Mumbai: The last time Maharashtra Navnirman Sena (MNS) chief Raj Thackeray personally led a march was on 21 August 2012, when he protested the violence against police and media by the Raza Academy in Mumbai.

MNS was the only political party which registered a public protest against the violence that did not spare even the women police personnel. Five years and a string of electoral setbacks later, Thackeray would once again lead a march on 5 October to the headquarters of Western Railway at Churchgate to protest against the Mumbai-Ahmedabad bullet train project and demand better infrastructure for suburban railway commuters in the wake of the Elphinstone stampede.

The MNS chief has sharply criticized the bullet train project and said that no other prime minister has spoken the number of lies Narendra Modi has.

Political observers, MNS workers, and functionaries from other parties feel this is Thackeray’s attempt at reversing the electoral and political decline of his 11-year-old party.

In August 2011, Thackeray had visited Gujarat and Modi, chief minister of Gujarat then, had accorded him the status of a state guest. On his return, Thackeray had lavishly praised the Gujarat model of development and in 2014 backed Modi as the prime minister. Over the past one year though, Thackeray has gone from being a Modi supporter to critic. Does that suggest a change in strategy? MNS workers and functionaries from other parties think so. An MNS leader, who did not want to be named, however, added that the change in strategy has preceded the Elphinstone stampede.

“Rajsaheb has made several visible and not-so-visible changes in the party structure and positioning on public issues in the last four months. It is not that he has suddenly developed some personal animosity towards Modi. There are decisions and policies Modi has initiated which we feel have either backfired or not worked out the way Modi promised. He is only responding to the people’s grievances," said this MNS leader. He pointed out changes like appointment of new functionaries, a direct line of command established by Thackeray under which any member of the party can reach out to him, and the social media outreach launched recently.

If numbers are any indication, Thackeray’s Facebook debut has been a hit. His Facebook page has received more than 660,000 likes in just weeks after launch. Vaibhavi Palsule, vice-principal and head of the department of political science at Ramnarain Ruia College, cautioned against mistaking FB likes for political support. “When people like the FB page of a particular party or politician, that does not necessarily mean political endorsement," Palsule said.

A senior Mumbai BJP leader, who has been on friendly terms with Thackeray despite the latter’s critical posturing against BJP and Modi, said the MNS chief was talking more at the Shiv Sena than Modi. “He has probably seen some merit in the Shiv Sena strategy of staying in power with BJP and yet criticizing Modiji. I don’t blame him for thinking that attacking Modiji would bring him some political dividends. Politicians senior to him have done this mistake," said the BJP leader requesting anonymity.

The political and electoral footprint of MNS has been shrinking. In the 2017 polls to Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC), the MNS polled only 7.74% of votes or seven seats. It had won 28 seats in 2012 Mumbai elections polling more than 20% votes. In the 2014 assembly elections in Maharashtra, the MNS vote-share came down to 3% (one seat) from 11.88% in 2009(13 seats).

Vaibhavi Palsule does not see the MNS making political and electoral gains from its new-found voice on Mumbai’s infrastructural woes.

“MNS and for that matter Shiv Sena too hardly have a consistent and cogent political strategy and direction. MNS particularly has been making below the belt attacks on its opponents to gain temporary popularity. But the very fact that it has not brought it any electoral dividends for the party proves that party has not been able to find a political direction and strategy," Palsule said.