In India’s politically important state of Maharastra, Raj Thackeray is considered a doppelganger for the late founder of the Shiv Sena, Bal Thackeray. Raj was his uncle’s shadow when he was alive except in the last years of the Sena supremo, when Raj had moved out of Matoshree - Thackeray senior's residence.
Raj had consciously made himself the image of Thackeray senior by watching and channelling his look, speech and even his hair style. From his gestures to his machismo laden comments with an unexpected sarcastic sting, Raj was the image of Bal Thackeray.
So imagine how it hurt when Bal Thackeray, who had brought him up, preferred his soft-spoken son Uddhav Thackeray — who was also Raj’s best friend — as his political heir.
Uddhav Thackeray, Maharashtra chief minister and Sena supremo, was an accidental politician when his father anointed him Sena chief. Bal Thackeray had designated oldest son Bindumadhav Thackeray as his political heir but lost him in a car accident.
Thackeray had a massive fallout with his son Jaidev Thackeray and asked him to leave Matoshree and then bluntly told youngest son Uddhav that he was going to mind the store.
The rivalry and bad blood we see today between the cousins who have squared off against each other in the Maharashtra blood-feud has this chequered history. Raj found that the career he wanted and had trained himself for was snatched away by fate and the privilege of birth. The rough and rowdy Sena foot soldiers adored him yet Uddhav was the supremo.
An angry Raj then formed the Maharashtra Navnirman Sena (MNS) — all but a Sena copy differing only in the name. I remember interviewing him over a lunch. Raj, unlike his public image, was extremely polite and cultured speaking on political leaders with a sly wit and making substantial points.
He frankly told me how he missed Uddhav and the camaraderie he shared with him. I had an appointment with Uddhav for the next interview and was embarrassed to tell Raj. He escorted me till his gate and smiled and waved me off.
I told Uddhav that I had just interviewed Raj. With his trademark low key wit he said, “then why interview me you must have got all the masala”. Raj tried everything to make his Sena a success but, the real Sena remained with Uddhav, who proved that he had grit and steel underneath the calm exterior.
In a rare political mistake, the BJP underestimated him and his appetite for power. Uddhav proved a point when he yanked the Sena out of the long standing alliance with the BJP and catapulted himself to the most important job in Maharashtra.
Sharad Pawar, had the measure of Uddhav and his desire to prove a point to the BJP.
All of the shadow boxing that is happening in Maharashtra today over loudspeakers and the Hindu deity Hanuman is over this feud. The BJP, which is inordinately angry at losing power in Maharashtra, and more critically Mumbai — the financial capital of India — has now enlisted Raj to take on Uddhav.
The prize which is being fought for — the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) Asia’s richest corporation with a budget of nearly ₹40 thousand crores annually. The BMC is a Sena stronghold and the BJP, using Raj, is determined to wrest it from the Sena.
Hence the coordinated attack by Raj and BJP on Thackeray and Pawar.
Will it work? Well Raj has got a new lease of political life and is making the headlines again with his daily threats to play the Hanuman Chalisa outsides mosques that use loudspeakers. He has repeatedly taken up various issues and moved from one side of the political ante to the other — somewhat like a belligerent pendulum.
Earlier he reviled Modi but is now praising Yogi Adityanath, the chief minister of Uttar Pradesh. Maharashtra has been cold to his politics. Now he has the full might of the BJP backing him.
Yet the voters seem to see Raj as a gadfly flitting from camp to camp. Uddhav has hit back with his quiet but deadly use of police power — filing cases and reopening old matters.
As the feud escalates and the cousins square off, Pawar is determined to to take down the BJP. He makes two points: The BJP is misusing investigative agencies against opposition leaders and dragging in their families, so the opposition needs to hit back to save democracy. Saving democracy also means holding on to the BMC.
Let me give the impetuous Raj the last word. After I had grilled a Congress leader on television, he called and said in his gravelly voice, “I was surprised he took your rudeness. I was scared he might hit my friend.” As I laughed he said, don’t worry we believe in democracy.