The exasperation showed on his face.
The release of the new Maharashtra Navnirman Sena (MNS) anthem at Mumbai’s Shivaji Mandir auditorium on February 3 had party men tapping their feet to the catchy number. But chief Raj Thackeray was clearly not amused.
Composed by the popular Marathi musician Avdhoot Gupte, the song – tumchya rajala saath dya (rally behind your raja) – was about Raj himself. It portrays him as a good leader who has been isolated and taunted by rivals despite dedication towards his people. The lyrics describe a leader who is trying to regain the backing of his followers at a time when his relevance to Maharashtra’s contemporary politics is under question.
At a time when MNS is turning 11 on March 9, the song is the most appropriate description of Raj, the loneliest politician in Maharashtra today.
The MNS song is painfully close to the truth. Associates within the MNS say Raj is responsible for the sorry situation he finds himself in. Not only in remaining aloof without maintaining regular contact with party cadres, they also point to his failure to engage workers in issue-based political activity that could have expanded the outfit.
Raj feels proud referring to a huge march he had led demanding action against violence perpetrated by members of the Raza Academy, a Muslim organisation, at Mumbai’s Azad Maidan.
“No politician had dared to take them on. I was leading from the front,” he says in a conversation with India Today at a study room in his house. However, his inconsistency cost him dear.
He is also prone to changing his mind very often. Like in 2014, after rather dramatically announcing his intention to contest the Assembly polls that October, he suddenly backed down and sat it out at home. Such flip-flops, close associates say, have been terrible for the morale of MNS cadres.
More recently, Raj attempted to galvanise supporters via the all-too-familiar tactic of Pakistan-bashing. He called for protest demonstrations against the release of Ae Dil Hai Mushkil and Raees, two big-budget Bollywood movies featuring Pakistani actors.
But MNS workers saw him as “failing to stay firm” when he withdrew the agitation after Karan Johar and later Shah Rukh Khan met with Raj and assured him that their films would henceforth not include actors from Pakistan.
Trying to project some of his earlier “fire”, Raj angrily denies any flip-flop. “They (Johar and Khan) have assured me that they will keep their word. Isn't that a success? How can someone call it a U-turn?” he says. “I don’t have any mechanism to know whether a producer is casting a Pakistani actor. Whenever I come to know about it, I will oppose it again.”
Workers also complain that their leader is “obsessively given to superstition”, evidenced in his repeatedly flipping MNS’ “steam engine” poll symbol in the hope that that will bring in votes. Only days before 2012 BMC polls, the right-pointing locomotive was inverted to look left-pointing, but the party took a measly 27 of the 227 seats in the corporation.
Raj believes it was a huge success as no other party had won so many seats in its first election right after the foundation. He then decided otherwise and the symbol was flipped back.
“The engine is back to its original position and we too are back to square one with slim chances in these elections,” a worker remarks sardonically, clearly not impressed with Raj’s shenanigans.
Raj concedes that his party failed to adequately inform voters of all the “good work” it accomplished. He cites the 2013 agitation against toll plazas. “We could not convince people that the government’s decision to shut down 65 toll plazas was an outcome of our agitation,” he laments.
Equally bitter, he points to his colleagues’ inability to showcase the “unprecedented” development carried out by the MNS-ruled municipal corporation in Nashik. Naming his favourites – a first-of-its-kind-in-the-count
He also blames the press: “The media deliberately neglects our good work. You (media) make those who say in favour of Jallitakku into heroes, but when I opposed restrictions on Dahi Handi, you portrayed me as a villain.”
The number two man who led MNS in last Vidhan Sabha, former MLA Bala Nandgaonkar, puts it more plainly: “Success in the 2009 Assembly elections (when MNS won 13 Assembly seats) went to our heads. We lost touch with the party workers. We are paying the price,” Nandgaonkar says.
Typically, Raj is quick to reject the contention: “Success must have gone to his (Nandgaonkar’s) head, not mine. I’ve been working for the people. The world knows it. My good work did not percolate to the people,” he angrily retorts, trying to suggest that Nandgaonkar and other MLAs failed him.
But Nandgaonkar is probably spot on.
Aside from his inability to engage with the cadres since 2013 – the year when he first showed withdrawal symptoms by taking a decision to not contest the 2014 Lok Sabha election – since 2014, Raj’s politics has been singularly centered around criticising Prime Minister Narendra Modi for, as he sees it, continuing to choose Gujarat over other states.
For instance, Raj argued vehemently that the proposed Mumbai-Ahmadabad Bullet Train project made far greater sense for the busier Mumbai-Delhi route. He’s also relentlessly ranted about how “Modi and (BJP president) Amit Shah want to separate Mumbai from Maharashtra. They still cannot digest that Mumbai belongs to Maharashtra not Gujarat.”
So then, was it a mistake to champion Modi’s development in Gujarat in 2012?
“No!” he says, “I didn’t promote Modi. I visited Gujarat because Ratan Tata had announced (the decision) to set up the Nano plant there.”
Why then has he changed his earlier, softer stance on Modi? “Should I not change my stance of the person who has changed?” he says, angry again.
Son Amit’s illness has changed Raj from within. He has stopped wearing the rings, which he thought would bring good luck to him.
A collection of James Bond books, and the original signature of actor Sean Connery, who played Bond in the 1960s, have a prominent place in his study room. They inspire him to come up with “new ideas”, he says.
Perhaps the only thing going for Raj Thackeray in the present situation is his stated willingness to change, even compromise.
“I will come back as a winner,” he thunders.
Not everyone is really convinced.