Six months before Maharashtra Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis brokered a deal between Raj Thackeray and filmmaker Karan Johar at his residence, the Maharashtra Navnirman Sena chief had, at a public meeting, ordered his followers to burn new auto rickshaws.

The reason was that licenses for these new vehicles had been issued to non-Marathi-speaking residents of Mumbai, according to Thackeray. No one who could have taken action – the police, the home minister or the chief minister – bothered to ensure that an offence was registered against Thackeray for this criminal utterance.

The next night, March 10, a new auto-rickshaw was indeed set on fire by five persons shouting Maharashtra Navnirman Sena slogans. Had the police wanted to, they could have traced these arsonists. But they had already made up their mind about who they were. The Amboli police in suburban Mumbai, under whose jurisdiction this act of arson was committed, told the press that it would check if the incident was a deliberate act of mischief by those against the Maharashtra Navnirman Sena.

By inviting this politician home earlier this fortnight to placate him over the issue of Pakistani artistes being used in Johar’s new release Ae Dil Hai Mushkil, the first-time chief minister of Maharashtra was only following in the footsteps of his more experienced Congress predecessors.

Larger than life?

The politics of the Maharashtra Navnirman Sena has been limited to anti-outsider violence. Its chief makes no bones about his contempt for the law, the judiciary and for democracy, and dares the police to arrest him. Raj Thackeray has been allowed to become larger than life thanks to three forces – the ruling parties in Maharashtra, the police, and the media.

Thackeray broke away from the Shiv Sena in 2006. In 2008, he directed attacks on North Indians in Mumbai and Maharashtra. He blamed them for taking away jobs of locals, for their alleged refusal to respect Marathi culture, and for what he referred to as their “dadagiri”. Two people were killed in these attacks. One of them was a Marathi-speaking young man in Nashik. Maharashtra Navnirman Sena activists also allegedly chopped off the hands of a Bihari vendor in Pune. Almost 50,000 North Indians fled Pune and Nashik, resulting in losses to industry estimated at more than Rs 700 crores. Information Technology major Infosys diverted 3,000 posts from Pune to Chennai.

Yet, Vilasrao Deshmukh, the Congress chief minister at the time, and Home Minister RR Patil did nothing. The Lok Sabha and Assembly elections were due in 2009. They wanted Raj Thackeray’s party to split the Marathi vote, which had traditionally gone to their political rival, Bal Thackeray’s Shiv Sena.

Their strategy paid off. In the 2009 Lok Sabha elections, the Maharashtra Navnirman Sena ate into the Shiv Sena’s votebank, restricting the number of seats won by the Shiv Sena-Bharatiya Janata Party alliance. Raj Thackeray’s party did not win any seat, but it helped boost the national tally of the Congress.

A similar strategy was adopted in the 2009 Assembly elections, where the Maharashtra Navnirman Sena won 13 seats, damaged the Sena-BJP alliance in more than 50 constituencies, and helped the Congress-Nationalist Congress Party combine return to power.

This demagogue received similar treatment from Prithviraj Chavan, who took over as Maharashtra chief minister in November 2010.

Two months after Thackeray’s followers vandalised a number of toll booths across the state in 2012 claiming that travel should be free, Chavan granted the Maharashtra Navnirman Sena chief an audience on the toll tax issue. Along with Thackeray went Shishir Shinde, the MLA leading some of those attacks.

But Chavan probably gave Thackeray the biggest boost of his political career in August 2012 when he transferred Mumbai Police Commissioner Arup Patnaik two days after the Maharashtra Navnirman Sena chief called for his ouster at a public rally for which Patnaik had denied permission. The rally was ostensibly to show support for Mumbai’s policemen, who had been attacked at a gathering of Muslims at Mumbai’s Azad Maidan but were restrained by Patnaik from retaliating. The police firing was restricted to the violent section of the gathering. Two protestors were killed. But a major riot was prevented.

The police force was seething at having been ordered to hold their fire after being attacked. At Raj Thackeray’s rally, people shouted slogans hailing the Maharashtra Navnirman Sena chief as the saviour of the police. But in his speech, Thackeray did not take up cudgels for the police as such. Instead, he expressed anger that Marathi policemen and women had been attacked by “Bangladeshi Muslims who flock here from UP, Bihar and Jharkhand”.

This was not the first time that the state's professional force was being categorised on sectarian lines in Mumbai.

History repeats itself

Raj Thackeray’s uncle and mentor Bal Thackeray had often publicly asked Mumbai’s policemen not to act against “their own men”, a reference to Shiv Sainiks, and instead, turn their guns on those he deemed to be “traitors”, a reference to Muslims. The police had largely obeyed him, and got away with doing so. Now, his nephew was making an even narrower classification of Mumbai’s police force.

Like his uncle, Raj Thackeray not only got away with this speech, which would surely have attracted Section 153 A of the Indian Penal Code (promoting enmity on grounds of religion, place of residence, language, etc), but his demand that the Police Commissioner be transferred was also granted immediately. Ironically, the tough and incorruptible Patnaik was said to be a special appointee of the equally tough and incorruptible Prithviraj Chavan. Obviously, politics mattered more than principle.

But it is not just the notoriously cynical Congress that has encouraged Thackeray. On the eve of the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, BJP heavyweight Nitin Gadkari appealed to Thackeray not to contest the polls and thereby split the Marathi vote.

Gadkari, like Fadnavis, is a proud member of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh that has always favoured a nationalist Hindu identity rather than regional chauvinist identities. But neither his organisation’s ideology, nor the anger of the BJP’s electoral ally, Shiv Sena chief Uddhav Thackeray, deterred Gadkari from declaring: “We want Raj as our partner.”

That is how important Raj Thackeray has been in Maharashtra politics.

Upcoming BMC elections

But today, both the Maharashtra Navnirman Sena and its chief are has-beens. The party was rejected in both the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, where all its candidates lost their deposits, and in the Assembly elections that followed, in which only one of its candidates won. That sole MLA has now floated his own party. Maharashtra Navnirman Sena corporators have been defecting so rapidly that the party chief recently threatened them not to force him “to revert to my original aggressive stance”.

But, elections to the country’s richest municipal body – the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation – are just three months away. Unlike in Maharashtra, the Shiv Sena rules the corporation and the BJP is the subordinate partner. BJP-Sena relations have been rocky ever since they tied up after the 2014 Assembly polls. If an alternative to the Sena can be built, even if that requires the BJP to blow up a hollow demagogue, so be it. In this, the media will be of help.

At the height of his popularity in 2010, Thackeray thanked the media for having “conveyed to people across the state what we were saying, thereby motivating people to trust us”. After the attacks on North Indians, the Maharashtra Times had given him almost a full page to spell out his stand. Similarly, his anti-Patnaik rally was televised live by all news channels except NDTV and CNN-IBN (now CNN-News18). The media’s fascination with this rabble rouser, who is always willing to be used by one party or another, has not dimmed even though the people’s has.