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Divide and Raj

Once heir apparent to Balasaheb, this hardline Maratha has again whipped up parochial passion for political gains, reports Shailesh Gaikwad.
By Shailesh Gaikwad | Hindustan Times
UPDATED ON FEB 09, 2008 01:13 AM IST

Controversies and Raj Thackeray, 39, go hand in hand. And the fact is, Raj cannot do without controversies. They have been a part of his personality.

Raj was Sena chief Bal Thackeray’s heir apparent till he found himself in the middle of a controversy over the murder of Ramesh Kini, a tenant in Hindu Colony, Dadar — a prime real estate area, in July 1996. The issue became so big that the then Sena-BJP government had to hand over the probe to the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI). Though investigators cleared him of any involvement, Raj’s political career suffered a setback.

Courting controversy
Back in 2003, Raj’s supporters attacked outstation students taking a Railway Recruitment Board exam at Kalyan and beat them up, alleging that the Board had not invited local candidates for the same.

More recently, while there was public outrage over the Juhu molestation case in Mumbai on this New Year’s Eve, Raj came out in support of the "Maharashtrian boys" among the accused, saying they would never molest a girl.

Raj has always stood by what he or his followers did. He has always been flamboyant and brazen. He loves to wear designer clothes, sports the latest sunglasses, drives a Land Cruiser or Audi and is transparent about his interest in the real estate business. In 2005, not bothering about how it would go down with the Sena’s blue collar voters, Raj bought the defunct Kohinoor Mills in Central Mumbai in partnership with Sena leader Manohar Joshi’s son Unmesh.“It’s my business and I do it openly, not secretly,” he told the media when quizzed about the land deal. Controversies were responsible for him eventually quitting the Shiv Sena.

“He (Thackeray) was not sure whether Raj would steer clear of controversy or would get entangled further and damage the Sena,” says a top Sena leader.

Though he welcomed Uddhav’s coronation as executive president of the party in 2002, Raj was never happy with the idea of playing second fiddle to his cousin. After all, he was the one who had nurtured the ambition to head the Sena, not Uddhav.

A commercial arts graduate from the JJSchool of Art and son of Thackeray’s younger brother Shrikant, Raj had decided what he wanted to do at a very young age: follow the footsteps of his charismatic uncle Bal Thackeray.

Like his uncle, Raj became a cartoonist — and was even appreciated for his cartoons. He would accompany Thackeray to all his rallies and public functions while his cousin Uddhav was busy with his hobby, photography. Soon, Raj began to address sainiks, displaying the same wit, body language and aggression his uncle was known for. Little wonder, he was shocked when Thackeray chose his son to be the second in command.

Settling scores
Instead of compromising, Raj waited for the right opportunity. When Uddhav began the ‘Mee Mumbaikar’ campaign in 2003 with a slogan that all those living in Mumbai would be Mumbaiites, he created a controversy— attacking north Indians appearing for the Railway Board examination — to score over Uddhav.

What happened this week in Mumbai was the repetition of the Kalyan attack. As Uddhav was wooing north Indians in his bid to win some extra votes in the 2009 Assembly elections, his cousin launched a tirade against them.

This, analysts say, is because Raj knows what the Sena cadre likes and also has his finger on the pulse of a large part of the Sena vote bank — the middle and lower middle class Maharashtrians in Mumbai and neighbouring areas. If he strikes a chord with them, he can then widen the base across the Maharashtra.

“Youth like aggressive leaders and Raj is definitely one. There is a lot fire in him which attracts the young population,”says state BJP general secretary Vinod Tawde, Raj’s personal friend.

“He is a shrewd politician and knows how to make space for himself by taking on Uddhav. But I think he should move on to inclusive politics,” says B.Venkatesh Kumar, political scientist, Mumbai University.

Tawde says: “If he is planning a long innings in politics, he will have to think about the larger interest of the state at some point of time.” Raj has begun to chart his own independent path with the Maharashtra Navnirman Sena, which he formed in 2006 after quitting the Sena.

Raj is a crowd puller and has considerable following among the youth. Will he choose the long road and build a strong voter base or take the short-cut to success by riding on controversies? Time will tell.

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