Mumbai: In an apparent attempt at political revival, Maharashtra Navnirman Sena (MNS) chief Raj Thackeray on Thursday led a massive march to the Western Railway headquarters at Mumbai’s Churchgate station to protest against the Elphinstone station stampede on 29 September that killed 23 commuters and injured over 50.
Called Santaap Morcha (Anger March), the protesters demanded the railways upgrade suburban railway infrastructure and clear foot-over bridges of hawkers within 15 days.
Outside the Churchgate station, Thackeray slammed the Mumbai-Ahmedabad bullet train project and reiterated his threat that not a single brick would be allowed to be laid in Mumbai for the project unless the railways upgraded the creaking suburban services.
Thackeray also claimed that Prime Minister Narendra Modi removed Suresh Prabhu from the railway ministry because the latter had opposed the bullet train project.
The march sought to reopen Mumbai’s Maharashtra-Gujarat divide, with Thackeray claiming the bullet train was a project for a “handful of rich Gujaratis". One of the slogans on the placards accused Modi of being the Prime Minister of Gujarat.
The last time 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.
The academy had organized a march to protest the alleged atrocities against Rohingyas in Myanmar.
Five years and a string of electoral setbacks later, Thackeray’s Thursday march aimed to score points over his estranged cousin Uddhav Thackeray’s Shiv Sena.
Political observers, MNS workers and functionaries from other parties said this is yet another attempt by Thackeray to reverse 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 turned into a critic of Modi.
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 to 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. After its launch on 18 September, Thackeray’s Facebook page has received more than 670,000 likes.
However, Vaibhavi Palsule, vice-principal and head of the department of political science at Ramnarain Ruia College, cautioned against mistaking Facebook 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 the BJP and Modi, said the MNS chief was targeting Sena more 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.
Thackeray’s political and electoral footprint has been shrinking. In the 2017 election to Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC), the MNS polled only 7.74% of votes, winning seven out of 227 seats. It had won 28 seats in 2012 Mumbai elections polling more than 20% votes. In the 2014 assembly elections in Maharashtra, MNS vote-share came down to 3% (one seat) from 11.88% in 2009 (13 seats).
Palsule does not see MNS making political and electoral gains from its new-found voice on Mumbai’s infrastructure woes. “MNS -- and for that matter Shiv Sena too -- hardly has 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 any electoral dividends for the party proves that the party has not been able to find a political direction and strategy," Palsule said.