December 14, 2016

India: Raj Thackeray the chauvinist bully who arms twists the film industry in Bombay

report in Pune Mirror 


With Shah Rukh Khan at his Dadar home on Sunday; in October, Karan Johar was forced to kowtow to Thackeray’s demands; MNS workers stage a protest at a toll naka

From a leader who once looked like he could decimate Shiv Sena, Raj now gets his cheap thrills by arm-twisting hapless film producers and actors

Just hours before Raj Thackeray hosted superstar Shah Rukh Khan at his Dadar home on Sunday evening and secured an assurance that Pakistani actor Mahira Khan won’t promote Raees, one of Raj’s closest aides and his party MNS’s general secretary, Sanjay Ghadi, joined the rival Shiv Sena.

The two events encapsulate Raj and his party’s story for the past couple of years now — a leader desperately trying to stay relevant by growling every once in while at mostly defenceless targets, while his men smirk, even laugh, their way into rival camps.

In Mumbai’s fastchanging world of politics, where parties have moved on from violence, threats, and disruption as tools to win support and embraced a more inclusive development agenda, Raj possibly stands as the city’s last surviving bully. A relic of his uncle and Shiv Sena founder late Bal Thackeray’s brand of politics, in which bluster almost always triumphed reason.

The political decline of MNS has been just as dramatic as its rise. Just four years after splitting from the parent Shiv Sena, the MNS had won 13 seats in the 2009 assembly elections, a commendable feat for a new party. It further strengthened its reputation as a force to reckon with when in the 2012 civic elections, the party won 28 seats. It had then embarrassed the Sena by bagging all seven wards in the Dadar area, considered the Sena’s bastion.

However, things changed in all of four years. In the recently concluded civic elections across the state, the MNS managed to win only around a dozen seats. The All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen, a fledgling party fighting for minority interests, won around 40 seats.

Raj’s partymen have been deserting him in droves for a couple for years now. It’s a procession that shows no sign of ending. Already, close to half-a-dozen MNS corporators have joined either the BJP or the Shiv Sena. Its tally in the BMC is down from 28 to 22 and it is likely to fall further. In the last assembly elections in 2014, while the MNS contested all 288 seats, it won only one. Even that MLA, Sharad Sonavane from Junnar in Pune district, has formed his own party since.

There hasn’t been a week since last May when an MNS functionary hasn’t quit. Not just in Mumbai, but party activists from across the state have deserted Raj. Last month, MNS corporator Ravindra Davne, the party’s sole representative in the Ulhasnagar Municipal Corporation, joined the BJP.

According to MNS insiders, the party’s secondrung leaders have all but disappeared. None of the former legislators are carrying out any political work. And the only space the party garners in news is because of two leaders — group leader in the BMC Sandeep Deshpande, and Amey Khopkar, who heads the party’s film wing.

And, both Deshpande and Khopkar have not been able to extend the party’s appeal beyond its strong-arm tactics. Deshpande was recently arrested for forcing a civic chief engineer to walk the potholed roads carrying a placard that read “I am responsible for potholes”.

Khopkar, of course, has raised the bogey of Pakistani actors finding work in Bollywood when the neighbouring country is waging a proxy war against India. He first targeted Karan Johar for Ae Dil Hai Mushkil, which had Pakistani actor Fawad Khan in a substantial role. The film released in Mumbai only after Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis brokered a much-criticised deal between Raj and Johar, which included a payout of Rs 5 crore to the Army Welfare Fund. The move was not only labelled ‘extortion’ by almost all observers, but Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar also refused to accept the money, heaping embarrassment on both Raj and Fadnavis.

Raj’s overdependence on his party’s film wing to create noise not only demonstrates his depleted strength, but it also exposes a complete lack of new ideas in the party.

So while Raj gets his cheap thrills by dragging Bollywood personalities to his house and posing for photographs with them, his cousin and Shiv Sena chief Uddhav Thackeray is taking the Union government to task over poor implementation of demonetisation of Rs 500 and Rs 1000 notes, earning him a place at Delhi’s high table. When he was in Delhi last week, he got time both with Union Finance Minister Arun Jaitley and Union Home Minister Rajnath Singh to discuss demonetisation.

Raj, political observers say, has become a prisoner of his own image. Having modelled himself on his uncle Bal Thackeray’s style, Raj has always believed in violence over reason. During the formative days of MNS, his men had hit headlines for beating up north Indian candidates visiting the city to appear in railway exams. While this was done to protect Marathi candidates, no thought was given to the fact that it did not in any way benefit local lads.

But then, this is the only way of doing politics that Raj knows. “This is the only way he can remain relevant. It’s said that now the MNS has only two things — nuisance value and news value. Bollywood has always been a soft target. Earlier, the Sena too was in the same league, but it has now moved on with changing times. But the MNS seems to be stuck. These threats and arm-twisting are getting Raj TRPs, but no votes,” said a political observer.

Senior journalist Kumar Ketkar said Raj’s obsession with threatening people into submission actually displays a huge political weakness. “To overcome that political weakness, the party will have to engage itself in activities that will help it create a new identity,” he said.

Deshpande, however, rubbished the analysts. “One election result is not enough to draw any conclusions. We will bounce back in the BMC polls. Those who are writing the MNS’s obituary will be shocked and will have to eat their own words. Our stand against Pakistani actors has been very clear from day one and we are sticking to it. It is our victory that producers are refusing to let Pakistani actors promote films in India on their own,” Deshpande said.

Raj’s real hope of staying afloat is actually not photo-ops with actors and producers, it is in BJP’s continued faith in his ability to cause damage to the Shiv Sena. Many believe Fadnavis’s misadventure around Ae Dil Hai Mushkil was born out of his desire to keep Raj up and running so that he can be propped up against an increasingly domineering Shiv Sena wherever required.

How desirable is it for Raj to be reduced to a prop in the fight between the Sena and the BJP? But then again, if Bollywood defines the boundaries of your politics, then it is unlikely you will get more than a side-role in politics.

█ To overcome its political weakness, the party will have to engage in activities that will help it create a new identity

– Kumar Ketkar, senior journalist