Almost decimated in the 2014 Maharashtra assembly election, Raj Thackeray is hoping to spring back in next year’s polls.
Mumbai: Maharashtra Navnirman Sena (MNS) chief Raj Thackeray is a man on a mission, out to prove his party is no flash in the pan.
Raj, who burst on to the scene as an aggressive proponent of Marathi pride ready to forcibly eject north Indian migrants from Mumbai, seems to have changed tack as he seeks to extract the MNS from political wilderness in the 2019 assembly election.
The estranged nephew of late Shiv Sena founder Bal Thackeray has been touring Maharashtra since March, visiting constituencies where the MNS lost but did not face a complete debacle in the 2014 assembly election.
He has also been reaching out to the same communities he vilified at the start of his political journey, trying to explain his stand against unbridled migration.
Meanwhile, a camaraderie seems to be brewing between him and Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) chief Sharad Pawar, a former rival, indicating Raj’s willingness to be a part of any mahagathbandhan that takes shape to overthrow the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led government.
One of the initial votaries of Narendra Modi’s candidature as Prime Minister, Raj is now among his staunchest critics.
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An ace cartoonist like his uncle, Raj recently drew a jibe at PM Modi’s remarks about party democracy in the BJP.
The BJP hit back with its own three-panelled cartoon.
The first showed MNS workers telling their chief that the Lok Sabha polls were close, the second showed them telling Thackeray that the assembly polls were round the corner, and the final one showed them informing him that the party had not won a single seat. In all three, an arrogant-looking Thackeray is busy drawing cartoons.
Party leaders say Raj’s flip-flop on Modi is among the challenges it faces in the road ahead.
“At the time of the 2014 polls, even Raj saheb believed that Modi was the right leader for the country and we have borne the brunt of this as a party,” an MNS member said. “People were confused about exactly what we want to say.”
The scramble for numbers
That 2019 is almost a do-or-die year for the MNS is not lost on Raj.
In the 2014 Lok Sabha polls, the MNS fielded candidates in 10 of Maharashtra’s 48 constituencies — it won none and lost its deposit in more than half the seats.
In the Maharashtra assembly polls that year, the MNS could only get one out of the nearly 250 seats it contested (Maharashtra has a 288-member assembly) — down from the 13 it won in its maiden outing in 2009.
For next year’s assembly election, the MNS has reportedly drawn up a focus list of about 30 constituencies where it won more than 20,000-30,000 votes in the 2014 polls, party sources said.
For the last nine months, Raj has been touring northern Maharashtra, Marathwada and Vidarbha, where some of these constituencies are located, besides the urban centres of Mumbai, Pune, Nashik and Thane.
“We have some base in these places, so we are concentrating on these constituencies and surrounding areas for the 2019 assembly polls,” a senior MNS leader told ThePrint.
“We are still not sure if we will be in the fray for the Lok Sabha polls. That’s a decision Raj saheb will take,” the leader added.
Rise and fall of MNS
Raj launched the MNS in 2006, after quitting the Shiv Sena over Bal Thackeray’s decision to anoint his son Uddhav, and not Raj, as his successor.
The MNS, which espoused the ‘sons of the soil’ ideology and ‘Marathi pride’ in a more emphatic and aggressive manner than the Shiv Sena, tasted quick success.
At one point in time, it even wrested the Shiv Sena bastions of Dadar and Mahim in the Mumbai civic polls and state assembly polls, respectively.
In the 2009 Lok Sabha polls, it contested 12 seats and drew more than one lakh votes, but, more importantly, played a significant role in damaging the Shiv Sena’s prospects in many seats.
In the assembly elections that year, the party got 13 MLAs while playing a spoiler for the Shiv Sena in a number of seats.
But after tasting initial success, the party floundered.
MNS leader Shalini Thackeray, wife of Raj’s cousin Jeetendra, said the MNS had had a dizzyingly fast rise and, in the process, “made the mistake of not building its ground-level leadership”.
“Even though the party’s upper cadre was working well, our shakhas and vibhags (ground-level offices) were not functioning everywhere as they should have,” she said.
“We have been concentrating on building this cadre over the last one year,” she added. “Raj saheb has many followers but they should be in a position to take his ideology to the common man.”
Talking to Gujaratis, north Indians
During its eary days, the MNS constantly targeted north Indians and Gujaratis in Mumbai, vandalising Gujarati signboards atop restaurants and shops and launching violent attacks against migrants from north Indian states.
Over the past few months, Raj has addressed gatherings of these communities, trying to explain his ideology to them.
Last week, he spoke in Hindi at a conclave of north Indians, organised by the Uttar Bharatiya Mahapanchayat. He claimed he was not against north Indians, and blamed politicians from the region for halting the progress of those states.
He spoke about how Mumbai’s infrastructure was crumbling under the burden of the migrant influx — he said the city was willing to welcome them, but they needed to assimilate with its people by learning its language and traditions.
He recently addressed similar gatherings of the Gujarati community in Borivali and Pune.
“All these events have been at the request of these community organisations,” MNS leader Sandeep Deshpande said.
“They want to understand what Raj saheb’s ideology is,” he added. “Gujarati traders and businessmen are disillusioned with the BJP as well as the Congress, and they are looking for alternatives.”
Posturing for a piece of ‘mahagathbandhan’ pie
Speaking at a party rally in March, Raj called for all opposition parties to come together for a “Modi-free” or a “BJP-free” India.
Raj, who has severely criticised NCP chief Pawar in the past in his speeches and cartoons, has been developing a rapport with the latter, who is said to be at the forefront of efforts to form the mahagathbandhan.
Earlier this year, Raj conducted a public interview with Pawar in an event that turned out to be a crowdpuller, and has also had a couple of informal meetings with the Maratha strongman.
Sources say that while the NCP is keen on getting the MNS’ support for the grand opposition alliance, the Congress is wary of the idea on account of Raj’s stance on north Indians.
MNS’ Shalini Thackeray said that, as of today, there was no talk of any formal political relationship between the MNS and the NCP.
“But when Raj saheb interviewed Pawar saheb, one picture was put forward that Sharad Pawar is looking at Raj Thackeray as a next-generation leader,” she added.
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