Ex-Scribe, Thackerays' Confidant & Sena's Headache: For Peace in Tie-up, Sanjay Raut Must be Reined in

When old friendships fall apart, and new relationships are forged, they also come with a need to evolve a new vocabulary and fresh terms of engagement.

But old habits die hard. This truth may be dawning on the Shiv Sena, which has pulled the curtains on its three-decade-old alliance with the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), to join hands with the Congress and Nationalist Congress Party (NCP).

The three parties are unlikely allies, with few political agendas in common, united by only the need to gain power in Maharashtra, and to keep the BJP away from it.

The trio has their own political capital to protect, and a target constituency to cater to. When these agendas clash, this will lead to tension in the fledging ‘Maha Vikas Aghadi’ government led by Shiv Sena president Uddhav Thackeray.

However, surprisingly for a politician who has risen from the profession, it has been Shiv Sena Rajya Sabha MP Sanjay Raut, who has been dominating the media discourse for his comments, which have fallen foul of the Congress.

Raut, who began his journalistic career as a crime reporter with a popular Marathi weekly ‘Lokprabha,’ spoke at a function organised by a media group about how former Prime Minister Indira Gandhi met the late underworld don Karim Lala.

Lala, who was the leader of the Pathans in Mumbai who were into money-lending and crime, led his own syndicate. It was, however, taken head-on and crushed by a local Konkani Muslim — Dawood Ibrahim Kaskar — now a dreaded international terrorist.

Raut’s comments about Indira Gandhi meeting Lala at his office at Pydhonie in South Mumbai fell foul of the Congress.

The party has always projected the former Premier as a strong leader who had taken on Pakistan and vivisected the country to create Bangladesh. This came at a time when the Congress is being projected as being soft on issues like crime, terrorism and issues of national security by the BJP, which relies on a hyper-nationalist narrative.

With senior Congress leaders taking umbrage, Raut had to beat a hasty retreat, but not before stating that those objecting to his comments knew little about the life and times and personality of the former Prime Minister.

Raut claimed Indira Gandhi met Lala, not as he was an underworld don but because the strapping Pathan was the leader of the Pashtoon community, having begun as a volunteer of ‘Frontier Gandhi’ Khan Abdul Gaffar Khan’s Khudai Khidmatgar.

Interestingly, despite his history of making stinging, intemperate statements, Raut, who combines the outspokenness of a Shiv Sainik and the impulse of an old-school crime reporter, has been forced to retract very rarely.

Raut, who hails from Choundi village near Alibag in Raigad district near Mumbai, started working in the circulation and marketing department of the Indian Express group. He later graduated to doing crime stories for its weekly ‘Lokprabha.’

Old timers still recall how Raut had his ears to the ground, producing many cover stories on the dreaded Mumbai mafia and organised crime syndicates.

In 1989, the Shiv Sena launched the Marathi daily ‘Saamana,’ which was edited by party chief Bal Thackeray, with senior journalist Ashok Padbidri, who had socialist inclinations, as the executive editor.

In 1992, Raut was drafted in as the executive editor of the newspaper, breaking the unwritten rule in Marathi journalism that only political reporters, and of late, desk hands, can rise to a senior editorial position. He is also a three-term Rajya Sabha MP.

While the Shiv Sena has a bristling relationship with the media, it also sent the highest number of journalists to Parliament, including names like Narayan Athavale, Pritish Nandy, Bharatkumar Raut and Sanjay Raut.

Raut had another achievement of sorts. He was among the few to be close to Shrikant Thackeray, the younger brother of the Shiv Sena supremo, and a superbly talented cartoonist, music composer and amateur homeopath.

Shrikant, who was known for being strict with his own rules of engagement, evoked respect tinged with fear due to his outspoken and forthright nature. However, Raut was close enough to Shrikant to call him ‘Pappa.’

It may have been this emotional chord with Shrikant and his son Raj which ensured that Raut continued to be friends with Raj, who was seen as uncle Bal’s political heir, but was gradually edged out by cousin Uddhav in the Sena’s politics. In 2005, when Raj quit the Shiv Sena (he formed his Maharashtra Navnirman Sena the next year), his resignation letter is said to been drafted by Raut, something that Bal Thackeray realised immediately after he had a look at it.

As the executive editor of Saamana, Raut was seen as the Shiv Sena chief’s mirror image, with his editorials being considered the voice of the party chief. The Sena patriarch was fond of the aggressive Raut, who would later make a biopic on his party boss, and the latter is said to have used this proximity against his rivals in the Shiv Sena.

However, despite their strident tone, be it against the BJP or even the own party’s government in Maharashtra between 1995-1999 and 2014-2014, it was only twice that Raut’s opinions were disowned.

In the 2009 assembly elections, the Raj Thackeray-led MNS won 13 assembly seats leading to the defeat of the Shiv Sena and BJP in several places in Mumbai and neighbouring areas.

An editorial in Saamana charged that the ‘Marathi Manoos’ in Mumbai had stabbed the Shiv Sena in the back, leading to a hue and cry. In a party meeting, Bal Thackeray denied writing this and Raut had to face the brunt.

On May 1, 2014, soon after polling for the Lok Sabha elections was completed, a Saamana editorial attacked Gujaratis in Mumbai for not standing by the cause of the city and state despite making their fortune here. The Shiv Sena leadership was forced to initiate damage control and make amends.

Subsequently, Raut was divested of his charge as the party spokesperson, though he continued speaking to the media and voicing his opinions.

Between 2014 and 2019, Raut, whose antipathy towards the BJP and association with NCP chief Sharad Pawar was well-known (Pawar and Raut had also explored chances of a NCP- Sena alliance in the 2009 Lok Sabha polls), continued to attack the BJP.

Though senior BJP leaders and then chief minister Devendra Fadnavis claimed they were unperturbed and did not read Saamana, the criticism did hurt, as some of them admitted in public.

Like in 2014, when Raut’s comments about Narendra Modi and then Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s sari and shawl diplomacy had reportedly led to the BJP leadership reading out the riot act to their Shiv Sena counterparts.

The jibe referred to Modi gifting a shawl to Sharif’s mother and the latter reciprocating by sending a sari for Modi’s mother.

After the Maharashtra assembly elections, Raut, who was a votary of the “go it alone” line within the Shiv Sena, emerged as the man of the match by successfully ensuring the party tied up with the Congress and NCP for power.

However, in line with the Sena leadership’s decision to prevent any party leader from growing beyond a point, Raut’s brother Sunil, a two-term MLA. was denied a ministerial berth.

With the new alliance falling into place, Raut and the Sena too tried to change their vocabulary. Raut, who once claimed there were one crore illegal Bangladeshi immigrants staying in Mumbai and surrounding areas, and sought a National Register of Citizens exercise in the state, discovered the pitfalls of the NRC and the Citizenship Amendment Act.

However, this change, which is necessitated by the unlikely three-party alliance, is subject to inherent restrictions as the Shiv Sena cannot antagonise its core constituency beyond a point. For example, when former Congress president Rahul Gandhi attacked Vinayak Damodar Savarkar, Raut and the party had to defend the Hindutva icon.

Raut’s statements against former Satara royal and former three-term Lok Sabha MP Udayanraje Bhosale, who shifted to the BJP from the NCP and lost the subsequent by-elections, have also led to anger.

Raut questioned Udayanraje’s claims of being a descendant of 17th century warrior-king Chatrapati Shivaji Maharaj, who has a talismanic hold over the masses for his concept of a welfare state. Angered, Hindutva groups like ‘Shivaprathisthan Hindustan’ led by the controversial nonagenarian Sambhajirao Bhide ‘Guruji’, called for a bandh in parts of Maharashtra.

On Saturday, even as the controversy over his comments was yet to settle, Raut again set the cat among the pigeons by reiterating his demand for a Bharat Ratna for Savarkar.

Raut attacked former chief minister and senior Congress leader Prithviraj Chavan, and said those who opposed this honour for Savarkar, needed to be incarcerated for two days at the Cellular Jail in the Andamans, where Savarkar had served time.

Chavan had opposed the demand for Savarkar to be given India’s highest civilian honour.

After Raut’s attack, the Maharashtra Congress retorted that Savarkar was not the only one to serve time in brutal conditions in the jail.

As the ‘Maha Vikas Aghadi’ government nears the end of its honeymoon period and settles into office, inconsistencies and differences in the alliance are coming to the fore. And the public image of this rainbow alliance will depend on how leaders across these political formations continue to temper their public statements, while keeping a lid on these differences.

But, one thing is evident. The Shiv Sena, which may have gained the chief minister’s post, but lost vital portfolios like home and finance in the bargain, has much at stake. Its future may depend on how these contradictions are managed.

(Dhaval Kulkarni is a journalist and author of the book ‘The Cousins Thackeray: Uddhav, Raj and the shadow of their Senas,’ which is the first political biography of Uddhav and Raj Thackeray. Views are personal)