WHILE his party is not contesting the Lok Sabha elections, it's hard to tell from the number of rallies Maharashtra Navnirman Sena (MNS) chief Raj Thackeray has been holding. Or the tool the leader known for his oratory is now deploying - videos and "fact checks" to "expose PM Narendra Modi's claims".
That his followers are charmed is evident from the past two rallies held in Mumbai, where they turned up wearing black T-shirts with his now trademark call before putting on any such video - "Ae lav re toh video (hey play the video)!!!".
Thackeray usually follows this up by instructing the crowd, "Neet bagha (watch properly)". The projector then goes on to show anything from a video of Modi's changing stance on NCP chief Sharad Pawar to him saying purportedly a businessman is more courageous than a soldier.
Apart from the T-shirts, memes have gone viral now with a scared-looking Modi shown asking, 'Lavla ka re video (Have they played the video)?'
"Normally so much is said that people tend to forgot what was promised in the past. Hence we are going back to things Modi had said, the false claims made, and expose this using irrefutable proof like videos or news articles… Presenting facts in audio-visual format has a stronger impact," said MNS leader Sandeep Deshpande.
The BJP has questioned Thackeray's motive, saying he seems to be trying to benefit the Congress-NCP alliance. They have demanded that the expense of these rallies be added to the accounts of Congress-NCP candidates.
The MNS chief claims he is only rallying his numbers for the Assembly polls later this year.
At the Gudi Padwa rally at Shivaji Park in Mumbai on April 6, the MNS played a video of Modi telling people to dedicate their votes to the soldiers who carried out the Balakot airstrikes. Thackeray then asked: "Do you know what he actually feels about them? Aata bagha (Here see)." In the footage that Thackeray played next, Modi says at an event, in February 2014, that a "vyaapari (businessman)" has the ability to be more courageous than a soldier. Addressing the Confederation of All India Traders' Association in Delhi, Modi was implying a trader needs to be able to take risks to be successful.
Maharashtra BJP spokesperson Madhav Bhandari said, "The PM does not need a certificate from the MNS on what we feel about soldiers. The people of the country and soldiers are aware."
At a Bhandup rally on April 24, Thackeray highlighted the state of a village adopted by Modi, showing a video clip from BBC News.
Deshpande said a team of around 20-22 MNS activists - "their identity is secret" - has been collecting video footage of speeches mainly made by Modi, as well as article links and other videos that can be used to check facts. He said the team passes along the videos they feel can be used to him and other senior members, who then filter them and pass them on to Thackeray.
"In several cases, he (Thackeray) himself remembers that the PM had said a particular thing around a particular time. The social media team then looks for it," another leader said.
At Bhandup, Thackeray criticised the BJP's IT cell as "laawaris sena", went on to show a picture of a Facebook page called Modi for New India, and called to the stage a family whose photo had been displayed there as a success story of the PM's anti-poverty measures. As the crowd cheered him on, the MNS chief said, "The family photograph had been uploaded by them on Facebook. The BJP took that photo, pasted Modi's photo and is spreading lies without the knowledge of the family."
Asked how the MNS team tracked down the family, Deshpande laughed, "Unfortunately for the BJP, the man turned out to be an MNS functionary."
Santosh Saraskar, a Bhandup resident, said, "I have been following Raj Thackeray since the day he formed his party in 2006. If he says we should vote for the NCP-Congress, I will vote for them. I believe what he says as he gives the exact picture of what is happening…."
However, as a senior citizen at the Bhandup rally pointed out, Thackeray might himself fail a test based purely on things said in the past. "He has left his followers confused. In 2014, he asked them to vote for Modi, today he is against Modi."
Meanwhile, the MNS is convinced that given the growing crowds at Thackeray's rallies - 10 so far - the BJP is rattled. The Congress believes the same. Said party spokesperson Sachin Sawant, "The MNS is acting as a catalyst helping us spread the truth."