Mumbai: If Raj Thackeray hadn't been a politician, his ambition was to become a cartoonist for Walt Disney. On his website, he describes himself as a "gifted painter and cartoonist", like his uncle, Balasaheb Thackeray. Also like his uncle, Raj has the knack of kicking up a storm with provocative speeches, targeting Hindi-speaking migrant workers from Bihar and Uttar Pradesh, caricaturing them as the outsiders who threaten the Marathi ethos and manoos.
Raj's Maharashtra Navnirman Sena (MNS, literally, the army to re-build Maharashtra) is the yin to Bal Thackeray's Shiv Sena yang. Once seen as Balasaheb's political heir, Raj, 44, branched away from the main family tree after he was superseded in the succession plan by his cousin Uddhav, who took over as the chief of the Shiv Sena. But Raj's politics is exactly the same as the main branch of the family: exclusivist, strongly pro-Maharashtra, provocative and not shy of making a point with violence.
The MNS leader was born Swarraj Srikant Thackeray on July 14, 1968 in a middle-class family; his father, Shrikant, was Bal Thackeray's younger brother. His mother, Kunda, is the younger sister of Bal Thackeray's wife, Meena. By all accounts, Raj had an indulgent upbringing, attending the Bal Mohan Vidya Mandir School in the Sena stronghold of Dadar, studying for a degree in the prestigious JJ School of Art, painting, making caricatures and cartoons and even sharing the passion of photography with Uddhav. Unlike Uddhav's obsession with tigers in the wild, Raj took pictures of the self-appointed tiger at home - Bal Thackeray - and published them in a book that was released by Amitabh Bachchan. But in the political atmosphere he grew up in, Raj's inclination towards politics was not a surprise, though how it played out was.
The MNS was formally announced in November 2006 and a lot of Shiv Sena supporters moved with Raj, convinced by his words that the Sena was being run by "clerks" and had lost its ability to protect the interests of the Marathi manoos. For the first year or so, the MNS was quiet. Raj Thackeray finally exploded on the political stage with a violent agitation in 2008, raising the old Sena bogey of outsiders taking over the state and more importantly Mumbai. At a rally at Mumbai's Shivaji Park, he openly threatened migrants, saying he will have them thrown out of the state. He also tried to stop Australian cricketers from playing in IPL matches in Mumbai in retaliation against Indians being targeted Down Under.
Raj's political impact began to show when he took up what was literally a symbolic issue: signboards in English. To take his Marathi-only agenda forward, he demanded that all shops in Maharashtra have Marathi signs as well and at least as big as the English ones. Some establishments went to court against this and got a verdict in their favour, but Raj and the MNS still went ahead and painted over the English signs. The police arrested some MNS workers, but the state government, run by the Congress-NCP alliance, went slow on prosecuting them, fearing a backlash. It was now plain to the entire political class that the MNS mattered, not only to the Sena but also the Congress and NCP.
The other big sign of his rising political clout was his role in getting sacked Jet Airways employees their jobs back. Raj said that till they were re-instated, no Jet flight would operate from Mumbai. In a day's time, the employees, all of them temporary, were back at work.
The inevitable competitive politics between the Shiv Sena and the MNS came to the fore in another typical situation of street violence, ahead of the 2012 municipal elections in Maharashtra. MNS activists first warned and then attacked auto drivers - most of them north Indians - accusing them of overcharging and cheating passengers and for going on strike demanding higher fares. The Shiv Sena too joined in and justified the violence in the "interests of the Marathi manoos".
The impact of Raj's competitive identity politics was clearly felt by all parties in the municipal elections. In Mumbai, the MNS got 28 in the 227-seat municipality. The Sena got 75. In Pune, the MNS beat the Sena, the BJP and the Congress. And in Nashik, it became the largest party with 40 in the 122-seat municipality. In other places though, it pretty much languished in single digits.
Clearly Raj Thackeray is convinced that he is the true heir to the mantle of Balasaheb, who found success in finding minorities and migrants to target. Raj's latest salvo has again been against Biharis, calling them "infiltrators" after Bihar police objected to their Maharashtra counterparts picking up a suspect without going through the formal channels. He also threatened to "deal" with Hindi TV news channels, accusing them of misquoting him repeatedly. Though this has kicked up a storm of protests from across all political parties, the game that Raj is playing is for the Marathi manoos vote - which is also exactly why the Congress-NCP government is unwilling to act against him and again making him a martyr to his cause.
Mr Thackeray is married to Sharmila, the daughter of a Marathi filmmaker. They have a son, Amit, and daughter, Urvashi.