Mumbai: In the 2007 Mumbai civic body polls, there were two Thackerays looking to make a mark.
One was Shiv Sena’s Uddhav Thackeray, polite and shy unlike his father, the belligerent Bal Thackeray. Uddhav was leading his party into the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) elections for the first time as executive president under the critical gaze of political observers who wondered whether he would ever be able to live up to his father’s legacy.
The other was Raj Thackeray, said to be the spitting image of his uncle and Sena founder Bal Thackeray, who had walked out of the Shiv Sena just a year before, smarting over Uddhav’s elevation, and formed his own party, the Maharashtra Navnirman Sena (MNS).
Fifteen years on, Uddhav has more than silenced his critics with his ascent as Maharashtra chief minister, while his cousin’s MNS has been reduced to having just one seat each in the BMC and state assembly. For Raj Thackeray and his MNS, which has been in a slump since 2014, the BMC election coming up this year is a quest for survival.
Hoping to bounce back, MNS leaders have started door-to-door campaigns in some of Mumbai’s Marathi strongholds — especially Dadar, Mahim and Prabhadevi — under the campaign ‘Mat magayla nahi, mat vicharayla jatoy (We are not soliciting votes, we are asking your opinion)’.
The party is pushing for the title of ‘Marathi Hruday Samrat’ to be associated with Raj Thackeray, and is projecting his son Amit, 29, more prominently to connect with younger voters.
With other major cities and towns in Maharashtra also headed for civic polls this year, Raj Thackeray has started field visits to interact with karyakartas (party workers), hoping to plug administrative holes in the party.
“In many ways, this is a do or die election for us. The enthusiasm within our cadre has dwindled. But we are slowly drumming up support with our door-to-door campaigns in our mainstay areas,” a senior MNS functionary who did not wish to be named told ThePrint.
Of the 227 seats in the BMC, the Shiv Sena has 97, the BJP 83, Congress 29, and NCP 8, while the Samajwadi Party has six, the All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen two, and the MNS one. Although no official dates have been announced, the civic polls are expected to take place in April this year.
Focus on former strongholds
Sandeep Deshpande, former corporator from Dadar and senior MNS functionary, told ThePrint that they are trying to make up for time lost due to the Covid-19 pandemic.
“It has been a month now that we have started reconnecting with people door-to-door, saying that we are not here to ask for your votes, but to understand your issues. In two years, because of the pandemic, there was a gap in personal touch, which we hope to fill through this campaign,” he said.
Deshpande added that, so far, door-to-door outreach has kicked off in areas such as Dadar, Mahim, Prabhadevi, Worli, Vikhroli and Bhandup. These are areas where the MNS was able to attract a significant share of votes in the past.
Santosh Dhuri, another former MNS corporator, told ThePrint that they have been studying voting patterns. “We analysed the voting patterns and realised that in the areas of Dadar, Mahim, Prabhadevi, every party has been largely getting a fixed share of votes in BMC elections in the past. Even when we lost these seats here last election, our voteshare did not drop by a very large margin. So, with some effort, we see scope in regaining the lost votes in these areas.”
During their door-to-door campaign, MNS workers ask local residents what issues they face, whether they have raised them with their public representative, and what the party can do to help.
“We have been going to wadis (old clusters of houses), buildings and chawls, and people are angry with their current public representatives. We have been getting a very good response,” said Dhuri.
Before 2009, these areas were traditionally dominated by the Shiv Sena. The MNS, however, made strong inroads in the 2009 assembly and 2012 BMC elections. The Shiv Sena, however, once again wrested its bastion from the MNS in the 2014 assembly and the 2017 civic polls.
The MNS’ traditional title for its president, ‘Marathi Hruday Samrat’, has also been strongly brought back into focus. A party worker in Ghatkopar had earlier this month called Raj Thackeray ‘Hindu Hruday Samrat’, a title associated with Bal Thackeray. Soon after, the MNS issued a statement insisting that the only title that should be associated with the party’s president is ‘Marathi Hruday Samrat’.
“While ‘Marathi Asmita (pride)’ has always been our prime focus, we are also concentrating on exposing the wrongdoings of the Shiv Sena-led BMC, flagging contracts awarded during Covid-19 without tendering, and so on,” said Deshpande.
Raj Thackeray tours, Amit Thackeray push
With many other civic bodies besides Mumbai, such as Pune, Nashik, Nagpur, Thane and Pimpri-Chinchwad, headed to polls this year, bit by bit, the MNS leadership has started interacting with party karyakartas and rebuilding administrative units, party leaders said.
Some in the party feel this should have started earlier. “The party leadership should have ideally done this in the last two years when we had some downtime. A lot of work still needs to be done on strengthening the party organisation on the ground, but at least this is a start,” said an MNS leader who did not wish to be named.
Among other steps, the MNS has prominently projected Raj Thackeray’s son Amit Thackeray, who has been inaugurating new offices of the party in Mumbai and its surrounding regions of Navi Mumbai and Kalyan Dombivli, and taking up projects such as tree plantation and cleanliness drives.
In December last year, Raj Thackeray travelled to Nashik, Aurangabad and Pune, interacting with the party cadre, inducting new members, and speaking to local journalists. He instructed party members to ensure that there is an MNS flag atop every party worker and supporter’s house. More tours across the Konkan and Vidarbha regions are also in the offing, said MNS leaders.
(Edited by Gitanjali Das)