The importance of Sanjay Raut to the Shiv Sena and his arrest to the BJP

The Enforcement Directorate's seizure of Rs 11.50 lakhs in cash and subsequent arrest of Sanjay Raut is meant to send out a signal to both Thackerays and the Shinde camp

The importance of Sanjay Raut to the Shiv Sena and his arrest to the BJP

Sujata Anandan

In his dying days Bal Thackeray wrote an editorial in his newspaper, Saamna.

There was speculation in Marathi newspapers that he had been placed under a ventilator and did not have long to live. Thackeray was wary of being hospitalised and a mini-hospital had been set up for him at home to which very few people had access. There were rumours also that he was all but dead or had even passed away but that his family were wary of making the announcement for political reasons.

Reacting to those rumours, Thackeray, in that editorial, unleashed a full blast of the most vituperative commentary against those newspapers. It was almost a Macbethian dialogue – who are these sods who say I am dead! I shall soon show them how much life I still have left in me!

The editorial confused all the Shiv Sainiks, the speculating media and political observers. It was such typical Thackeray-speak that many people were convinced if he could still write like that, he would soon be up and about on his feet. However, less than a week later Thackeray was no more. It turned out the editorial had been written not by him but by his party MP Sanjay Raut, the working editor of the newspaper, to squash the rumours. Raut had long been working closely with Thackeray and was purported to know his mind very well. He could predict correctly how Thackeray would react to any given situation and the exact words he would use to challenge, contradict or support any issue.

When Saamna was first launched in the 1980s, Thackeray did write (or dictate) his editorials. And the use of language that would redden your ears was aplenty in what should have been a very serious editorial space. But then with time gradually, Thackeray ceded the task of writing the editorials to Raut, who generally ran it past Balasaheb and got his approval. The one and only time that Raut got it wrong was when he took on actor Amitabh Bachchan for his wife Jaya Bachchan’s arrogant refusal to bow to Marathi sentiments and insist she was an Uttar Bharatiya (which she was not - she is a Bengali from Nagpur) and so would speak only Hindi.

Thackeray clearly was ailing by then and probably not checking the editorials before publication. Considering the kind of language used for the Bachchans, it ended up creating a controversy and threatening friendship between the two. For when Balasaheb was in trouble during the first Shiv Sena regime in Maharashtra, it was Bachchan who had come to his rescue. At the time the Shiv Sena had been a lumpenised , militant and violently extortionist organisation and, with a government in Mantralaya, many Shiv Sainiks believed they could get away with murder - or at least Raj Thackeray, Balasaheb’s nephew, thought he could.

Raj had been interested in redeveloping a particular building and one resident, Ramesh Kini, had refused to sign away his rights to his existing home. He was found dead at a cinema hall in Pune and soon allegations had surfaced that he had been seen that day meeting with Raj Thackeray at his office in the Saamna building and then getting into a car with the man.

It created a storm in Maharashtra and the Central Bureau of Investigation was called in to probe the case. Thackeray, under no circumstances, wanted his nephew to be indicted. So Bachchan, according to sources in Matoshree who shared this information with this writer, arranged a post-midnight meeting with the then Prime Minister HD Deve Gowda at his own home in Juhu in Mumbai. One does not know the exact terms of the deal that was struck but the CBI soon closed the case, Raj was not mentioned anywhere in the report and a close friend of his took the rap and went to jail.

This was said to be the chief cause of the estrangement between Thackeray and his nephew, for in all the years of the Shiv Sena’s violence and militancy, nothing had been brought home so close to Thackeray as this incident had. So Thackeray was not about to forget Bachchan’s help in resolving the issue or be ungrateful. He compelled Raut to apologise publicly and the matter was soon forgotten.

However, since Balasaheb’s passing, it is Raut who has kept the verbal spirit of Thackeray alive with his statements and writings in the Saamna. Thackeray’s language was ever rustic and blush-worthy but Raut later found a happy medium between Balasaheb’s abusive aggression and Uddhav Thackeray’s gentlemanly conciliation. Nonetheless, even when the Shiv Sena was in government in alliance with the BJP, both at the Centre and in Maharashtra, Raut’s statements both in the paper and orally were so uncompromising that the then BJP president and now home minister Amit Shah had told Shiv Sena leaders that he wanted Raut nowhere near him during their negotiations for an electoral alliance in 2019. It is not surprising then that Raut was instrumental in depriving the BJP of a government in Maharashtra and relentless in keeping up the pressure on the BJP.

Clearly, he has either little to hide or is so firm in his convictions that he has not been pummelled into capitulation by the Enforcement Directorate. Even as he was detained, he issued a statement saying he was not frightened and would never cease to be a Shiv Sainik. Raut keeps up the fighting spirit of Thackeray and in combination with Uddhav Thackeray’s attempt to gentrify the Shiv Sena brings a non-violent pugnacity to the party that is perhaps just right for modern times.

The BJP, which has now made it a habit of unleashing the central agencies on its rivals, may have chosen the wrong man to make an example of. Raj Thackeray, who sacrificed a close friend to save his own skin, was easy to silence, as were many of the Shiv Sena rebels in the Eknath Shinde camp. Raut and Uddhav Thackeray, who has kept violence among his party men on a tight leash and tied the rebels up in knots with his multiple legal moves, will not be overcome as easily.

( The writer is author, columnist and Consulting Editor, National Herald, Mumbai)

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Published: 01 Aug 2022, 8:35 AM