Amongst the cacophony in Maharashtra election is the shriller pitch of Maharashtra Navnirman Sena chief Raj Thackeray seeking votes to sit in the opposition benches. This is probably the first time in India that the head of a political party is campaigning to become the opposition.
Confused? Well, so is Raj Thackeray. In the years he has spent in politics, confusion has been his constant companion. Today, he is just a caricature of his former self. The man who once showed promise can’t fill the huge vacuum in the opposition space that has no strong anti-government voice.
The big question is whether Raj Thackeray can become the voice of dissent. If he ran a campaign mocking and targeting Prime Minister Narendra Modi in the run-up to the 2019 Lok Sabha election, the MNS chief started a campaign against EVMs after the results. Before long, he turned the heat, meeting Congress’ Sonia Gandhi and Trinamool Congress’ Mamata Banerjee in an effort to build an anti-EVM consensus. But all he got in return from anti-BJP parties was indifference.
The only response he received came from an unexpected quarter – the Enforcement Directorate. The agency summoned him for questioning in the IL&FS money laundering case. A gruelling eight-hour session at the ED office in Mumbai took place on 22 August, and Thackeray went into a silent mode for the next fortnight.
Now, his MNS is contesting 104 of the 288 assembly seats in an election where EVMs will be used.
Searching for a straw
Although Raj Thackeray has put both the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the Shiv Sena on the mat by taking up the issue of cutting trees in Aarey, his track record of being a “laidback politician” has failed to elicit a proper response from the people of Maharashtra. He is mouthing all that they want to hear but still, his campaign doesn’t have that punch.
Having built his politics by targeting migrants from Bihar and Uttar Pradesh during the first few years of forming the MNS, Raj Thackeray’s speeches have always had an anti-North Indian stance. But it finds no place in his campaign today.
When reporters questioned him on his much-touted ‘blueprint’ for Maharashtra’s development, Thackeray’s reply was: “I should have made a blue film, at least then people would have looked at it.”
Clearly, Thackeray seems to be frustrated with his stunted political journey and is desperately searching for a straw to grasp at.
A lost promise
But Thackeray’s current position is perplexing. His MNS achieved in three years the same electoral success that took the Shiv Sena 20 years. In 2009, when the MNS contested its first assembly election, Raj Thackeray rode on the wave of peoples’ hope, faith and trust, winning 13 seats for his party.
Three years later, he ratified people’s hope and trust in him, winning 27 seats in the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation polls. However, his decline has been as sharp as the rise.
In 2014 came the ‘Modi wave’ and Raj Thackeray backed the BJP leader as the PM candidate. He had done this before. In 2011, the MNS chief had toured Gujarat to see the ‘development model’ and had returned with stars in his eyes and praise for Modi on his lips. Over the years, though, the stars lost their shine and the lips turned bitter, as people saw Raj Thackeray emerge as Modi’s biggest critic.
Thackeray called for a “Modi-Shah free India”. The U-turn from being Modi’s starry-eyed fanboy to a bitter critic and campaigning for Congress and Nationalist Congress Party candidates only confused his supporters. Thackeray’s charged campaign created headlines and shareable WhatsApp videos. His campaign line “Ae, lao re toh video (play the video)” became extremely popular and exposed the failures of the Modi government.
But it neither created a wave nor transferred his vote-bank to the Congress and the NCP.
Now he is back to being a party sans friends or coalitions. While the Congress is not keen on having him as an alliance partner owing to his anti-north Indian stand, other parties too have kept their distance from him.
And so, Maharashtra’s once-promising leader, having possibly realised his limits, is now actively seeking to sit in the opposition.
Wins hearts, not votes
Much of what Raj Thackeray does is similar to what his late uncle Bal Thackeray did. His oratory skills, also modelled on his uncle, ensure his rallies do not have empty spaces, and just like his uncle, he enjoys a special place in the hearts of Marathi manoos.
The only thing that separates the two is of great significance. While Bal Thackeray was able to convert the support of Marathi manoos into votes, Raj Thackeray has been more of a failure in this regard.
He joined politics long before his cousin, Shiv Sena chief Uddhav Thackeray, and was believed to be the natural successor of his uncle. But it was Uddhav who got the command of the Shiv Sena. Sidelined to a point of frustration, Raj Thackeray quit the party to begin a new journey in March 2006.
Directional change, little changed
Since the inception of the party, the MNS’ Steam Engine (election symbol) moved in the left direction. But the party changed the engine’s direction in 2012 after people pointed out that the symbol suggested a “backward” stance. Following the twin rout in 2014 – losing all 11 seats in Lok Sabha and winning only one out of 220 seats in the state assembly, the Steam Engine was given a new direction. There was, however, no change in the direction of the MNS’ fortune. And so, in 2017, he wrote to the Election Commission to change the direction of the Steam Engine back to the original. His wish was granted. But for the MNS, nothing seems to have come back on the tracks.
Given his history of long periods of hibernation between elections, inconsistent policies, lack of party programmes to keep the cadre motivated, desertions by close aides, Raj Thackeray faces the daunting task of getting the mandate to even sit in the opposition. He may only be a “Raja” – as he is popularly known in his family circles – without any “Rajya” (kingdom) to rule.
The author is a political commentator. He is a columnist with various Marathi newspapers. Views are personal.