‘Isn’t Raj the Jinnah of today, Dividing the Marathi Manoos?

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In a no-holds-barred exchange on the eve of elections, Uddhav Thackeray speaks to Rana Ayyub about past betrayals and present feuds

MATOSHREE, THE official residence of the Thackerays, first family of Maharashtra politics, is abuzz with activity. In this area, where Shiv Sena founder Bal Thackeray would sound his clarion calls, political temperatures are running high. It’s do-or-die for the Sena, which has been out of power in the state for the last two terms. And to make things worse for the party — which many say is going through its lowest ebb — its own son, its own blood, a Thackeray, today stands in fierce opposition to it. But this dire assessment of the Shiv Sena’s fortunes isn’t something its 49-year-old executive president, Uddhav Thackeray, agrees with.

Uddhav’s ascent in the Shiv Sena led to the alienation of his cousin Raj Thackeray, who has modelled himself on the Thackeray patriarch and who is thought to have inherited his aggression and charisma. Raj’s alienation led him to turn his guns on his cousin and confront the Sena on the very issue the party had built its base on – identity. His party, the Maharashtra Navnirman Sena (MNS) seemed to have done its job — it divided the Marathi vote bank of the Shiv Sena — to the benefit of the ruling Congress- NCP combine in the general elections. But not this time, vows Uddhav. Bold front aside, Uddhav must be praying earnestly for a change in fortunes as, apart from the Sena’s long spell out of power, the imminent assembly elections will not only be the first he faces as the party’s leader, it will be the first the weakened Sena faces after Raj’s rebellion.

Uddhav’s wife Rashmi plays the role of a hostess with perfect meticulousness and elan; while discussing his schedules and appointments, she speaks proudly of how her husband has grown leaps and bounds as a politician. Rashmi’s eyes light up as she talks about her son Aditya and her husband’s collection of photographs that were released earlier this year. The family’s passions are evident from a look at the living room — done up in saffron tones, portraits of Chhatrapati Shivaji and Bal Thackeray adorn the walls, along with books on photography and cartoons. Both Uddhav and Rashmi Thackeray are irritated at the mention of the MNS. “Can’t we talk about other issues? The media loves to talk only about this,” complains Uddhav as he digs into a bowl of poha (a Maharashtrian delicacy). “Can I eat during this interview? I’m famished,” he smiles as TEHELKA engages this aspirant to power in an extensive conversation.

Photo: Deepak Salvi

The Shiv Sena is in a fight not only for power in Maharashtra but also for its very existence. Some observers say it is at an all-time low.
Says who? Ask Maharashtrians. Speak to those who live here. They will tell you what the Shiv Sena means to them. The Sena is in the heart and soul of every Maharashtrian. As long as they are with us, perceptions don’t matter. And if we were so badly off, do you think Sonia Gandhi and other senior Congress leaders would be campaigning here? They fear us, hence their renewed efforts in Maharashtra.

You have been campaigning extensively in Vidarbha and the Marathwada region. What is the situation on the ground?
I have been touring there for the last five years. The sentiment there has remained the same: people are angry with the government. Prices of essential commodities are at an all-time high. There is no electricity in the villages. Farmers are still committing suicide. What does this government count as an achievemeent? The 26/11 Mumbai attacks? They couldn’t even ensure the security of their own people. What are they banking on in Maharashtra? The mood in Maharashtra clearly favours the bow and arrow (the symbol of the Shiv Sena).

As the opposition, you haven’t been able to raise issues effectively, though the government is a two-time incumbent. Moreover, your ally the BJP is at an all-time low after losing the Lok Sabha elections and is facing major internal dissidence.
What is happening to the BJP at the national level is not something I want to comment on and also isn’t my concern. It’s their internal matter. The BJP is our old ally in Maharashtra; we are sure it will recover. The BJP has been our ally in the battle for Hindutva, which has united us. Look at the NCP. It’s slipped to the fourth position in Maharashtra. It’s also at an all-time low and is also facing rebellion, but the Congress hasn’t abandoned the NCP. Why should we abandon the BJP?

Is Hindutva still an issue?
Hindutva is not merely an election issue for us; it’s an ideology we cannot part with. However, we can’t talk of Hindutva all the time. But having said that, I repeat: Hindutva is something we believe in staunchly. When the time comes, we will not hesitate to fight for it.

So does that mean that the Uddhav Thackeray who talks about bringing in a new brand of politics in Maharashtra still sticks to the old Hindutva policy of the Shiv Sena, which carries the image of an anti-minority, or, if I may put it this way, an anti-Muslim party?
So which party is pro-Muslim? The Congress? When were Muslims or minorities safer? During the Congress regime or the Shiv Sena one? When we were in power, not one attack took place on Muslims. Can you point out even one incident to me?

The Sena inflamed communal passions during the 1992 Mumbai riots. Yet you talk about the safety and security of Muslims
What the Shiv Sena did during the Mumbai riots was self-defence. We fought the enemy which was attacking us. We fought for the safety of our people. If somebody were to attack you, would you remain a mute spectator? No! You will retaliate and if you don’t, it can be assumed that you want to commit suicide. We did not. We only retaliated.

And you would do the same now? Even on the eve of elections, you don’t speak of inclusive growth, of taking everyone along.
We are focussing on the rights of the Marathi manoos, the Maharashtrian who is Marathi at heart, who has been staying in Maharashtra. We want to take them along. And the Shiv Sena has been committed to doing just that.

‘Most ‘rebels’ did not leave us, they were thrown out. And I’m glad they’re not with us. They were liabilities for the Sena’

The Sena seems to be facing a tough time with internal dissent as well. In one month, some of your most prominent leaders, from Sada Sarvankar to Nimhans, left the party.
I’m glad they left; they did not deserve to stay. They weren’t committed. People like Sada Sarvankar were fighting for their own motives. They were liabilities for the Sena. And dissidence is not something only the Sena is facing; We’re not going to suffer because of rebellion.

Familial Fissures (left to right) Balasaheb, Uddhav and Raj Thackeray
Photo: Deepak Salvi

But rebels haven’t hurt anyone as much as they have hurt the Sena. Some of the biggest names, including Chhagan Bhujbal, Narayan Rane, Sanjay Nirupam and, finally, Raj Thackeray rebelled and left.
Most did not leave, they were thrown out. We came to power the moment Bhujbal left us. We made them what they are today. Raj left – and we won the BMC elections. Rane is too trivial for me to discuss. And speaking of ‘big names,’ the people who created them — the Sainiks, my cadres — are still with us.

Sada Sarvankar made a strong allegation, that you instigated the violence at Manohar Joshi’s residence. It’s the first time that a Sena leader’s house has been stoned by its own members. Chhagan Bhujbal even calls the stoning “the return of democracy to the Shiv Sena”.
Didn’t you notice that Sada Sarvankar was sitting in the laps of the Congress while making those allegations? He will say what he has been tutored to say by our rivals. Balasaheb has always called the shots in the Sena. He is our mentor and what he commands still happens. We don’t bother about what others think about our party members. My father still decides what will happen in the party, who will be the CM.

Your own cousin Raj has hijacked the issue of the Marathi manoos from right under your nose and today he is a big threat to you.
The Marathi manoos today knows who promotes its rights more. Why should I talk about other people? What have they hijacked from us? We first spoke of the rights of the Marathi manoos way back in the 60s, when they needed it the most. We don’t need to prove a point to anybody. I would like to talk about the Shiv Sena and our work. What the MNS does is of no importance to us.

But if it wasn’t important would you have called Raj Thackeray a modernday Jinnah in Saamna?
It was Balasaheb who wrote the editorial and called him a modern-day Jinnah. We stand by it. Isn’t Raj the Jinnah of today, dividing the Marathi manoos? Isn’t his ideology clear? He opposing us so that the Congress-NCP combine scores over us as he knows that he can’t do anything alone. He has been created by the Congress-NCP who are using him as a weapon against us.

Are you scared of the Raj factor? He divided Marathi votes and your party suffered major losses as a result.
Assembly elections and Lok Sabha elections are totally different. During assembly elections, a man votes for his state, his home. He knows that the Shiv Sena is the original guardian of the sons of the soil. Others also talk of these concerns and of Marathi pride. But if they actually had those concerns, would they have allowed the division of votes to happen? Locals understand the difference between those who work for them and those who only claim to work for them. I have done my hard work; the results will be there for everyone to see. The Sena-BJP will win a majority in the elections.

Would you want Raj Thackeray to return to the party? Don’t you have fond memories of him? Both of you grew up together, worked together.
Why should I remember anybody? People have left their homes. We haven’t left anybody. History is full of such cases. Take (Gandhis) Rahul and Varun; Maneka and Sonia. They belong to the same family and aren’t together.

Zero-sum game? MNS party workers target a migrant in Mumbai
Photo: Reuters

The battle has turned personal and bitter. Raj is accusing people close to you of being corrupt and indulging in fraud. He accuses you of voting for Mahesh Jethmalani, a non-Maharashtrian candidate.
What fraud and corruption is he talking about? Should we talk about the Kohinoor Mills in Dadar, which he owns? How was that obtained? It’s the same Kohinoor Mills from where many Marathi workers were thrown out. He wants to build a mall. But is he willing to reserve 80 percent shops for Marathis? And what of Mahesh Jethmalani? He was the candidate of the Sena-BJP alliance. Should I not vote for him? And what locus do they have? They used Mahesh Jethmalani’s services to bail out their own candidate.

‘Why should I remember [Raj]? Take Rahul and Varun Gandhi. They belong to the same family and yet they are not together’

Is Balasaheb hurt at all this, epecially when he’s ill? Has his absence affected the party and your family? Will you ally with Raj Thackeray if there’s a hung assembly?
Balasaheb has seen through lies and deceit. He does not talk to Raj Thackeray. And now, he is more concerned about his party, which I too want to talk about, rather than the MNS. Balasaheb is all charged up for the elections. He wanted to campaign, but we did not allow him to take on the strain. And, as I said, people come and people go. People forget who did what for them but that’s not for me to analyse. It’s all out in the open now. Everybody can decide for themselves. We have our ally in the BJP and we would like it to remain our ally after the elections too.

But Raj is seen by some as Balasaheb’s inheritor. They say you lack his charisma, that you lack his aggression, that you are more of a soft leader who doesn’t like to take to the streets – something which the Sena was known for. You are seen by them as ‘a politician by accident’.
See, people know me. I know what I have inherited. I have got some of the best qualities from my father and my mother. I don’t need to have Balasaheb’s aggression to prove I am a good leader. I don’t need to pelt stones or burn taxis to prove I am strong. I don’t need to do these things to promote myself. On one call from Balasaheb, the Marathi manoos would take to the streets and they will still do so. But why do so unnecessarily? We would like to talk and negotiate first. If nothing works, we know how to take matters into our own hands. My party doesn’t need any symbolic gestures. I don’t know about the politician by accident part and all the tags that the media uses for me. I have always been active in politics and have been with my father in his journey. I am doing just what my father would have expected me to do and I have his approval. My experience in politics has taught me a lot. Jo log nakaab pehenkar ghoom rahe they, unko pehchaan liya hai maine (I have identified those who wore a mask).

But why is it that every time the MNS raises an issue, you raise it too? What is your take on the outsiders issue? Do you think your attendance at rallies of north Indians backfired against you?
As far as the outsiders issue is concerned, we have been talking about 80 percent reservation for Maharashtrians. When I attended north Indians’ programmes, I did not invite north Indians to come and live here. I am against those who come here and stay here in slums. I am against the Bangladeshis. I am against anybody who is trying to act against the interest of the locals and that will always be my stance. But, at the same time, I would say that Maharashtra faces bigger isues than just Mumbai – like development and farmer suicides.

What are the issues on which the Sena believes it will triumph over the Congress- NCP combine?
Basic necessities. Reservations for Maharashtrians. The government’s inability to bring new industries to the state. Why did the Tata Nano go to Bengal and later to Gujarat? Why not to Maharashtra? Look at us. We made the flyovers in Mumbai. My father was the one who did the bhoomi pooja for the Bandra-Worli Sea Link – for which the Congress-NCP combine is taking credit today.

Your son Aditya Thackeray has been seen on your political campaigns. Does he represent Gen Next for the Thackerays?
Aditya brings out the issues that the youth want to talk about. He is my eyes and ears for what the new generation wants me to do. He does not involve himself with issues which will garner him publicity but, in fact, talks to me about the issues on the ground. About teachers’ strikes, about students protests, about social issues.

Where does politics and the fight for the state leave Uddhav the photographer? You were always keen to pursue photography, your first love.
It still is my first love, but unfortunately my cameras are all in storage. Even now, my mind is on your photographer and his camera. What frame is he taking? What camera is he using? I love the click-click sound of him taking photographs. I think photography makes you a better human being. I believe my photography and my interest in nature and in human life endears me to the manoos I represent. It requires a heart to be an artist and its the artist in me who takes over – most of the times for better.

WRITER’S EMAIL
rana@tehelka.com

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