In the realm of politics, ghost writing is one of the worst-kept secrets. Many political leaders, ministers, even prime ministers have writers in their teams, who pen speeches and articles on their behalf. The leaders then take the stage to read out the same speeches. They get the articles published in newspapers or journals along with their names.
Still, no ghost writer can match Sanjay Raut, who wrote editorials in Shiv Sena mouthpieces in the name of Shiv Sena supremo Bal Thackeray every day for almost 20 years. And each day, it was impossible to make out that the voice wasn’t that of Thackeray, but of Raut. It was this talent which brought Raut to the epicentre of Shiv Sena’s politics. Insiders say, no one ever understood Thackeray quite like Raut. Perhaps, that is why Raut could speak in his boss’s voice in the editorials he wrote.
Raut learnt and grew under the leadership of Thackeray. And one of the most important things he learnt was the importance of having a nuisance value. It is precisely this nuisance value that has helped Shiv Sena survive all these years.
What worked for Shiv Sena also worked for Shiv Sena loyalist Raut. The three-time Rajya Sabha MP and executive editor of Saamna has been in news largely for being politically incorrect. Whether it was the question of calling off the truce with BJP or forming the Maha Vikas Aghadi with Congress and Nationalist Congress Party (NCP), Raut remained in the limelight.
When Raut began his tirade against the BJP right after the Maharashtra Assembly results were announced in October 2019, everyone thought this was part of the love-hate relationship the two parties share. No one imagined the alliance was heading for a break-up. Over the last couple of years, it had become routine for Saamna to target BJP through its editorials. The paper was acerbic in its criticism of the central BJP government despite Shiv Sena being a part of the same. In the state too, the editorials gave then Maharashtra Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis a tough time. The attacks were so brutal that one of the common complaints of the BJP leaders to Shiv Sena president Uddhav Thackeray was to rein in Raut.
Fadnavis even went on to say that he doesn’t take Saamna seriously. Being an ally of the Shiv Sena, it was difficult for Fadnavis to say anything more on the subject.
For Raut and Shiv Sena, this was a clever ploy. He could say what Uddhav, being the party chief, couldn't.
It wasn’t just the BJP whom Raut was targeting. He has been unrelenting in his attacks on former Congress president Rahul Gandhi over his comments on Savarkar despite his party being in alliance with the Congress now.
Raut also recently created a storm by saying that former prime minister Indira Gandhi used to meet underworld don Karim Lala. When a miffed Congress shot back, Raut said that his comment was made in the spur of the moment while he was reminiscing about his days as a crime reporter.
It is quite clear, there was a method to Raut’s madness, the roots of which lie in his past.
Coming from Alibaug, 100 km from Mumbai, Raut’s family first settled in Mahim, a Shiv Sena bastion since the party’s inception. During his college days, he came in contact with Shrikant Thackeray, father of Raj Thackeray and the younger brother of Bal Thackeray, while loitering around Sena Bhavan, the Shiv Sena headquarters located in Dadar.
Raut soon became Shrikant’s go-to man for all sorts of work related to Marmik, which was then Shiv Sena’s mouthpiece and was run by Shrikant.
But Raut was itching to be a journalist. It is said that on the insistence of Bal Thackeray, the then editor of Marathi daily Loksatta, Vidyadhar Gokhale, gave him a job in Lokprabha, a Marathi weekly affiliated to the same media group.
Gokhale later fought elections on a Shiv Sena ticket and became a Lok Sabha MP. That, however, is a different story.
Raut started working as an advertising and sales person for the publication. After much persuasion, he was given a place in the editorial department. His work as a crime reporter was much appreciated.
Now, when he recollects the insights and understanding he gathered about the Mumbai underworld, maybe creating problems for people, back then, however, no one thought that Raut would one day run Shiv Sena’s agenda machinery. His days in Lokprabha brought him close to Raj Thackeray, who used to visit the Loksatta office with his cartoons for publication. The two even considered launching a Marathi daily together, but the plan could never take off.
It is believed by some that it was Raj who suggested Raut’s name to Bal Thackeray when the latter was looking for an executive editor for Saamna. But some quarters believe that it was Uddhav who suggested the name because he wanted to take away cousin Raj’s opportunity to start a newspaper.
Before Raut joined Saamna, he interviewed Bal Thackeray. The Shiv Sena chief was apparently so irritated with Raut’s line of questioning that he said, “You are misbehaving despite being my man in the publication.”
Raut ensured this line also went to print. And this is the kind of man Thackeray wanted to run Saamana.
As has already been mentioned, Raut learnt the importance of nuisance value pretty early. Bal Thackeray came to trust Raut with the publication, to the point that at times, he didn’t even know what editorial was being printed.
At a time when the Atal Bihari Vajpayee government was at the Centre and a Shiv Sena-BJP government was in the state, Saamna editorial got critical of the both governments. Bal Thackeray would call up Raut to ask why certain pieces were published every time a major controversy was created, but he never ended his association with Raut.
It was said that the editorials published in Saamna around 1992 ignited passions and thus riots flared up. As editor, Bal Thackeray was slapped with cases under Section 153A for the inflammatory articles published in Saamna.
Twice, Raut wrote resignation letters on his boss’s behalf declaring his ouster from his own party. The letters, in turn, brought an end to the chief ministership of Manohar Joshi, who Bal Thackeray had come to dislike for following his own line in the party.
While Raut enjoyed considerable power within the party, he first thought of joining active politics when his protégé and friend from Hindi daily Jansatta Sanjay Nirupam became Shiv Sena’s Rajya Sabha member in 1996. Nirupam was brought to the Saamna group by Raut as the editor of Dopahar Ka Saamna.
Raut got his political due in 2004 when he was sent to Rajya Sabha. He remained loyal to the party. During the internal turmoil which saw Raj Thackeray’s exit from the party, Raut stood by Uddhav. This loyalty was rewarded by Uddhav, who made Raut a part of the party’s decision-making body.
It is said that whenever Raut feels his position in the party is being threatened, he takes out his ‘Brahmastra’. He goes ahead and makes a statement or two that create controversies, reminding the top brass that his nuisance value remains intact.
Raut is a survivor who went on from being a journalist, to the executive editor of Shiv Sena’s mouthpiece, to turning into the eyes and ears of his party chief, to becoming an MP.
He has worked with two generations of the party leadership. Now, as the third generation takes over, there is a sense that the party is trying to change its image from a nuisance creator to one with a broad vision.
Will Raut be able to fit in?
Only time will tell.