Political leader Raj Thackeray has just finished his round of public meetings in Maharashtra. He has emerged as the real star of the 2019 Lok Sabha elections in Maharashtra, without contesting a single seat in the state. He has occupied the space of a fiery opposition leader who has not shied away from taking on the Modi-Shah duo. Expectedly, Congress and Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) leaders willingly ceded their space to him.
Liberals or seculars seem to be enjoying Thackeray’s splendid performance. He has done his outsourced job perfectly, thanks to Sharad Pawar who convinced him to conduct a tour against Modi-Shah. Pawar is an astute politician who understands strength and weaknesses of friends and foes. He knew Thackeray’s charisma would do wonders. He did not disappoint him, in fact with every public meeting, his attack on Modi-Shah became sharper. Initially, Pawar wanted Raj Thackeray’s Maharashtra Navnirman Sena adjusted in the Congress-NCP alliance. But Congress did not agree saying it would drive away North Indian voters. Ironically, Congress leaders Ashok Chavan or former Home Minister Sushilkumar Shinde were the first to demand for Thackeray’s mesmerising meetings.
The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in Maharashtra tried to counter Thackeray but with no success. Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis began by instructing the party’s IT cell to target him. However, Raj Thackeray ridiculed him in the next meetings and exposed BJP’s propaganda machine to such an extent that the party became a laughing stock in the state. Fadnavis then backtracked. On April 26, Narendra Modi addressed a huge meeting in Mumbai. Thackeray had his last meeting in Nashik on the same day. BJP leaders had hoped Modi would counter Raj, but surprisingly, Modi’s meeting was uninspiring. BJP had plans to emulate Thackeray by doing audio-visual presentations. Their media cell was busy collecting his old videos praising Modi. But he took the wind out of their ship. He publicly admitted to his mistake of praising Modi in 2013. “Modi and his officers cheated me on the Gujarat model,” he declared to the people. BJP could not counter his criticism by providing something exciting. In 2014, Modi had stolen the limelight but this time, Raj Thackeray has replaced him in Maharashtra with his ever entertaining one-man shows. The right wing party even complained to the State Election Commissioner regarding the expenses of Thackeray’s meeting. But the EC could not intervene.
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In the last two weeks, media has tried to analyse the effect of Raj Thackeray’s campaign on BJP’s prospects. But the real sufferer is Shiv Sena. By his mega shows, Thackeray has put the Shiv Sena on the back foot. His focus remains Modi-Shah, but when he dismisses Uddhav Thackeray as a shameless, sycophantic creature, he gets thunderous applause. Shiv Sena (SS) criticised the BJP in the harshest terms over the past five years and allied with them at the last minute. This has not gone down well with the Shiv Sena supporters. Raj has smartly exploited that feeling. He has a sizeable voter base in all metropolitan constituencies, which will directly hit Uddhav. Raj Thackeray’s campaign has put Shiv Sainiks in confusion for sure. The core SS voters are divided. In addition to this, Shiv Sena’s election campaign this year has been lacklustre. Uddhav’s public meetings have been a damp squib. Many Shiv Sena candidates preferred to use Modi’s image on posters than Uddhav’s.
Raj Thackeray has also captured the imagination of the young voter, which the BJP-SS had planned to target. They are attracted to his aggressive speeches and charisma. His unexpected entry on to the scene has had BJP-SS on the ropes. If he is able to transfer his vote base to Congress-NCP on the ground, Shiv Sena candidates will be in trouble more than the BJP.
Meanwhile, BJP leaders have started questioning Raj Thackeray’s intentions. They accuse him of doing a ‘Supari’ job (a covert job) for Congress. To which he responded by asking, “Did I do the same when I supported Modi in 2013?”. Now, the BJP-SS combine is worried about his next plan. The Maharashtra Assembly elections slated for October this year will be thrown a new political combination if the Congress-NCP officially allies with Raj Thackeray’s MNS. This will be a real threat for the BJP-SS alliance, especially Shiv Sena candidates. With his newfound vigour, Thackeray can attack a low on confidence Sena to settle his old scores with Uddhav. Raj Thackeray has not disclosed his cards till now and kept both the alliances guessing. BJP would have loved him on their side, but Shiv Sena makes it impossible.
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In this Lok Sabha elections, he is totally focused on Modi-Shah. Assembly campaigns would be totally different. Thackeray has rarely touched his favourite subject of Hindutva or North Indian migration in the current Lok Sabha campaign. But he has not changed his original stand on these controversial topics. His attack may have become softer, but cannot say good bye to these topics permanently as it will hurt his core constituency. In this election, Congress refused to ally with him on the same ground. If they want to make a pact with him, they would have to be more flexible. He has nothing to lose. Congress-NCP needs him more than he needs them. Pawar knows this very well.
In the 2009 assembly election Thackeray’s MNS got 4.8% votes, won 13 seats which went down in 2014 due to Modi wave. This year, in the Assembly elections if MNS is able get its 2009 vote share back, it will be an important addition to the Congress-NCP kitty and can change the number game in the state. It can reduce the 8% gap in both alliances.
This is a golden opportunity for Raj Thackeray. He can revive his party, but he needs to become more inclusive, which is an ideological challenge.
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