The tragic death of Bollywood actor Sushant Singh Rajput has given the Bharatiya Janata Party an opportunity it was looking for — to sully brand Aaditya Thackeray.
The BJP is applying the same model on the young Shiv Sena leader that it did for Congress leader Rahul Gandhi — show him as an entitled dynast who is more interested in partying than in the political affairs. It’s a different matter that Rahul Gandhi hardly needed any outside help to damage his image.
In Aaditya Thackeray, the BJP knows a young, amiable face is emerging in Maharashtra’s politics, someone who can be a lethal combination of Shiv Sena’s core hardline politics and his own moderate image. This ‘brand’ needs to be dented promptly and effectively.
And so, the act of pointing out that Maharashtra’s tourism and environment minister was attending a party allegedly thrown a night before Rajput’s death, a claim that Aaditya has lashed out at.
While most of the focus on the politicisation of the death of the young and talented Sushant Singh Rajput has been from the point of view of the upcoming Bihar assembly election, the bigger, and untold, story is what it can do to Aaditya Thackeray, even before his political career really takes off.
Aaditya Thackeray began his political career on a clean slate as far as his personal image is concerned, much like everyone else. The Thackeray surname is both an asset and a liability, depending on which side of the spectrum you look at it from.
For the more conservative, hardliner, Shiv Sena is an important medium, having built itself on first a regional (Marathi) chauvinism platform, and then on a hardcore Hindutva one. For the more progressive and inclusive voter, this is a big minus.
The young Thackeray, however, has been carefully trying to cultivate a moderate image, to emerge as this blend of what his party and family have stood for and what he wants to represent. His protest against the Aarey tree felling and standing with the ‘liberals’ of Mumbai city who wanted to protect the environment was very much a part of this plan. This made him popular and acceptable among the non-traditional Shiv Sena base.
Aaditya Thackeray played every bit the politician ahead of the 2019 Lok Sabha election — addressing rallies and touring Maharashtra extensively, something he replicated in the run-up to the last year’s assembly election as well.
Aaditya has spoken the language of the young, underscoring issues like opening up Mumbai’s nightlife, reforming higher education, and demanding physical space for artists.
Shiv Sena’s own electoral fortunes haven’t been the brightest in recent years, with the BJP smartly overtaking it in Maharashtra. It may have come to power this time, but not without a loosely tied, uneasy alliance with the Congress and the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP). Being the son of Chief Minister (Uddhav Thackeray) and a minister at such a young age, this is Aaditya’s chance to build his brand and bring much-needed freshness to the Shiv Sena. Jagan Mohan Reddy of Andhra Pradesh is proof of how the Gen-Next of politics can make a massive difference and expand base if they play their cards right.
For the BJP, therefore, this makes it crucial to deflate Aaditya Thackeray’s brand even before it can take off. And Sushant Singh Rajput’s death by alleged suicide brings just that opportunity.
BJP’s plan is in motion
Former Shiv Sainik and now a senior BJP leader Narayan Rane openly accused the Maharashtra government of trying to “save someone” in the probe, while his son Nilesh has pointed fingers at Aaditya Thackeray.
Bihar BJP spokesperson Nikhil Anand has questioned Aaditya Thackeray’s “silence”, asking whether he would side with justice for Sushant or the ‘conspirators’.
And then there are whisper campaigns that can cause as much harm to a politician’s image as public accusations.
The result? Aaditya was forced to respond to the insinuations.
“Those who are pricked by the success and popularity of the Maharashtra government have started dirty politics over the death of Sushant Singh Rajput. Unnecessary mud slinging on me and the Thackeray family. This is nothing but dirty politics arisen out of frustration,” Aaditya Thackeray said in the statement.
Thackeray junior also said having friends in the Hindi film industry was no crime. The fact that the young politician had to issue a statement is a sign that the BJP has already succeeded in putting him in the dock and raising questions about him.
Of course it isn’t a crime or even remotely questionable to have friends in the glamour world. But by making Aaditya Thackeray admit to it, his rivals have sent out the message that he is less rooted among the grassroots and more enshrined in the glitzy world.
The familiar model
For the BJP, young dynasts are an easy but key target. Easy, because it doesn’t take much to portray them as entitled, anglicised and airy-fairy, especially when the BJP itself has self-made and hardworking leaders such as Narendra Modi and Amit Shah.
It is key, because these are young, bright politicians who show potential, and if they turn out to be diligent and not reluctant to get their hands grimy, they could even pose a serious challenge to what has seemed like the rise and rise of the Modi-Shah duo.
Rahul Gandhi is a classic example. His vacations, long absences, and his lineage have all been systematically and consistently targeted by the BJP’s top leadership, drilling into the voters’ mind how unfit he is to be a people’s politician. Sure, the Congress leader has more than done his bit to enable this. But no other politician’s brand has been damaged the way Rahul Gandhi’s has been by the BJP under Modi. ‘Naamdar‘ (the entitled) is what Modi calls him.
Modi and Shah’s BJP knows the significance of brands. And nothing gives the party more political satisfaction and comfort than shredding the brand of its rivals to pieces.
The new kid on the block is Aaditya Thackeray, and he is also the BJP’s new target. The politics around Sushant Singh Rajput’s death is a grim reminder of how India’s murky, convoluted and stinky political world spares no one and nothing — not even a tragic end of a promising life — from being dragged into it.
For the Thackeray scion, this has hit as the proverbial bolt from the blue. What will determine Aaditya’s future trajectory is whether he plays it smart enough to emerge out of this image trap that has been laid out for him, or goes the way of another famous dynast who fell deep into it, and gets more embroiled in it with each passing election.
Views are personal.