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If speeches win elections, Raj Thackeray is streets ahead

By Abhay Vaidya

Over the past many decades, the most popular and powerful political speeches in Maharashtra have come from Shiv Sena chief Bal Thackeray and his counterpart in the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP), Sharad Pawar. Now, uncle Thackeray’s estranged nephew Raj has emerged as the new, rising star on the horizon. He is outshining all with the power of his political oratory.

The public response to his recent political rallies in Mumbai, Pune and Nashik to seek support for his Maharashtra Navnirman Sena (MNS) in the 16 February municipal elections was noteworthy. In sheer numbers, it was superseded only by Bal Thackeray’s rallies in Thane and the MMRDA grounds at Mumbai, as  was expected. If uncle Thackeray scored on the numbers, Raj Thackeray clearly scored on substance.

Maharashtra Navnirman Sena (MNS) Chief Raj Thackeray. AFP

Body language too played its part, with age telling on both, the 72-year-old Sharad Pawar and Bal Thackeray, who’s running 86; more so since the latter spoke seated, and complained of age-related aches and pains. Raj, on the other hand was a picture of youthful purpose and determination.

To what extent Raj will be able to translate his strengths into seats in the municipal elections is a moot question. However, the MNS is bound to make bigger and better inroads into civic corridors this time around as compared to the seven seats that the party won in the 2007 civic elections in Mumbai, eight in Pune and 12 in Nashik, besides three in Thane and 27 in Kalyan-Dombivili last year.

In his characteristic style, uncle Thackeray on Saturday attacked one and all, calling them fools and madcaps. In his words, Anna Hazare is a “fool” who threatens and goes on a fast every now and then and “Narya” (State cabinet minister Narayan Rane) belongs to the mental asylum.

Reacting to Sharad Pawar’s allegation of financial mismanagement by the Shiv Sena to the tune of Rs 40,000 crore, Bal Thackeray questioned the personal assets amassed by Sharad Pawar and wanted Pawar to “exchange” those with him. A similar "exchange offer" was thrown at Narayan Rane after displaying a list of hotels and other properties purportedly held in the names of Rane’s wife and other relatives.

Responding to Raj Thackeray’s praise of Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi for his urban initiatives, the senior Thackeray maintained that the Shiv Sena too had done a lot for Mumbai, without advertising its achievements. He stressed that the potholes in Mumbai and other inconveniences were because of work being done by state government agencies under the Congress-NCP, such as the MMRDA, and not the municipal corporation which is under the Sena.

When a TV channel repeated the telecast of Bal Thackeray’s Thane speech, it was forced to “beep” some of the slang and abusive stuff that Thackeray habitually peppers his speeches with. Thackeray’s speeches seemed pedestrian - the same old style of picking out his rivals and attacking them one by one, using unparliamentary language for shock effect.

Raj did use elements of this style for which he is accused of imitating his uncle. And yet, his speeches were in sharp contrast as he touched a raw nerve in Pune by asking why the Congress-NCP had failed to address the public transport issue inspite of being in power in the city, state and centre.

In a city full of educational institutes and eight universities, he touched on the other pain-point of commercialisation of education. He threw up the vision of better cities while citing the example of Narendra Modi. In Mumbai, apart from explaining the circumstances in which he left the Shiv Sena, Raj sought to expose Shiv Sena’s wasteful expenditure and maladministration in civic projects.

A few trademark jibes: "Why did the BMC give the contract for supplying milk to school children to a firm in Delhi when you have so many milk cooperatives run by Marathi manoos in Maharashtra?" Raj also detailed the huge inaugural expenses for the much-touted new swimming pool in central Mumbai that the Sena's Uddhav Thackeray is proud of. "Rs 3 crore for decorations alone?" he asked incredulously at the Jamboree Maidan in Worli on Monday.

Across the spectrum, what one got to see was a slanging match between politicians, especially those from the ruling alliance, rather than a substantive analysis of what’s wrong with our cities, what must be done, what can be done and what will be done.

On two separate occasions, Sharad Pawar and the Maharashtra PCC chief Manikrao Thakre had to urge party leaders  to control their tongues and not hurl abuses and allegations, especially at alliance partners. Yet, some of the sharpest attacks were exchanged by Sharad Pawar and Chief Minister Prithviraj Chavan who described the NCP as a party born out of Pawar’s personal ambitions.

Pawar, in turn, retorted that the NCP was a party of self-confident leaders with elective merit, in an obvious dig at Chavan who lost his Karad Lok Sabha seat  to the NCP.

Ajit Pawar and Narayan Rane called each other gangsters and while Rane and the other Congress leaders kept the CWG scam-tainted Suresh Kalmadi in the background, the Pune Congress MP became the inevitable target for the NCP. The one-point call that the NCP made in Pune was an appeal for a majority so that the party could bring speedy development in Pune as it has done in the neighbouring Pimpri-Chinchwad. In Nashik, Raj Thackeray and Chhagan Bhujbal traded charges.

Amidst these attacks and counter-attacks that flew all around during the campaigning period, Raj Thackeray’s city-focused and well-researched speeches, his style of delivery, body language and the response from his supporters stood out. The election results on February 17 will tell what’s working, what’s not.