The BJP has clearly been spooked by those three words made famous by Raj Thackeray this election season. As his campaign rallies gather storm and become the newest flavour of the season, there seems little they can do to contain the president of the Maharashtra Navnirman Sena.
Soon after his Gudi Padwa rally on April 6, when it became apparent that Raj was out to unmask Narendra Modi in no uncertain terms, a BJP supporter wrote a Facebook post describing him as anti-national. Modi bhakts have usually got away with such slurs. But the next thing this man knew was that tens of Raj’s supporters had landed on his doorstep, threatening and intimidating him, compelling him to not just withdraw the post and apologise for the same but also hold his ear lobes and do sit-ups in penance. He was lucky he did not get thrashed because that is the usual style of Raj Thackeray and his party men.
So it was not surprising that the State Election Commission, presumably under pressure from the government, denied him permission to hold a rally in Mumbai on the dubious grounds that since he or his party were not contesting the polls, he could not address election rallies. However, looking at the outrage that generated not just on social media but also among MNS supporters, there was some hasty backtracking with the clarification that there was only a delay in the permission and no denial, given the single window clearance that can only process one application at a time.
It is not surprising that the BJP is rattled by Raj’s acerbic attacks on Narendra Modi and Amit Shah. While Raj’s exposès and fact-checking of Modi ‘s claims may or may not be benefiting the Congress-NCP alliance in Maharashtra, they are certainly damaging the Gujarati duo and baring Modi’s lies for what they are. Indeed, Raj has pitched the campaign against the BJP as one between two Gujaratis and the rest of the country. In Mumbai, it serves to open old wounds between Gujaratis and Maharashtrians that had not quite healed over the decades. In the rest of Maharashtra, Modi is projected as a liar over and over again.
To make it more effective and bring the exposè home to the audience, Raj has made ample use of technology to pioneer a kind of campaign that could soon be picked up by other political parties to expose the false claims of their rivals or governments.
Raj has two giant LED screens at all his rallies on which he plays clips from Modi’s speeches exposing his tall claims - people have begun to anticipate those three words with great excitement, “Jara laav re!” Which, in Marathi, means “just play that (clip)”. Then begins a clinical takedown of Modi and his claims - for example playing a video of Modi claiming his government had built 8,50,000 toilets in a week in Bihar, Raj broke that down to the sum of seven toilets every five seconds!
“Before you can go to the toilet, he builds seven toilets, all in five seconds!” Raj said with a dead pan expression, leaving his audience in splits.
Raj has also been the singular leader debunking Modi’s claims on national security which neither the Congress nor any other party has done. He has raised questions on Pulwama and also on the Balakot airstrikes.
“Had even a single person been killed in Pakistan by our our strikes, would they have returned Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman in one single piece within days? Is Imran Khan not answerable to the people of Pakistan? So how did Amit Shah claim we killed 250 Pakistanis!”
That has left the BJP gnashing its teeth in fury with little to counter him with, particularly as Raj makes it clear he is not doubting the Air Force, but only its politicisation.
In this new style, Raj has borrowed from his uncle Bal Thackeray and improved upon the former Shiv Sena supremo’s penchant to bring newspapers underlined in red to his rallies and hold it up for people to see. He would read from those clippings to drive his point home. The audio-visual medium now is being used by Raj to devastating effect and leaving behind a trail of bruised egos and injured reputations.
In the process, Raj seems to have dented the voter base of the Shiv Sena headed by his estranged cousin Uddhav Thackeray and this could have an impact on the electoral fortunes of the BJP. It is believed that Raj is being tutored by Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) president Sharad Pawar which is the main reason why the BJP is mounting an all-out attack on Pawar this election season.
But if the Congress-NCP alliance stands to benefit from his actions, what is in it for Raj Thackeray? Talk is that the NCP will accommodate him in the Assembly elections due in Maharashtra in October this year though the Congress is queasy about aligning with a party that has beaten up and victimised north Indians and Muslims in the past.
After a great start in 2009, when Raj put up candidates in all six of Mumbai’s parliamentary constituencies and pushed the Shiv Sena to the fourth position, he has been down ever since 2014 when his party fared poorly in May and could win only one seat out of 288 in the Assembly. A resurrection is much awaited by his supporters and Raj hopes it lies in denting the Sena-BJP.
Meanwhile, his message to detractors who ask why he switched from being a friend of Modi is clear: Modi not just lies but is destroying the nation. This election is not about who wins but to ensure that the BJP loses so that the nation survives. “We will take on each other later.”
Most leaders would like to say the same but are not as clear or unafraid as Raj Thackeray. Perhaps, he has less to lose than them and much to gain without any stakes in this election. It is definitely a new model of electioneering no political party has thought of before.
As he heads towards the northern states after Maharashtra’s last phase of polling on April 29, he has already become the flavour of India this election season.