- Raj Thackeray has garnered more eyeballs and more YouTube views than most senior leaders of any other party in Maharashtra.
- Raj plans to address around 10 to 12 of these public meetings where he tears into the promises made by Modi.
- Raj Thackeray’s bravado and aggression comes in the midst of one of the biggest crisis faced by his party, the MNS.
Last week BJP leader Vinod Tawde approached the Election Commission seeking a look into the funding of MNS chief Raj Thackeray’s campaign, which is sharply directed at Prime Minister Narendra Modi and BJP president Amit Shah. “If his party is not contesting, then who is funding its rallies?” asked Tawde. With just two rallies under his belt, Thackeray has garnered more eyeballs and more YouTube views than most senior leaders of any other party in Maharashtra. Thackeray’s campaign for a “Modi-Shah Mukt Bharat” is set to help the opposition in the state, i.e. Congress and NCP, though he has not gone for any alliance.
Is it going to benefit him in the upcoming assembly elections, is it going to infuse new life into his withering party, is it going to further demoralise the already demotivated Shiv Sena cadre? Or is he simply doing this selflessly for the state and the country, as he claims?
Thackeray plans to address around 10 to 12 of these public meetings where he tears into the promises made by Modi before the 2014 polls and other alleged failures of the BJP. The speeches—a mix of characteristic Raj Thackeray bravado and corporate presentation—are peppered with videos of Modi’s announcements and newspaper clippings. That he is a crowd-puller is not new, what is new is the systematic turn in his politics from the time he endorsed Modi to his U-turn to become a BJP-baiter.
“This is nothing personal. In fact, before 2014, when he felt that Narendra Modi would lead India to prosperity, Raj Thackeray supported him publicly. But within a year or two it became clear that it was not to happen. It became more obvious after demonetisation and he took a clear stand critical of their policies,” says senior MNS leader Bala Nandgaonkar. “He has nothing to gain from this. He did not think about himself or losses for his party or party workers. He just wants to do this for the country. His uncle Balasaheb Thackeray was forthright and always took a clear stand on issues. Unfortunately, his son Uddhav Thackeray has not done that. But Raj is doing so.”
And Raj is doing this with gusto. Comparing Modi to Hitler, at a Gudi Padwa rally, the MNS leader lashed out at the BJP’s “politicisation” of the Pulwama attack. He then showed a clip of Modi’s speech about punishing two soldiers for firing at an intruder. In a moment he upped the nationalism quotient—“if you punish soldiers for doing their duty, how will they protect us?” he asks in his caustic style. He goes on to highlight people featured in government’s advertisements on the “Me labharthi” series (I am a beneficiary) and shows they haven’t got any of the Digital India benefits. And the response is of the sort only he can manage. Those who are not Congress-NCP followers but reluctant BJP-Sena supporters are easily drawn to his pitch, where ‘nationalism’ is intact but BJP’s development performance is critiqued.
“Raj’s style is classic Bal Thackeray, his arguments reminiscent of his grandfather Prabodhankar Thackeray.”
The recent campaign may have taken many by surprise because of its apparent direct benefit to the Congress-NCP. However, for the past couple of years, Raj has been attacking Modi-Shah consistently through his cartoons, some of which have been prominently displayed in the Shivaji Park area, near the Sena Bhavan. It’s odd that the image of Raj or the MNS, which has seen debacle after debacle after initial success since its launch in 2006, is beginning to look more interesting than Uddhav Thackeray or Shiv Sena, which has been in power in the corporations for the longest time. The Sena is a significant partner in the state government and has now got a 25-23 seat-sharing deal with the BJP for the Lok Sabha elections. An anti-climax, because Sena chief Uddhav Thackeray has incessantly complained about the BJP, without pulling out of the government, for the past few years and even announced that they would be going solo in all elections. However, recently he not only accepted the seat-sharing pact, he was also present for Amit Shah’s filing of nomination from Gandhinagar seat in Gujarat.
“Raj Thackeray’s campaign has definitely created an atmosphere. Whether it affects voting patterns or not, we don’t know because the calculations are different for different seats. However, it has further confused Shiv Sena workers in places where they have to work for BJP candidates. They had prepared to go separately but now they have to campaign for BJP. In heart they may resonate with what Raj is saying as they also have affinity towards him. He has been consistent in his criticism for the past three years and he has made it clear that he is not in any alliance,” says Kumar Ketkar, former journalist and Congress Rajya Sabha MP. There is talk of the MNS supporting filmstar-turned-politician Urmila Matondkar, a Congress candidate. They might even campaign for her in Mumbai north.
No matter what one says about how the campaign is only about these elections, one cannot ignore the impact it might have on the MNS, struggling to survive. Its lone MLA joined the Shiv Sena last month. Earlier, six out seven MNS corporators also joined the Sena. It could not be in a worse position politically. So is this hara-kiri or a well-thought out move? “Raj Thackeray has the right opportunity to bounce back. He can occupy the opposition space. This will prove to be beneficial in the assembly elections. It is an aggressive strategy and if BJP-Sena fail to live up to their expectations, then Sena will be left in the lurch. There is no doubt that Raj Thackeray is politically astute and a crowd-puller,” says Girish Kuber, editor of Loksatta. MNS leaders are keeping their cards close and denying any plans for the assembly elections or any tie-ups or alliances. Given how badly they lost in the last elections, with over 200 of their candidates losing their deposits, anything they say may seem far-fetched.
Nawab Malik, spokesperson of NCP, says, the priority is this election and Raj Thackeray is doing what he feels is necessary. “He is not forging any alliance. He just felt the need to speak against what has been going on in the country and has taken a stand for that. He has made it clear that it is only to make people aware about what the BJP regime has been up to.”
His style is classic Bal Thackeray, his arguments reminiscent of Prabodhankar Thackeray, his grandfather. Raj Thackeray is talking to those who believe in this brand of ‘nationalism’ and were in doubt about BJP but aren’t Congress supporters either. And they are listening. A joke doing the rounds on WhatsApp says: “Modi and Shah studied for Congress and NCP syllabus but the exam paper was set on Raj Thackeray”. The bigger question is, who will fare well in the exams? And no one—the Congress, NCP, BJP and Shiv Sena—can wait for the answer.
The Evolution Of MNS
- MNS founded on March 2006
- Launches aggressive campaigns for Marathi signboards in Mumbai.
- Supports Jet Airways staff in an agitation when the company laid off employees
- Attacks on north Indian migrant workers and taxi drivers, protest against non-Marathi recruits in railway exams
- MNS won 13 assembly seats (out of 288) in the 2009 assembly elections Maharashtra. (MNS was fourth largest party in Maharashtra assembly after Congress-NCP (144 seats), BJP-Shiv-Sena (90 seats), Third Front (14 seats).
- In the 2014 Assembly elections, the MNS was trounced. It was only able to win 1 seat across the state. Its candidates forfeited their deposits on a record 203 seats.
- In 2012 MNS won 28 seats in BMC elections. In 2017, the tally of MNS was reduced to 7 seats.
- In January 2018, 6 corporators defected to Shiv Sena, thus taking its representation down to 1 seat.
- In March 2019 their only MLA defected to Shiv Sena.
By Prachi Pinglay-Plumber in Mumbai