On the auspicious first day of Marathi calendar, Gudhi Padava, (this year it was on April 6, coincidentally foundation day of BJP) Maharashtra Navnirman Sena (MNS) chief Raj Thackeray ended his speech with words that nobody would speak from the stage. "Throw these people out of politics by kicking their backside. I want to request you Maharashtra, we will have to save India from this duo Modi and Shah. Don't waste your vote this election, vote wisely, vote decisively," he said to a crowd packing Shivaji Park, Dadar Mumbai.
These words were certainly harsh, but his supporters got a clear message. From the next day, MNS workers across the state, especially in its strong pockets of Mumbai, Thane, Pune and Nasik, hit the ground. But wait, who were they campaigning for because MNS has not put up any candidates? They were out to defeat Bharatiya Janata Party-Shiv Sena alliance candidates.
Since then, Raj Thackeray is touring the state. He first addressed a rally in Nanded, then in Solapur, and so on. He does not tell people to vote for Congress and Nationalist Congress Party directly. He only says, "Vote for them who would defeat BJP-Sena." In his April 6 rally, he even said, "What bad Rahul Gandhi can do by becoming Prime Minister? Narendra Modi has crossed all the limits with his worst administration. Nobody can go beyond that now." These words were enough for his workers and supporters to get the message and vote for the 'right party’ – the Congress-Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) alliance.
Why is Raj Doing this?
Raj had first gathered momentum after his anti-North Indian rants in 2008-09. His party had won 13 seats in assembly elections in 2009. The momentum remained strong till 2012 when MNS won the Nasik Municipal Council and became a strong force in Mumbai, Thane, Pune and Kalyan Dombivli cities. But then he had no choice but to navigate his party on an anti-Congress course as the latter was in power, in state as well as Center. Here, he got derailed for the first time. On invitation of then Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi, he went to see 'Development of Vibrant Gujarat'. That helped Modi to embellish the already hyped up 'Vibrant Gujarat' with the TV centric political world around Raj Thackeray. Remember that a few years back, Raj was the one leader who used to be covered by the entire Marathi and Hindi television news segment. Even his anti-Hindi belt rants were regularly shown live by Hindi news channels. Modi found this very useful, even for his claim for becoming a Prime Minister. When Modi won third term in 2012 in Gujarat, Raj was invited to swearing in ceremony at Ahmedabad.
But, as the Modi appeal increased in Indian politics since late 2013, Raj's craze among 'upper caste upper class' Marathi voters went down. He was literally eclipsed by the bigger star called Narendra Modi whose subtle Hindutva Machismo politics sharply eroded Raj's open Marathi agenda. As a result, MNS got only one MLA in 2014 state assembly elections, that too by a fluke. Modi became a bigger brand than Thackeray even in Maharashtra.
Change of Tactics
By the end of 2015, Raj understood that to survive in politics, he has no option but to take a strong anti-Modi line. He waited till the right moment - demonetization – and struck back. Raj addressed a rally and called it 'worst ever decision in history of India'.
There is more to the back story. Shiv Sena supremo Bal Thackeray died in 2012. Questions began to be raised about the Sena's future. But, by 2012 it was also clear that Congress and NCP won't return to power in the state. So, being considered the bigger brother in the Sena-BJP alliance, people thought that Sena will have the upper hand in state politics post-2014. But, after BJP won a majority on its own in New Delhi and Amit Shah became chief of BJP, politics changed. Sena-BJP alliance broke for the first time since 1989. In the state Assembly elections, BJP won more seats than the Sena. That hurt people who were staunch supporters of Marathi politics. During the next three years, Maharashtra witnessed repeated threats by Sena leadership to BJP through 'Saamana' editorials, though it was inevitable that Sena continued staying in power with them. This deeply disturbed Sena supporters as well as supporters of Marathi sub-nationalism. Raj was looking at these developments closely and saw an opportunity. He too kept attacking Modi and BJP regularly in his speeches.
The picture of 2019's political battle was unclear. Raj met NCP chief and Maharashtra's most experienced leader Sharad Pawar repeatedly. As Sena sealed the deal with BJP for pre-poll alliance for the general election, Raj moved fast. Since the beginning he was clear that MNS couldn’t contest the Lok Sabha elections alone – it would be a waste of energy and resources. But he also knew that to re-establish himself in state politics again, Modi had to be ousted from the Center. So, he struck a strategic alliance with Congress, but mainly with NCP. He is now exposing Modi government every day and setting the tone of elections in Maharashtra.
In 2014, he had lost the votes but not the 'charisma'. Raj is a big crowd puller in Maharashtra even today. He is the first leader in India who delivers his speeches interspersed with video and power point presentations. To expose what Modi had said earlier and what he is saying now, Raj presents 'sound bytes clips' in a ‘Then-and-Now’ style.
Later this year, Maharashtra will have Assembly elections. That is Raj’s target. He is eyeing the Shiv Sena voters. The emotional Sena workers and supporters who slammed Modi and Shah for last four years are now sulking in private. They are shocked to see Uddhav Thackeray having an alliance with BJP even after all the bitterness and name-calling. In such condition the ‘Marathi Sub Nationalist', who is unlikely to vote for Congress-NCP, will be left with no choice other than MNS.
If BJP loses power at the center, it will become weaker in Maharashtra too and Raj would get the situation he looks for. So, for Raj, Modi’s defeat in the general elections is the first step towards his own victory in the state.
Maharashtra send 48 MPs, highest after Uttar Pradesh's 80. The NDA had won 42 in 2014 - BJP 23, Sena 18 and Swabhiman Paksha (Raju Shetti) 1. So significant losses in Maharashtra would definitely put Modi's dream of returning to power in danger. There is rural distress that BJP knows well. It hopes to do best in urban centers. Over 45% of the state’s population lives in urban areas. Mumbai, Thane, Pune and Nasik's urban centers elect 13 MPs. Congress and NCP are weak here. But with help of Raj, they will be able to put up a good fight on almost every seat. Their aim is clear. Raj had earned 3.8 percent of votes in 2014 assembly elections. If Raj is able to transfer a substantial portion of these votes to the Congress-NCP alliance, results would change.
Things have come to such a pass that Raj is defending Jawaharlal Nehru and Indira Gandhi and even Rahul Gandhi in his recent rallies. No Congress leader in state has been able to do that effectively in last five years. Perhaps, Raj wants to swallow up the Congress-NCP base by this intricate game.
Politics is art of possibilities. Raj knows it very well. And he also knows that the politics is a dangerous game that demands risk every time. As of now, Raj has nothing to lose. He is just trying to create a space in minds of Marathi voters ahead of assembly elections. Through the strongest and sharpest attack on Modi and Shah and clear anti-BJP message, Raj is clearing a path for himself. That's what this general election is all about for him.