The MNS Gambit
- MNS has released a first list of 7 candidates for the Lok Sabha polls
- Should his candidates win, Raj says they will support Modi
- This left his rival, the Shiv Sena, allied to the BJP, flummoxed
- BJP leaders had to rush to meet Uddhav to reassure him all was well
- Raj has nothing to lose, since his party has no MPs to begin with
Raj Thackeray’s address recently at the eighth anniversary of his Maharashtra Navnirman Sena (MNS) was perhaps his most eagerly awaited since he launched the party. Supporters, party workers, political rivals, people at large—everyone wanted to know if Raj would indirectly support his estranged cousin Uddhav of the Shiv Sena by not fielding candidates in the Lok Sabha elections; if he would reaffirm his appreciation for Narendra Modi; and if he would try to establish a separate identity for the MNS at the city, state and national level.
Not easy decisions at all. Raj admitted as much, saying, “I alone know how I have found a way out.” After all, not long ago, he had ruled out tying up with the Sena-BJP for the Lok Sabha elections. The solution: he announced the first list of seven candidates for the Lok Sabha election; at the same time, he declared support for Modi should MNS candidates win. But this set off sparks between allies BJP and the Shiv Sena. Uddhav made it clear the Sena would not tolerate any on-the-side BJP negotiations with Raj, referring to Nitin Gadkari’s recent meeting with the MNS chief. At the same time, he declared that the Sena remained staunchly with the BJP. Soon after, state BJP chief Devendra Fadnavis met Uddhav to sort things out. Modi, too, is learnt to have called Uddhav up.
So, is it all okay for now? And will Raj’s offer of support to Modi benefit the BJP-Sena alliance, which is riding the Modi wave, or the Congress-NCP alliance, which is battling incumbency? Fadnavis says, “The mahayuti—the alliance with the Shiv Sena, rpi and the Swabhimani Shetkari Sangathan—is intact. The Sena is a trusted partner and ally. It has a fabulous network in Maharashtra and we’ll work with it. As for Raj supporting Modi, we’re confident the NDA will come to power on its own merit and we won’t need outside support. In the hypothetical situation of the NDA needing support, it will be decided in consultation with our allies.”
Sena leader Rahul Navrekar says all is well between his party and the BJP and that Raj had only “exposed his opportunistic intentions by fielding candidates and then declaring support for Modi”. Nawab Malik of the NCP sees it differently. “The MNS can’t partner the BJP openly, so this is a hidden alliance. After Bal Thackeray’s demise, the Shiv Sena doesn’t have charisma of that magnitude in the leadership. At the same time, because of the anti-north Indian stand of the MNS, the BJP cannot afford to ally directly with the MNS. Hence this ploy,” he says. As for the Congress-NCP alliance, he thinks it will win on its own merit.
Analysts say the Sena’s waning influence has become a cause of concern for the BJP, its 25-year-old ally. “The basic issue is that they are stuck with each other. The BJP will try to find a way out. One section of the BJP is not happy with the Sena and would look to squeeze the Sena out to partner instead with the relatively smaller MNS. If the Sena doesn’t win seats, they may have to consider the MNS. But it’s unlikely that they’ll all come together because of family history,” says Suhas Palshikar, a political analyst.
Not many expect the MNS to win Lok Sabha seats, but they will definitely carve themselves a vote share. “Raj doesn’t have much national ambition or space. The MNS has failed to expand in the last three-four years. The real game is the assembly elections in October. It would want to replace the Sena eventually,” says Palshikar. “Where the Sena is losing influence, the MNS is gaining ground with aggression and an anti-Congress stand. In the overall uncertainty, the MNS has nothing to lose anyway: it doesn’t have a single MP.
BJP leaders maintain that they are neither looking to partner the MNS for the general elections or the assembly elections. “Gadkariji tried to see if the MNS would cooperate by not contesting so that forces against Congress and NCP are strong, but it was not appreciated by our partner and we have dropped the matter altogether. There is nothing on for assembly elections and we are focusing right now only on the Lok Sabha,” says Vinod Tawde, a state BJP leader.
Although the BJP wouldn’t mind an admirer of Modi in Raj, his anti-north Indian campaign won’t get him far with BJP leaders, certainly not those from outside Maharashtra. Besides, the few Muslim supporters the MNS has—in his first speech, Raj had said he wouldn’t differentiate between Hindus, Muslims, Dalits or anyone else, provided they stood for Maharashtra—will also be lost should Raj make Modi-friendly gestures.
So Raj is pretty much on his own, and stuck between a rock and hard place. So are three others: the BJP, trying to consolidate itself in the state and at the national level; the Sena, staring at a future minus the charisma of Balasaheb; and the voters in Maharashtra, equally fed up with the ruling coalition and with the squabbling opposition.
By Prachi Pinglay-Plumber in Mumbai