In the past, I thought he was a bit loony. “Mumbai for Maharashtrians” was, and still is, a dumb idea. Mumbai wouldn’t be Mumbai if it weren’t cosmopolitan. Taking that characteristic away from Mumbai would leave it no less competent but far less attractive. Also, it is not wrong to preach pride in one’s identity, as most Maharashtrian politicians have always done; it is wrong to deny someone an opportunity based on language and state barriers.
But Raj Thackeray seems to be giving that up. He still makes demands for Marathi in call waiting services and such (which ensured, if nothing else, that everyone here now knows how to say, “Your call is on hold,” in Marathi) and on shop boards, but these demands tend to be largely legitimate. So while his methods of threatening and perpetrating violence have not changed, the issues he chooses to take a stand on nowadays, are real. Autorickshaw-blackmail, mismanagement of school transport systems, and uneducated netahood are some of the problems he has tried to solve, in the following manner:
1.) MNS party workers beat up rickshaw drivers.
2.) MNS party workers assaulted a school principal.
These events are highly condemnable, and an insult to the law as well as to human dignity. But he attempted to tackle the third problem admirably: he announced that anyone wishing to contest BMC elections on an MNS ticket would have to write an exam that would test their knowledge about the BMC and local self-government. Not many politicians have been brave enough to do that.
There are other things about Raj that inspire hope. The MNS has no apparent bias towards any religion, caste or class. How many parties in India can boast of that? You could say that the MNS flag (blue, white, saffron, green) tries too hard, but it makes the point.
He is an excellent orator. There is a candour in his speeches that guarantees them a place in the mobile phones of almost all young Marathi people, not only in Mumbai but in other Maharashtrian cities as well. Even if I may not appreciate what he says sometimes, I cannot help but marvel at the way he says it.
He doesn’t have much at stake now in terms of votes, so he can afford to take a non-populist and practical stand on the Belgaum issue. Maharashtra and Karnataka are involved in a dispute over which state the half-Marathi city of Belgaum (which is in Karnataka) belongs to. Raj Thackeray stated that Maharashtra had enough problems of its own and couldn’t afford a border dispute. That might not be tactful, but we all know how troublesome border disputes can be.
Most importantly, he is an example of charismatic leadership. If we are to make politics truly popular, charismatic leaders are our biggest hope. Charisma can be dangerous when paired with a divisive ideology, but if the news is anything to go by, it appears as if Raj used the Marathi/North Indian issue solely to rise to prominence quickly. We can hope that’s true and that potential like Raj’s is not lost forever in undemocratic practices.