The arrest of Maharashtra Shiv Sena MP Sanjay Raut is the kind of “masterstroke” one has come to identify the Modi-Shah regime with. It should actually be called a “master strike”, for, at one go, multiple targets were struck in the war that the Centre has unleashed on state governments run by Opposition parties.
An embattled but still unyielding Uddhav Thackeray was surely one of them. By removing Sanjay Raut from his side, the Centre has crippled the former Chief Minister. It's difficult to imagine Uddhav Thackeray as Sena chief or Chief Minister without Sanjay Raut – it is a bit like imagining Narendra Modi without Amit Shah.
It's difficult to imagine Uddhav Thackeray as Shiv Sena chief or Chief Minister without Sanjay Raut – it is a bit like imagining Narendra Modi without Amit Shah.
Raut has been crucial to the image of the Sena ever since he became executive editor of the Sena mouthpiece, the daily newspaper Saamna, in 1991.
Raut played another important role: that of a bridge between Uddhav and Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) chief Sharad Pawar.
Flamboyant and given to extravagant remarks and sher-o-shayri, Sanjay Raut was one of the three faces of the Sena, a total contrast to the reserved, gentlemanly Uddhav and the yuppy-ish Aaditya.
With Raut behind bars, Uddhav will find it difficult to fight the BJP-Eknath Shinde onslaught.
Sanjay Raut's Influence on Saamna
It wasn’t just the personal closeness between Raut and Thackeray. Raut has been crucial to the image of the Sena ever since he became executive editor of the Sena mouthpiece, the daily newspaper Saamna, in 1991. Of course, Sena chief Bal Thackeray was the editor and wrote the inflammatory edits that became Saamna’s trademark. But Raut often conducted three-part interviews with Thackeray that projected him as a statesman holding forth on both state and national politics. After the Sena chief died, Uddhav became the focus of these interviews. Raut's own popular weekly column, "RokhThok", has also been an indicator of the Sena stand.
Saamna has thus been instrumental in taking the Sena viewpoint across Maharashtra. Though it was launched in 1989, more than 20 years after the Sena was formed, it has become an intrinsic part of the party, reaching out to an estimated 7.5 lakh Maharashtrians. It is well-known that the state’s – and especially Mumbai’s – police force read the Sena mouthpiece avidly. Their conduct towards Muslims used to reflect Bal Thackeray’s views.
Interestingly, since the Maha Vikas Aghadi (MVA) government came to power, Muslims have been pleasantly surprised by the changed outlook of the police force – perhaps a reflection of Uddhav Thackeray’s attitude towards them.
All through the MVA crisis, Saamna expectedly projected Uddhav Thackeray’s leadership and relentlessly exposed the motivation of Eknath Shinde-led defectors: not Hindutva, but the desire to escape the Enforcement Directorate (ED). Saamna was also consistently critical of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) even when it was an ally.
Considering that the average Shiv Sainik – and the average policeman – are absorbing these messages every day, the paper must seem an insurmountable obstacle to the BJP and its chosen Sena defectors. The only way to counter its influence had to be to remove its executive editor from the job. Uddhav's Sena still has a voice, but will it be half as forceful as it used to?
A Link Between Uddhav and Pawar
Raut played another important role: that of a bridge between Uddhav and Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) chief Sharad Pawar. Long known for his closeness to Pawar, whom his mentor Bal Thackeray consistently criticised, Raut was one of the architects of the unlikely Sena-NCP-Congress coalition that went on to form the government after the 2019 assembly election gave a verdict in favour of the BJP-Sena alliance.
During the MVA’s two-and-a-half-year-long tenure, it was well-known that Pawar was the guiding force of the government. After the BJP succeeded in toppling the MVA government, Pawar, the state's seniormost and most influential politician, remained a vocal Uddhav supporter.
It became essential then for the BJP to remove the link between him and the first-time Chief Minister.
Raut's Personality Was a Threat, Too
Finally, Raut’s personality itself was a target that had to be destroyed. And it wasn’t just his abusive attacks on Eknath Shinde-led defectors – flamboyant and given to extravagant remarks and sher-o-shayri, Sanjay Raut was one of the three faces of the Sena, a total contrast to the reserved, gentlemanly Uddhav and the yuppy-ish Aaditya.
Interestingly, in Bal Thackeray’s time, the Sena had a phalanx of leaders: Manohar Joshi, Wamanrao Mahadik, Pramod Navalkar, Madhukar Sarpotdar, Sudhir Joshi, Chhagan Bhujbal. Today, of that lot, only Subhash Desai remains. After the rest faded away due to death or old age, nobody of their standing replaced them. Consequently, after Uddhav Thackeray, there are just two faces of the Sena: Aaditya Thackeray and Sanjay Raut.
It is interesting to note that soon after the MVA government was formed, it was Sanjay Raut who was invited by the socio-religious Muslim organisation Jamaat-e-Islami for a public meeting on the controversial Citizenship (Amendment) Act and the National Register of Citizens (CAA-NRC).
With Raut behind bars, Uddhav will find it difficult to fight the BJP-Eknath Shinde onslaught. The Eknath Shinde faction may feel that with Raut out of the way, Bal Thackeray’s son may come around to joining them and their oldest ally, the BJP. Uddhav’s real test lies ahead as he fights alone.
(Jyoti Punwani is a Mumbai-based journalist. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)