Mumbai: A Modi supporter, a hopeful Shiv Sena ally, a potential NCP aide, an investigative politician, and a Hindutva advocate. These are the several political trajectories that Maharashtra Navnirman Sena (MNS) Chief Raj Thackeray has experimented with over the past two years, as he tries to find an electoral future for his beleaguered party.
Now, with the Mumbai civic elections 16 months away, Thackeray is dabbling with another political formula — being the ‘godfather’ who hears out and solves people’s issues, just like his uncle, Shiv Sena supremo Bal Thackeray, while pushing his tried-and-tested political agenda of Marathi pride.
Over the past month, Thackeray has met several delegations of groups such as Mumbai’s dabbawalas, the city’s fisherfolk, representatives of libraries and women self-help groups to hear out their issues and then take them up with the state government.
MNS leaders talk up these meetings on social media with hashtags such as “Krishnakunjavar Nyay Milto (One gets justice at Krishnakunj)”, Thackeray’s residence at Shivaji Park and “Manase Danka (MNS effect)”, painting Thackeray as someone who raises his voice for those in need and gets them justice.
The party’s leaders have also gone back to sending missives to local shops and bigger companies asking them to transact in Marathi.
Party sources say the MNS is preparing ground for the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation elections, scheduled in February 2022.
“The Shiv Sena’s traditional voter in Mumbai, the Marathi upper caste, white-coloured voter, has been disillusioned with the party after it broke its alliance with the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and allied with its rivals, Congress and Nationalist Congress Party (NCP). We have an opportunity to tap into this disillusionment,” a senior MNS leader told ThePrint.
From doctors to dabbawalas
The MNS chief has been meeting varied sections of society, with his party claiming that he has been successful in addressing some of their grievances.
“People have always come to Rajsaheb (Thackeray) with their issues and we have always helped them. Now, people’s expectations from the MNS have increased,” Santosh Dhuri, an MNS functionary, said. “Rajsaheb hears them out and we put their request before the state’s government as a constructive opposition.”
“We have also had a few successes where the state government has taken a decision after the MNS highlighted a particular issue,” he added.
For instance, a few days before the Chief Minister Uddhav Thackeray-led government permitted Mumbai’s famous dabbawalas to travel by local trains, which are currently operating only for certain categories of essential services workers and women, a delegation of dabbawalas had met Raj Thackeray with the request.
Similarly, representatives of Mumbai’s libraries had met the MNS chief at his residence this month, requesting his intervention in getting the state government to open libraries, which had been shut since the lockdown was first imposed in March. A week later, the state government decided to open libraries across Maharashtra.
The MNS took credit for both these decisions.
Raj Thackeray has also received delegations from private doctors complaining of issues in getting insurance for their colleagues who died due to Covid while in the line of duty; fish sellers who wanted action against migrant, illegal fish sellers; and women self-help groups wanting a loan waiver.
Simultaneously, the MNS has also been highlighting its political agenda of pushing the Marathi language.
Earlier this month, a few MNS functionaries reportedly beat up a jeweller in South Mumbai’s Colaba for refusing to speak to author Shobha Deshpande in Marathi.
Last week, MNS leader Akhil Chitre threatened to agitate against Flipkart and Amazon for not including Marathi as a preferred language option in their mobile apps.
Earlier this week, the MNS sent a letter to Disney Hotstar to make the Indian Premier League commentary available in Marathi too.
Political commentator Hemant Desai said, in the larger picture, Raj Thackeray is still undecided about what political position to take. “He has neither criticised the Shiv Sena bitterly through the entire Covid crisis, nor followed up his newly adapted Hindutva rhetoric, seen as an overture to the BJP, in a very strong manner,” Desai said. “But the Mumbai civic body is his immediate target. The party may be eyeing the Shiv Sena’s Marathi base now that the latter has allied with the Congress and got a more secular image.”
The MNS has taken several sharp political turns in the past three years to revive its fortunes.
In the 2017 BMC election, the party made an unconditional offer to its rival, Shiv Sena, to contest the Mumbai civic polls together. The Shiv Sena did not entertain the request.
Then in the run up to the 2019 Lok Sabha polls, Raj Thackeray started criticising PM Modi after having strongly supported his candidature in the 2014 Lok Sabha polls.
He even started cozying up to NCP President Sharad Pawar. In 2018, Thackeray held a public interview with Pawar at Pune, had an hour-long conversation with him during an Aurangabad-Mumbai flight as well as held a couple of informal meetings with the NCP chief.
Early 2019, Thackeray held a meeting with NCP leader Ajit Pawar, Sharad Pawar’s nephew, for back-channel negotiations for a possible alliance.
While NCP leaders were willing to accommodate the MNS, Congress leaders vociferously said that there was no question of including the party, which had once gone on a rampage against Mumbai’s north Indian population, a key Congress vote-bank. The party ultimately did not contest the 2019 Lok Sabha election, but left a mark by campaigning aggressively against the BJP in an almost journalistic manner with facts and research.
The MNS contested the assembly election that year, selling itself to voters as a potential credible opposition, but got only one seat. It subsequently set up a shadow cabinet to the Maha Vikas Aghadi cabinet, trying to project itself as a strong opposition. While MNS leaders have been working on the ground in their own capacities, the MNS’ shadow cabinet hasn’t had a single meeting yet.
Shalini Thackeray, a senior MNS leader, said, “Covid was a dampener. We were going to have a workshop where Rajsaheb was going to train us, show how we are supposed to function, draft proper agendas, but then the lockdown was imposed. Shadow cabinet meetings haven’t happened, but all of us have been working on the ground and meeting Rajsaheb individually.”
Then earlier this year, from wanting to ally with Congress and NCP last year, Thackeray took a sharp right turn. In January, he met former CM Devendra Fadnavis, raising speculation about the possibility of the MNS putting its weight behind the BJP though Fadnavis publicly dismissed the grapevine.
In his speech on 23 January, Raj Thackeray made another overture to the BJP by espousing the Hindutva cause. For the first time, right-wing ideologue Vinayak Damodar Savarkar found space on an MNS stage and the party also changed its flag from blue, white, orange and green to a complete saffron.
“Our changing political stands may have confused voters, but one thing is clear to us,” an MNS functionary said. “There is no way we can contest elections successfully if we go solo now. We have to ally with another party.”
“We are keeping the option of a possible alliance with the BJP open for the Mumbai civic polls,” the functionary added. “The BJP is aggressively eyeing the BMC from the Shiv Sena. The MNS can help the BJP fill the Shiv Sena’s gap by attracting the central Mumbai Marathi voters.”
Political commentator Prakash Bal said, “Raj Thackeray isn’t getting support from any section of the society because he doesn’t have a coherent programme. He is basically throwing pebbles in the water to see which one hits a rock.”
The MNS’ downward spiral
Raj Thackeray launched the MNS in 2006 after quitting the Shiv Sena over Bal Thackeray’s decision to anoint his son, Uddhav, and not him, as his successor. It initially tasted quick success by espousing the “sons of the soil” and “Marathi pride” ideologies more aggressively than the Shiv Sena, even wresting the latter’s bastions of Dadar and Mahim at one point.
In the 2009 Lok Sabha elections, it fielded 11 candidates, none of whom got elected, but the party got people to take note by damaging the Shiv Sena’s prospects in many seats. In the assembly elections the same year, the MNS contested 143 seats, and had 13 of its MLAs in the Maharashtra assembly in its very first attempt.
Soon after, however, the party’s fortunes dwindled.
In the 2014 Lok Sabha polls, the party fielded 10 candidates, all of whom lost their deposits. In the assembly elections that year, the party ambitiously contested on 219 of the 288 seats, forfeiting deposit in 209 seats, and winning just one.
While the party opted to sit out the 2019 Lok Sabha election, it contested 101 seats in the Maharashtra assembly election, and once again won just a single seat.