On July 23, 1996, Ramesh Kini, a resident of Matunga in Mumbai, was found dead at the Alka Talkies in Pune during the night show of the John Travolta starrer Broken Arrow.
The resultant controversy over Kini’s death engulfed Raj Thackeray, who was then in the Shiv Sena, and was seen as the heir to his uncle and late party supremo Bal Thackeray.
The Shiv Sena- Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government was in power in Maharashtra, and it was alleged that Kini’s landlords Laxmichand and Suman Shah, who were close to Raj, were trying to pressure Kini to vacate his tenanted flat for a paltry amount.
Kini’s wife Sheela alleged that on the day when her husband’s body was found at Pune, over 160km away from Mumbai, he had left home claiming he was going to the office of the Shiv Sena mouthpiece Saamana. Surprisingly, Kini was found in Pune on a day when the rail traffic between the two cities had been disrupted due to heavy rains.
The opposition Congress-led by former Shiv Sainik Chhagan Bhujbal, who was then the leader of opposition in the state legislative council, upped the ante on the issue.
Eventually, Raj was exonerated by the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI), but his career and public image suffered a massive setback. Raj was also compelled to take a backseat in the Shiv Sena and concede space to elder cousin Uddhav. The resultant power struggle led to Raj quitting the Shiv Sena in 2005 to form his Maharashtra Navnirman Sena (MNS) the next year.
The controversy over the deaths of actor Sushant Singh Rajput and Disha Salian, his former manager, in June, have led to a sense of déjà vu in the Shiv Sena. However, this time, it is Raj’s nephew and Maharashtra environment minister Aaditya Thackeray, who has been pitched into the eye of the storm.
The opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has put Aaditya in the cross-hairs. The Yuva Sena chief is also being subjected to a whispering campaign and trial by media.
The murky episode has also exposed the internal discord and fault lines within the ‘Maha Vikas Aghadi (MVA)’ government led by Aaditya’s father and Shiv Sena president Uddhav Thackeray. The Shiv Sena is already struggling to find its feet in the saddle and has to contend with the onset of the Coronavirus pandemic just months after the MVA took charge of office.
Incidentally, Parth Pawar, the son of deputy chief minister and Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) leader Ajit Pawar, was the first to set the ball rolling. He met state home minister Anil Deshmukh, who belongs to his party, seeking a CBI probe in Sushant’s death. This was followed up by BJP MLA Atul Bhatkhalkar, who wrote to union home minister Amit Shah. Bhatkhalkar also claimed that a “young minister” from Maharashtra had a “personal stake” in the matter.
Though Parth's grandfather and NCP chief Sharad Pawar lashed out at his grandson for the demand, he said there is no reason to oppose a probe by the CBI. Pawar Senior however said he had full faith in the Mumbai and Maharashtra police.
It does not need the skill of a tea leaves reader to deduce that all is not well within the MVA. The Congress is sulking at being gradually edged out in the larger scheme of things, while the relations between the Shiv Sena and NCP, are said to be deteriorating steadily over issues like Uddhav’s style of functioning.
Shiv Sena dissident and former chief minister Narayan Rane, who had a bitter estrangement with his former party in 2005 and is now in the BJP, had recently alleged that Disha was raped and murdered, and had not committed suicide.
However, these claims have been denied by Disha’s parents and her autopsy has not mentioned any injuries on her private parts.
Rane also claimed that a young minister from the Maharashtra government had attended the party where Disha was present, and charged that the Maharashtra government was trying to save the culprits. Rane also alleged that Rajput was murdered, and had not committed suicide.
Fielding Rane was like waving a red rag before a bull. This led the Shiv Sena to officially deny Aaditya’s involvement in the case. Aaditya, who is the first from the Thackeray family to seek public office, too issued a statement rubbishing these unconfirmed reports and conjecture.
Later, Rane’s elder son Nilesh, a former Lok Sabha MP, too alleged that Aaditya or someone close to him may be involved in the matter.
BJP leaders claim that the Mumbai police is dragging its feet on the investigations, and point to how the Bihar police team which came to Mumbai to probe the issue, was stonewalled by the system. They claim that Parth’s demand for a CBI inquiry suggests that all is not well within the MVA.
There is another uncanny similarity with the Kini case here. Like in case of the NCP, which holds charge of the crucial home department, the portfolio was then held by the BJP. Raj’s loyalists and associates from those days claim that the Kini case may have been mishandled by the saffron alliance government by design rather than default in a manifestation of power struggles within and between the two ruling parties.
Shiv Sena sources charge that the issue of Disha and Sushant’s deaths is being used by the BJP to settle scores. The Shiv Sena snapped ties with the BJP late last year, to form a government with the Congress and NCP.
They state that the MVA experiment, where three unlikely allies have come together to keep the BJP away from power, may set the template for similar alliances in other states, if it manages to survive for a reasonable period. This makes it expedient for the BJP to ensure that it comes a cropper.
Hence, the Shiv Sena fears that the BJP may use the threat of a CBI probe to arm-twist the Shiv Sena into submission or even lure the NCP into its fold. Sushant’s death has acquired political overtones in Bihar, which is scheduled to go to the polls soon.
Aaditya’s plunge into electoral politics was being used to expand the Shiv Sena’s base beyond its core voters and to reach out to a cosmopolitan constituency, which a necessity considering the changing demography of Mumbai and neighbouring areas. Targeting the Sena scion may hit the party where it hurts the most.
The soft-spoken Aaditya is said to be friendly with many Bollywood stars. He has often batted for issues seen as being connected to the elite, like rooftop restaurants and Mumbai’s nightlife. This association may have been used by the Shiv Sena’s political adversaries to target him.
The Thackeray family has a deep association with the film industry. Aaditya’s great-grandfather, the social reformer and writer ‘Prabodhankar’ Keshav Sitaram Thackeray acted in films like the critically acclaimed Marathi movie Shyamchi Aai. Bal Thackeray designed paper publicity for Hindi films like Mera Suhag and Nargis, and was close to stars like Amitabh Bachchan.
His younger brother and Raj’s father Shrikant, a music composer, was the first to get the legendary Muhammed Rafi to sing in Marathi. Raj is also a movie buff with a collection of almost 10,000 films, and counts Marathi film stars among his personal friends. Actor Milind Gunaji is among the chosen few close to Uddhav, who is known to be an introvert with a restricted, esoteric inner-circle.
However, the controversy has brought into focus the Shiv Sena’s many weaknesses. For one, the Sena lacks crisis management skills at the institutional level, with its communication mechanism not being in sync. The party, which is more at ease with street-level politics, also lacks a strong brains’ trust to formulate a crisis management strategy and response.
This was brought to the fore by Aaditya’s statement denying his links to the case. A Shiv Sena insider admitted that silence is golden in situations where leaders are often targeted as part of whispering campaigns, and reacting to such charges amounts to dignifying such allegations and innuendo.
There is rising discontent within the ranks of the Shiv Sena at the dominance of ‘Team Aaditya,’ which refers to a bunch of urbane, English-speaking young leaders close to the Yuva Sena chief, and are gradually calling the shots in the organization, much to the chagrin of its grassroots workers.
Meanwhile, as political parties wrestle in the mud with charges smacking of character assassination, misogyny and malice flying around, the risk lies in the issues affecting the common man like the Covid-19 pandemic, economic distress and a tottering public health system, being swept under the carpet. For, when two mighty elephants fight, it is the grass that is trod underfoot.
Dhaval Kulkarni is a Mumbai-based journalist and author of ‘The Cousins Thackeray: Uddhav, Raj and the Shadow of their Senas.’ Views expressed are personal.