The mass media and social media in Mumbai and rest of Maharashtra witnessed a sensation this week with Rajya Sabha member Sanjay Raut coming out on social media with a photo allegedly showing Maharashtra BJP chief Chandrashekhar Bawankule sitting at a casino overseas. The Uddhav Thackeray group of the Shiv Sena and ruling BJP got involved in a bitter war of words in the media over this issue. This is not the first time that political parties have released photos or videos of their opponents in the media that embarrasses them. This marks a series of such incidents where pictures or videos of leaders shot or recorded while they are in their personal space have been released with some political target in mind. This seems to be a new trend in Maharashtra's politics and it’s worth asking which way this will go.
In the West, we have seen contestants in Presidential or parliamentary elections being targeted by secret detectives who sometimes leak their telephone conversations or videos damage their electoral prospects. This trend came to India many years ago when certain leaders were trapped in television sting operations. One of the BJP's past national presidents, Bangaru Laxman, was shot on camera in a sting operation while accepting a large sum of cash and that caused major embarrassment to the party. Just a couple of weeks ago in Madhya Pradesh, a video recording of a minister's son seen allegedly talking about accepting hundreds of crores of kickbacks rocked the state. A similar video came out about a person in Congress-ruled Chhattisgarh claiming that he was the owner of a mobile app and had paid huge sums to the chief minister of the state. National politics seems to have been rocked with leaked videos and photos of netas involved in alleged immoral acts.
Against this backdrop on Monday Shiv Sena Uddhav Thackeray group leader and spokesperson Sanjay Raut dropped the Bawankule bombshell — a photograph which he says shows Bawankule gambling at a casino in Macau. The post sent shockwaves in media and political circles. The BJP came out with a multi-pronged strategy to defend Bawankule, on one hand claiming that it was a morphed picture and on the other releasing some pictures of Raut's leader Aditya Thackeray consuming what they alleged was alcohol with a movie personality. Supporters from both sides of the political divide went berserk on social media and a war raged between them. It almost seemed like this became the main political issue this week in the state.
What shocked the BJP this time around is that they had been subjected to the tactic that they themselves have been using to target their opponents. In state after state, the BJP has been using the tactic of releasing videos or pictures of their opponents just ahead of elections to gain political ground. BJP has been proactive in the use of media and social media in all their political campaigns, but the change one sees in a state like Maharashtra is that the Opposition parties have now started using the same strategies as the BJP. Some weeks ago a sensational video of a former Mumbai MP was released to a Marathi news channel which created a huge storm in the state's political sphere.
As elections approach several questions are being raised about this new strategy being used by the political parties. Firstly, many are asking who is shooting these videos and handing them over to the political adversaries of the leaders who are targeted in the videos. This is in question particularly because of memories of old times when rising star Sanjay Joshi was targeted in Gujarat some decades ago with a sting operation that shot his personal videos, and it was later alleged that it was the work of some party insiders. In the latest case related to Bawankule, many observers are asking the question about who knew the state party chief's tour itinerary and how could he be targeted like this with a hidden camera shoot? Some claim it is being perhaps done by some party insiders.
As the controversy about this video raged on social media, some BJP loyalists posted a video of the state Congress president's tour to a Northeastern state in which he was seen partying! This was followed by questions about whether this too was an inside job by some party members from the rival camp.
Secondly, the big question being raised is whether all these things are being done by the politicians in connivance with each other to divert the attention of the media and the public from the two glaring crises in Maharashtra — drought, and the Maratha reservation agitation. The situation is becoming serious with water shortage and drought-like conditions in over 44 tehsils of the state. Politicians don't seem to be looking at it seriously or taking any effective measures to tackle it yet. On the other hand, the social tension caused by the agitation over the Maratha reservation is also a serious issue. The OBC community is now seen gathering around their leaders in various parts of the state to ensure that they too put pressure on the government so that no reservation is taken away from their quota.
While the state administration and the government face many challenges over so many serious issues that need urgent attention and action, high-profile leaders and elected representatives of the people are seen indulging in attacking their opponents over trivial issues like personal videos shot at holiday destinations or in their personal space. It's time to ask whether such wars of optics on social media will provide any returns to those involved in it or to the public in the long run.
Rohit Chandavarkar is a senior journalist who has worked for 31 years with various leading newspaper brands and television channels in Mumbai and Pune