Mumbai: The Maharashtra Navnirman Sena (MNS) is not contesting the ongoing Lok Sabha elections, but its leader Raj Thackeray has still managed to keep his name in the season’s political narrative by donning the avatar of an ‘investigative politician’.
Thackeray has so far addressed at least seven rallies across Maharashtra, highlighting issues on which the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led government has “failed the people”, backing up his claims with facts, figures, archived newspaper clippings, audio clips, videos and a bit of basic old-fashioned field research.
Members of the opposition have lauded him, while keeping an arm’s distance by insisting that he is not campaigning for the Congress-Nationalist Congress Party (NCP). The ruling BJP and Shiv Sena leaders, meanwhile, have been compelled to take notice of Thackeray, attacking him on his wavering stance and demanding that the expenditure on his rallies be counted as part of the Congress-NCP’s poll expenses.
Who’s doing this research?
Thackeray has so far addressed rallies in Nanded, Solapur, Kolhapur, Satara, Pune, Raigad and Mumbai. He is scheduled to address one more rally in Mumbai, another in Panvel, and a third in Nashik.
An MNS functionary said three party leaders — Anil Shidore, Sandeep Deshpande and Thackeray’s son Amit — are spearheading the research for his speeches.
“We have a team of about 50 MNS karyakartas sitting in Mumbai. They keep scouting the internet for old speeches by the PM and other BJP leaders, checking facts and finding news reports and videos online that can be useful during Raj saheb’s speeches,” the MNS functionary said. “Now people have also started sending us information. We check that too.”
Deshpande said: “Raj saheb decided he wanted to have rallies in this format nearly six months ago, irrespective of whether we contest elections. We started a bulk of our work before last Diwali. For example, the field work at Harisal village was done in October.”
The story of Harisal village
The Harisal story has been one of Thackeray’s favourites throughout his rallies.
Harisal is a village in the Amravati district of Maharashtra, which the government has projected as the country’s first digital village. Thackeray has attempted to pull apart this claim with a video, which shows that the village still struggles with power supply and internet connectivity.
The BJP countered Thackeray’s claim by releasing a video on its Twitter handle to show how Harisal has a digital lab with students learning how to use computers and phones, and that the village has internet connectivity. Maharashtra CM Devendra Fadnavis also slammed Thackeray, saying the MNS chief, sitting in Mumbai’s Dadar, has no idea what Harisal was like four years ago and how much it has progressed.
Modi’s adopted village
Another issue that Thackeray has highlighted is the condition of Nagepur, a village adopted by Prime Minister Narendra Modi in Uttar Pradesh under the Saansad Adarsh Gram Yojana.
“The other day I told you about Harisal. Digital village. The residents don’t even know what’s going on there. PM said every MP should adopt one village and improve it. Let’s see Modi’s adopted village,” Thackeray said at a rally in Raigad last week.
This was followed by a documentary where villagers of Nagepur complain about shoddy drainage and polluted well water.
An MNS leader said the documentary was made by a television news channel and was available in the public domain.
BJP leaders have criticised Thackeray for being “Baramati’s parrot” — a reference to NCP chief Sharad Pawar’s home town. In response, Thackeray has in his speeches highlighted Modi’s change of tack when it comes to Pawar.
He plays two separate videos, one of Modi criticising Pawar before the 2014 polls, and the other of the PM heaping praises on the same leader after 2014.
At Monday’s Mumbai rally, Thackeray spoke about how he had foreseen that PM Modi will create a “war-like situation” closer to the elections, and that the government let the Pulwama attack happen despite having information about it.
“Ahe ka re ti notice? Dakhav (Do you have the notice? Show it),” Thackeray said, pointing at the person operating the audio-visuals. A scanned copy of a letter immediately popped on the screen.
This was followed by a tile of photographs of Modi on every single day for a week after the Pulwama attacks on 14 February, laughing and attending inaugurations.
Reaction to his rallies
Some political watchers say Thackeray is performing the role of an opposition better than the opposition, while others say his activities are white noise and will have no impact on the elections.
Either way, the leader, whose 13-year-old party is now near decimation, has managed to keep himself relevant yet again, without fielding a single candidate.
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