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MNS chief Raj Thackeray has held around 10 public meetings across the state. pti
MNS chief Raj Thackeray has held around 10 public meetings across the state. pti

Maharashtra: Will Raj Thackeray play spoilsport and dent incumbent’s prospects?

  • He has held around 10 public meetings across the state, including some in Mumbai, where he has sought to 'expose' the lies of the Modi government
  • In 2008, he nearly snatched the Marathi manoos (son of the soil) card away from the Shiv Sena

In January, Sharad Pawar-led Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) proposed that Raj Thackeray’s Maharashtra Navnirman Sena (MNS) be formally included in the opposition alliance against the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-Shiv Sena combine. The proposal gained support after the BJP and Shiv Sena renewed their alliance in February. But the Congress rejected the idea, worried that the anti-migrant politics of MNS could become a liability in Mumbai constituencies, wherein there is a sizeable North Indian population. At MNS’s 13th Foundation Day rally on 10 March, Thackeray announced that the party will not contest the 2019 Lok Sabha polls, but will work towards making India “Modi and Amit Shah-mukt".

Thackeray, arguably the best political orator in Maharashtra today, has been true to his word since then. He has held around 10 public meetings across the state, including some in Mumbai, where he has sought to “expose" the lies of the Modi government. In terms of visual impact, media coverage and the election narrative in Maharashtra, Thackeray’s unconventional initiative has been a roaring success. In fact, his favourite line “laav re toh video" (play that video) has become a rage. The BJP, however, has tried to hit back with old videos of Thackeray lavishly heaping praises on Modi.

It is not the first time that Thackeray is drawing huge crowds. His statewide tour soon after storming out of the Shiv Sena in 2006 was a sensational success. In 2008, he nearly snatched the Marathi manoos (son of the soil) card away from the Shiv Sena, contributing to the defeat of at least 10 BJP-Shiv Sena nominees in the 2009 Lok Sabha elections, and winning as many as 13 assembly seats six months later.

But after 2014, his journey has been on a downward spiral. The single MNS legislator in the assembly recently quit to join the Shiv Sena. The 2019 campaign seems to have revived the Raj Thackeray factor, at least at the level of political discourse. But will the crowds attending the Thackeray rallies translate into votes against NDA candidates, especially in the 10 constituencies in the Mumbai Metropolitan Region and Nashik, where the MNS once ruled the municipal corporation?

One senior NCP leader, requesting anonymity, thinks so. “In each of the 10 constituencies in Mumbai Metropolitan Region, including the six Mumbai seats, the MNS has at least 50,000 to 1 lakh votes. In 2014, since the MNS did not contest in Modi’s favour, this entire vote bank shifted to the BJP-Shiv Sena. This time, even if all of these do not vote for us, I reckon that a large number of them would not go out to vote or may press the NOTA option," he said.

So far, BJP leader and Maharashtra chief minister Devendra Fadnavis and state education minister Vinod Tawde have responded to Thackeray’s barbs. Modi and Shah have ignored the MNS leader. Shiv Sena chief and Raj’s cousin Uddhav has sought to point out the contradiction in the MNS chief’s campaign, saying that he has been asking people to vote against Modi and Shah, but not specifying whom to vote for.

Asked if the BJP was underestimating Raj Thackeray, Fadnavis said the BJP is giving the “minimum necessary response to Raj Thackeray’s lies". “Because if we don’t respond, people will take his lies as truth. We have already exposed some of his lies and we too have videos to play. His rallies will have little impact because he is a not player himself," Fadnavis added.

Mumbai-based veteran political commentator, Bhau Torsekar, said Raj Thackeray is exploiting the Lok Sabha campaign to revive his party for the assembly polls six months later. “I will not dismiss his campaign merely on the grounds that he is not contesting himself. Even Shiv Sena founder Balasaheb Thackeray did that in 1980. In Maharashtra, the Congress-NCP lack a strong voice and the ability to take on Modi. Raj is filling that vacuum and taking the opposition space that would help him revive the party for the assembly polls. While the general impression is that his campaign is helping the Congress-NCP, I think in the long run, these two parties face the bigger threat from the MNS. In the short run, I don’t think Raj is going to damage the NDA much, and the huge crowds at his rallies won’t translate into any serious electoral swing against the NDA," Torsekar added.

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