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The return of Raj

Once dismissed as a media-made monster, is Raj going to be the next Bal Thackeray? Shailesh Gaikwad examines.

india Updated: Oct 31, 2009 22:12 IST
Shailesh Gaikwad

He was named Swararaj Shrikant Thackeray. Some 20-odd years ago, he pared his name down to Raj Thackeray. Much else has changed since then.

The teenager who graduated from Mumbai’s prestigious JJ School of Art and was all set to become a cartoonist (like his uncle) decided to become a politician instead (again, like the uncle). Always a natty dresser, he dons neta whites these days. Though he has never bothered to hide his fondness for a flashy lifestyle and his penchant for expensive cars, perfumes, watches and sunglasses, there have been some dramatic lifestyle changes.

During his Shiv Sena days, Raj began his day late and spent most of his time with his coterie. But after a taunt by NCP chieftain Sharad Pawar who remarked that one could not have an easy lifestyle and run a party, the 41-year-old chief of the Maharashtra Navnirman Sena (MNS) now rises early and makes it a point to call press conferences in the morning.

“I find time for myself though I am busy. Whenever I can, I go to Rhythm House (in Mumbai) and pick DVDs or CDs that I want though it is not possible everytime.” He says that going to public places is not something he can do now. “I would love to take a round of Shivaji Park or go and sit at Dadar beach but am unable to do so.”

The political player who was dismissed as a media-made monster has now emerged as a serious strategist, much to the chagrin of his estranged uncle Bal Thackeray and cousin Uddhav. In just three years, Raj has taken the MNS ahead of the Shiv Sena, to 13 seats, and the position of second-largest party in Mumbai, after the Congress. It is sweet revenge for Raj, the charismatic nephew who was politically disowned to allow his less flamboyant cousin Uddhav to be anointed inheritor of the Shiv Sena throne.

Till 1996, Raj was the man voted most likely to succeed Bal Thackeray. Then came the Ramesh Kini case. Kini, a Maharashtrian tenant of an old building in central Mumbai, was found dead in a Pune theatre. His wife Sheila alleged he had been killed because they refused to vacate their house when their landlord wanted to build a skyscraper on the land. She blamed Raj for her husband’s death and a Raj aide was arrested in the case. The case damaged the Sena so grievously that Bal Thackeray began promoting his son Uddhav and appointed him executive president in 2003. Stung, Raj decided he had no future in the Sena.

The unmasked ambition that drove Raj out of the family fold and the Sena is what fires his trusted aides. Even if he doesn’t always take them into confidence. The MNS is a unipolar party: colleagues may be consulted, but Raj takes the decisions.

“In our party, there is no No: 2, 3 or 5. Raj saheb is Nos: 1 to 100,” remarks a long-time colleague. Interestingly, Raj’s anti-north Indian plank was not part of the original campaign plan. At his launch rally, he spoke of an all-inclusive agenda and painted a rural idyll for Maharashtra’s farmers. The MNS won just seven seats in the civic polls that year, while the Sena returned to power in the city’s cash-rich municipal corporation.

At a rally in February 2007 Raj stumbled upon his winning issue. When his comments about north Indians stealing jobs from the Marathi manoos were played up by television channels, he smelt an opportunity and cleverly used the 24x7 media to build up a frenzy.

Raj can now afford to sit back and savour his triumph at Krishna Kunj, his home in the staunchly Maharashtrian enclave of Shivaji Park. And find more time for his wife Sharmila (whom he met during their days at Mumbai’s Ruparel college), son Amit (16) and daughter Urvashi (14). When he is at home, evenings are usually reserved for long walks with his Great Danes, James and Bond. He loves driving, too, and has a fleet of vehicles that include a Land Cruiser, a Mercedes Benz and an Audi. The Land Cruiser is his favourite, especially when he is on a tour. “It’s been with me for 14 years and I love travelling in it,” he says.

Friends say that though he used to eat out a lot earlier, he’d rather dine at home these days, preferably on vegetarian food. Though he rarely draws cartoons now, he indulges his artistic side with his impressive collection of music albums and movies. His favourite star is Amitabh Bachchan.

Analysts debate if he will tone down his shrill, violent approach. “He used the politics of violence till the Lok Sabha elections but avoided it during the recent polls. He will manage to make the MNS a major force only if he shifts to a developmental agenda,” says political analyst B Venkatesh Kumar. Will he or won’t he? It’s anybody’s guess — Raj Thackeray plays his cards close to his chest.