Ae, laav re to video (Hey, just play that video)," declares Raj Thackeray, 51, to one of his many assistants on the dais. On a large screen behind him, a video starts playing a chosen clip of Prime Minister Narendra Modi making promises or announcing a scheme. Thackeray exhorts his audience, packed to the gills in public maidans in towns and cities across Maharashtra, to listen with care. Then, as the video fades out, Thackeray demolishes Modi’s statements with the precision of a statistician, investigation of a journalist, and passion of a politician.

By the end of his 40-45 minutes speech peppered with video evidence, data, and clever use of Marathi idioms, Thackeray has left the people with enough information and perspective to make them question Modi and their vote for him. Thackeray first unveiled this pattern with his annual Gudi Padwa (Maharashtrian New Year on 6 April) rally at Mumbai’s Shivaji Park. In the following two weeks, he spoke at large and responsive rallies in Nanded, Satara, Ichalkaranji, Pune, Solapur, and Raigad, and would do encores in half a dozen more towns and cities before campaigning in the state ends.

His team finds it difficult now to accommodate requests for rallies that pour in every day. Marathi channels have chosen to show his rallies live (one even cut Modi’s to show Thackeray’s), his party’s social media handles have seen an uptick, short clips of his speeches are clogging tens of WhatsApp groups, and every subsequent live-streaming of a rally has garnered higher YouTube audiences. (Over the weekend, the Election Commission denied Thackeray permission for more rallies in Mumbai—his team said the Bharatiya Janata Party had brought pressure on it—but later acceded).

Thackeray’s pattern is to call out Modi-Shah for their “fakery, lies, publicity blitzkrieg, and dictatorial tendencies". He uses their videos and statements of the past five years, to show the “wide gap" between their assertions and reality (for instance, on Modi’s claim of building 850,000 toilets in Bihar in a week or Harisal village being India’s first digital village and so on). Thackeray warns his audience that India cannot suffer the Modi-Shah duo’s “dictatorial Hitler-like" rule for the next five years. He then advises them to “vote out this duo, vote wisely".

Thackeray does not ask for votes in favour of any candidate. On 6 April, he only said there’s no harm in trying out Rahul Gandhi as prime minister—a huge turnaround considering his anti-Nehru-Gandhi attitude. Thackeray has not fielded a single candidate of his 13-year-old party, Maharashtra Navnirman Sena (MNS), for any of the 48 Lok Sabha seats in the state. So, what’s his game? How should we read him?

Modi supporter turned foe

Thackeray was deep in love with Modi and the “Gujarat model" through 2013-14. However, the unalloyed bhakt has turned a ferocious antagonist, a hard-hitting challenger. Thackeray is the opposition juggernaut that Modi-Shah, Maharashtra chief minister Devendra Fadnavis and Shiv Sena chief Uddhav Thackeray had not bargained for, did not prepare for when election campaigning began. By the time Thackeray winds up his caravan, he could end up changing the state’s political matrix.

The bhakti, he now says, was an error of judgement—he fell for Modi’s public relations exercise, listened to people like Ratan Tata, visited Gujarat as Modi’s guest, but he has since woken up to the dangers of the Modi model. It’s a clever admission. It carries a subtext—Thackeray is telling Maharashtra that he, like many people, made a mistake in 2014 and they shouldn’t repeat it now.

In his utterances, demeanour, and willingness to take on the powerful, Thackeray is now the main opposition voice in Maharashtra. He is doing the work, the campaigning, the activism, and the confrontation that the Congress-Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) should have; his earlier parochialism, muscle-flexing methods, violence as political tool are forgotten in the moment. The Congress and the NCP have, in a rare import from business to politics, out-sourced their work to Thackeray.

That Thackeray, a political write-off in 2014, is now Maharashtra’s chief campaigner for opposition parties shows the paucity of imagination in Congress-NCP and erosion of the opposition space. In the 15 years of Congress-NCP governments till 2014, the BJP and the Shiv Sena vied with each other to be the principal opposition party. Between BJP’s Eknath Khadse and Fadnavis, and Sena leaders including Bal Thackeray and his son Uddhav, they made sure that successive Congress chief ministers were kept on their toes with exposes of scams and critique of policies.

Uncomfortable BJP-Sena alliance

In May 2014, the Lok Sabha tally of 42 of 48 seats to the BJP-Sena coalition and the then prevalent Modi-mania made the BJP believe that it was time to end its 25-year-old alliance with the regional force. It called off the alliance with barely a month to go for the October 2014 election to the state assembly. The BJP emerged as the single largest party, with 122 seats in the 288-member assembly, but short of a majority. The Sena, battling odds, netted 63 seats. Eventually, it joined the government but it is an uncomfortable alliance.

The Sena, miffed at the treatment it received in Delhi and Mumbai in Modi-Shah-Fadnavis era, lost no opportunity to hit back, criticise and question Modi and Fadnavis. Its words were acerbic and meant to hurt the BJP, they were louder than those of Congress-NCP. Uddhav Thackeray came close to calling off the alliance a number of times but realpolitik prevailed. Through this, the Sena donned two hats at once – it was in government and it also became the “opposition".

This coincided with Congress-NCP leaders doubling down after the rout in 2014, their voices feeble, their agendas nowhere as scathing as needed, and their coordination appalling. Radhakrishna Vikhe Patil, leader of opposition in the assembly, is on the verge of hopping across to the BJP; his son Sujay is a BJP candidate this election. Narayan Rane, a pugnacious street-fighter, distanced himself from the Congress and set up his own outfit. The NCP’s Vijaysinh Mohite-Patil, former minister, was on stage last week with Modi; his exit remains a formality. When the 2019 election was announced, the Congress-NCP was hard put to draw up a list of campaigners. After Rahul Gandhi and Sharad Pawar, the list had virtually no state-level leader.

Enter Raj Thackeray with his mass appeal, oratory, and the willingness to join the big fight. This was not the Thackeray of 2009 or 2014 with glib lines, mockery and mime, cheap jokes and one-liners. He had brought substantive issue-based criticism, gravitas and reflection to his natural flair for drama and his uncle’s Bal Thackeray-style oratory. He chose subjects with care, sent his party workers to get ground-level information as journalists do, had corporate style presentations prepared.

Thackeray has, wittingly or otherwise, become the face of opposition to Modi-Shah in Maharashtra. He is hitting the BJP where it hurts most, fracturing Modi’s goodwill and good intentions, says political scientist Suhas Palshikar. “There were a number of issues on which to take on Modi and Fadnavis. The Congress-NCP didn’t know how to shape them and reach people, or didn’t bother," Palshikar added, “Thackeray has given them the strong push they needed in this election."

The Congress-NCP will be the obvious but unstated beneficiaries of Thackeray’s aggressive and popular campaigning. In fact, a cartoon in a leading Marathi daily showed Thackeray carrying the burden of the electioneering on his shoulders with pit stops across the state, with Congress state president Ashok Chavan and Sharad Pawar ambling two steps behind, discussing Thackeray’s “fees".

Who gains, who loses

The MNS and Congress-NCP differ ideologically. Thackeray’s political articulation, fluid, non-inclusive and parochial since he broke away from his uncle’s Shiv Sena, is still that. He speaks of Marathi youth not getting jobs, his men bashed up a Modi bhakt who called Thackeray names, he refers to Marathi sub-nationalism. But the Congress-NCP has sacrificed ideological reservations at the altar of tactical electoral gains.

NCP chief Pawar even attempted to bring Thackeray formally into the alliance but the Congress did not yield given Thackeray’s earlier anti-north Indians and parochial agenda. An alliance might have hurt the Congress but it did not mind the out-sourcing arrangement with Thackeray. Both now hope that the MNS votes will transfer to Congress or NCP candidates this election.

What is in it for Thackeray? It is simply the best opportunity in years to revive his party which had sunk to a nought five years ago, renew his image as a fearless and vociferous state leader, and carve out a niche in the opposition space. Maharashtra’s Assembly election is six months away; his work now – for Congress-NCP – is meant to yield dividends then. “Our real target is the state Assembly and a strong regional profile," said a MNS strategist.

In 2009, the then fledgling party had bagged nearly 5% of the vote share contesting only 11 Lok Sabha seats but was the only party to drop its absolute votes in 2014 when all other parties had increased theirs. In the 2009 Assembly election, the MNS won 13 seats with a 12% state-wide vote share – including six seats in Mumbai with a staggering 24% vote share in the city – but dropped to one seat and barely three per cent vote share five years later. That lone MLA too deserted the party as it many of its second-rung leaders. Thackeray and his MNS were all but written off till his Gudi Padwa rally.

The New Year brought a revival in his popularity and underlined his usefulness to contain Modi-Shah. He addresses the disgruntled pro-Modi voters, the fence-sitters, the Shiv Sena voters who love every bit of what he says and wish their leader could have said it all, the youth who are yearning for jobs and work, women and farmers.

The Congress and NCP hope it will turn into votes. It has already in the first two phases, a Congress leader said. Analysts say the Raj Thackeray X-factor may pull in votes which will help to balance out those lost to the third front, Vanchit Bahujan Aghadi led by Prakash Ambedkar with help from Asaduddin Owaisi.

It is still early days in this business-like relationship but a compromised or withered Congress-NCP leaning on Thackeray certainly does not augur well for Maharashtra. The out-sourcing has thrown the BJP-Sena off rails. The BJP attempted to take him on but without much success. Modi can neither join his fight nor ignore it. Fadnavis attempted to fill the gap but Thackeray demolished his arguments in following rallies; education minister Vinod Tawde asked the Election Commission to check Thackeray’s expenditure on rallies but that came a cropper because Thackeray does not have candidates or their photos on the dais. The Shiv Sena is confused because Raj, its leaders’ bete-noire, speaks everything that Uddhav wants to about Modi-Shah, but cannot.

“I speak because I want to expose Modi’s lies, I speak in public interest," he says. That’s half the story; the other half lies in the realignments that have happened – and will happen – in Maharashtra’s political landscape. Should the Sena sink in this election, Raj Thackeray is prepared to move into that space. Should the Congress-NCP offer him an alliance, he is set to embrace it. If nothing, Raj Thackeray has demonstrated that he’s still in the game.

Smruti Koppikar, a Mumbai-based journalist, writes on politics, gender and media.

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