguishable from his parent party on one crucial issue - "Marathi-speaking people versus Outsiders". Because of the narrow-minded and often coercive methods his party used to espouse the "rights" of the "Sons of the Soil", Raj created a negative and unfriendly image for himself in the rest of India - especially in Hindi-speaking states. This was not liked even by many (including Marathi-speaking people) in Mumbai and Maharashtra. Therefore, although Modi's critics in Maharashtra and elsewhere in the country are watching his transformation with a mix of appreciation and curiosity, there is also a fair degree of skepticism about whether, and how much, Raj Thackeray has truly transformed himself into a mainstream politician with an inclusive mindset. Time alone will give an answer to this question.
Nevertheless, it is instructive to examine why Raj has taken this new stance, and what it may portend for his own political future and also for the future of politics in Maharashtra. There are some telltale pointers.
First, the ups and downs (more downs than ups) suffered by the MNS in its journey of the past 13 years have made it amply clear that sticking exclusively or even mainly to the politics of championing the interests of "Marathi Manoos" will simply not help Raj grow as an influential politician leading a big and powerful party. In any case, the Shiv Sena has continued to stick to this issue and, therefore, the MNS does not have any uniquely attractive proposition for the "Marathi First" linguistic constituency. (It is not bringing major electoral dividends even to the Shiv Sena, but that is another matter.) Therefore, Raj has to discover a new growth path for himself and his party, if he wants to remain relevant in Maharashtra's politics.
Second, at least in electoral terms (though not in terms of fidelity to the secular foundation of the Indian Constitution), the Shiv Sena has the added advantage over the MNS insofar as it continues to be a staunch votary of Hindutva. To its credit, the MNS has not adopted this communal plank. But, to its disadvantage, nor has it developed strong new ideological markers to become a recognizably inclusive party with an expanding support base. Therefore, Raj has smartly seen an opportunity in Elections 2019 to present a new look of himself before the people of Maharashtra.
Third, Raj decided not to contest the Lok Sabha elections because his target is set on achieving significant success in the state assembly elections scheduled to be held later this year. He knows that his party will have no place in the BJP-Shiv Sena alliance because the Sena chief, Uddhav Thackeray, sees Raj as his most potent competitor - and as a threat to Aditya, his son and successor. Raj cannot contest the assembly elections on his own; he has neither a big enough organisational base nor adequate resources to win a decent number of seats. Therefore, his political future lies in coming closer to the Congress and NCP. By deciding to campaign against Modi and Shah (and also against the Shiv Sena) in the Lok Sabha elections, he is preparing the soil to plant the seeds of a future alliance with the Congress and NCP in the battle for the next Vidhan Sabha.
Let me conclude this article with some personal remarks. I have been both an admirer and a critic of Raj Thackeray. I have often criticized his politics in my writings because of my firm conviction that linguistic supremacy is antithetical to my Idea of India (also to my Idea of Mumbai, the most welcoming and large-hearted Indian city), as are claims to religious supremacy. However, I also know through my many personal interactions with Raj that he has many worthy qualities not seen among most politicians. He is well-read and love books on a wide range of subjects. An accomplished cartoonist himself, he has a keen eye for arts and cinema, and a keen ear for music. He is an environmentalist at heart. He understands the value of heritage and aesthetics. Before his party suffered electoral setbacks, he was trying to give a new and modern orientation to his party. For example, five years ago, he presented a comprehensive "Blueprint for Maharashtra's Development", prepared by a team of experts. But what I greatly liked was that the centerpiece of this blueprint was his insistence that development is meaningless if every aspect of it is not guided by considerations of beauty, aesthetics and creative design. (Please watch this 16-minute video on YouTube -https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JpXCXXmsxYs)
Soon after founding the MNS, Raj also established a dedicated department to train workers and office-bearers of his party. He even started a system of examination for those wishing to be his party's candidates in elections. Instead of simply complaining that Marathi-speaking people have generally stayed away from business, he encouraged specific programmes to train them in entrepreneurship.
I have often felt that Raj Thackeray's full potential is not understood by Raj himself. Paradoxically, even though his party remains very weak, he is the most popular political leader in Maharashtra. After Sharad Pawar (who is now 78), he is the only leader who commands pan-Maharashtra recognition in every section of society. But unlike Pawar, he has another unique advantage. He is an excellent speaker in Hindi - a talent that, if wisely used, can easily catapult him to the national stage and potentially make him an important player in national politics. In a personal conversation with him, I have said to him, "You should speak for both Rashtra (Nation) and Maharashtra. You have everything in you to become a national leader, while remaining a committed champion of the proud ethos of Maharashtra and the legitimate aspirations Marathi-speaking people."
Now that he has made a big splash in Elections 2019 with his bold and innovative campaign, the time has come for Raj Thackeray to fully reinvent himself as an inclusive national leader embracing the rich diversity of India. His campaign speeches have become a big hit on social media - even among non-Marathi speakers. His interviews to Hindi TV channels have further enlarged his popularity. Many people are even suggesting that after elections in Maharashtra are over on April 29, he should hold similar campaign rallies in cities in Hindi-speaking areas in the north.
Therefore, dear Raj Thackeray ji, here is my suggestion to you: "You are a passionate lover of literature. Now is the time for you to follow this wise Shakespearean advice -
"There is a tide in the affairs of men,
Which taken at the flood, leads on to fortune.
Omitted, all the voyage of their life is bound in shallows and in miseries."
(The writer was an aide to India's former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee.)
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