Sanjay Raut, the catalyst for Sena-BJP split, wears many hats

Updated on Apr 05, 2022 11:51 PM IST

Journalists rarely have the privilege of being the story

Shiv Sena leader and Rajya Sabha MP Sanjay Raut HT File Photo
Shiv Sena leader and Rajya Sabha MP Sanjay Raut HT File Photo
By, Mumbai

Journalists rarely have the privilege of being the story. However, journalist-turned-politician Sanjay Raut is one of the few who has made the transition from being a news reporter to a newsmaker.

Astute watchers of Maharashtra politics claim the Enforcement Directorate’s (ED) action against the Shiv Sena Rajya Sabha MP does not come as a surprise. Leaders from Shiv Sena, the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP), and Congress admit Raut was among the primary catalysts in the formation of the Maharashtra Vikas Aghadi (MVA), which resulted in a decisive break between Sena and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

Raut, 61, who hails from Choundi village near Alibag in Raigad district, started working in the circulation and marketing departments of the Indian Express group in the 1980s. He later moved to its weekly Lokprabha where he wrote on crime and politics.

One of Raut’s professional contemporaries recalled how at a time when much of vernacular reporting was dominated by “table stories”, Raut wore out his shoe leather on his beats. His stories were also carried in Loksatta, the Marathi daily from the Express group.

“One of his reports in Lokprabha on the dabbawalas in Mumbai made a splash… instead of table-top reporting, Sanjay would reach out to people, go to the spot. He was also a daring reporter, making inroads into the [then burgeoning] underworld for sources and stories,” he said, noting that some of Raut’s cover stories on the crime syndicates had a strong recall value in those days.

Earlier, Raut would contribute to publications like Ranjan and Marmik. The cartoon weekly, Marmik, was started by Bal Thackeray and his younger brother Shrikant in 1960. It was this weekly that had catalysed the launch of Shiv Sena in 1966 to articulate the concerns of the Marathi manoos in Mumbai and neighbouring areas. Marmik helped Raut come in contact with Bal and Shrikant Thackeray and in 1984, he shared the stage with senior Sena leaders like Pramod Navalkar, Dattaji Salvi, and Wamanrao Mahadik during the anniversary celebrations of the weekly.

Raut was among the chosen few to be close to Shrikant, who was a talented cartoonist and music composer (Muhammed Rafi sang his first song in Marathi for him), and a man with his own iron-clad rules of engagement. Raut once recalled how he would refer to Shrikant as “Pappa” and consult him for health ailments, which Shrikant, who had good knowledge of homeopathy, would treat. This proximity led to him building bridges with the first cousins Uddhav and Raj, who were then rising stars in Sena.

In 1989, Sena launched the Marathi daily, Saamana, as its mouthpiece with senior journalist Ashok Padbidri as its executive editor. In 1992, Raut replaced Padbidri. When the Sena-BJP came to power, editorials in Saamana often castigated then chief minister and veteran Shiv Sainik Manohar Joshi.

Raut was first nominated to the Rajya Sabha in 2004 and is in his third successive term. He gradually became known as the alter ego of the Sena chief, with his editorials seen as reflecting the opinions of Bal Thackeray, who was the newspaper’s editor. The Sena supremo too liked Raut, who also made a posthumous biopic on him. Raut is also working on another movie — on the former union minister George Fernandes, who was once the enfant terrible of Mumbai’s politics.

However, Raut found himself in trouble for his writings twice. In 2009, when the Maharashtra Navnirman Sena won 13 assembly seats, and catalysed the defeat of Sena and BJP at several places, a Saamana editorial charged the Maharashtrians in Mumbai with stabbing Sena in the back, leading to controversy. In a party meeting, Bal Thackeray denied writing this. On May 1, 2014, when the polling for the Lok Sabha elections came to a close, an editorial attacked the Gujarati speakers in Mumbai with epithets. Sena launched a firefighting exercise, and for a while, Raut was divested of his charge as party spokesperson.

Though BJP and Sena had been allies since 1989 (after a failed attempt at the hustings in 1984), Raut had a bristling relationship with the party, which he felt had a long-term plan to upstage its senior ally. In party circles, Raut was instead known for his proximity to NCP chief Sharad Pawar, and in 2008, had unsuccessfully tried to bring about an alliance between Sena and the NCP for the Lok Sabha elections due next year.

Raut’s attacks on BJP sharpened after 2014. Then, it snapped its alliance with Sena and emerged as the single-largest party in the state assembly, forcing Sena to eat humble pie and reconcile itself to being its junior partner. Though Sena was part of the Devendra Fadnavis-led dispensation, Saamana relentlessly attacked BJP.

After the 2019 assembly polls, when BJP was unable to make a claim to form the government on its own, Raut played a major role in bringing together erstwhile foes Congress and the NCP to join hands with Sena. This led to his stock within the party’s power circles rising manifold. His younger brother Sunil is a two-term Sena MLA from Bhandup in Mumbai.

A Sena leader admitted that ED’s action against Raut was significant considering his image as one of the principal architects of the MVA.

“The action may be aimed at making the MVA allies nervous and keeping them on the edge,” a senior Congress leader said. Another Congressman said the aggressive and outspoken Raut may have found himself in the crosshairs of BJP by going slightly overboard in his criticism.

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