Raj Thackerey is finding the spotlight fall on him once again, this time for doing the job that the Congress-NCP combine appears not as competent to do -- highlight the failures of the Modi government.
How much impact he will have, we won’t have to wait long to know. But for now, he can enjoy this mini resurrection.
“Begani shaadi mein Abdullah deewana.”
That’s how Maharashtra Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis described Raj Thackeray’s recent rallies and interventions in the run-up to the 2019 Lok Sabha election.
Thackeray’s case is a curious one. It appears that the alliance between the Congress and the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) has outsourced its opposition to the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)–Shiv Sena–Republican Party of India (Athawale) (RPIA) alliance, to Thackeray.
Except, Thackeray’s party, Maharashtra Navnirman Sena (MNS), is not contesting the election at all. The opposition leader drawing the biggest crowds in Maharashtra has decided to sit out the election altogether!
Fadnavis described this situation as MNS being Matdar Nasleli Sena (party with no voters). He even suggested a new name for the MNS. Taking a dig at its inability to contest the Lok Sabha election, Fadnavis suggested that the party should be renamed as Ummeedwar Nasleli Sena (party with no candidates).
Yet, a quick scan of the social media feeds of media and political aficionados in Maharashtra suggests that Thackeray is making the most relatable noises from the opposition against Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
Rise And Fall Of MNS
MNS was set up in 2006 when it was clear that Balasaheb Thackeray was going to pass on the leadership of the Shiv Sena to his son Uddhav. Immediately after its formation, MNS reverted to the old Shiv Sena agenda of “sons of the soil” first while the Sena itself was trying to broad-base its electoral appeal.
The party’s violent agitation against north Indian migrants in 2008, during which time its workers beat up north Indian candidates appearing for the Railway Recruitment Board entrance examination, created much furore and generated sympathy for MNS among Marathi speakers. The then ruling Congress-NCP state government also tacitly supported MNS’ violence, as MNS was growing at the expense of the Sena.
MNS played spoilsport for the BJP-Sena combine in the 2009 Lok Sabha election in a big way and was a key reason for the alliance losing all seats in Mumbai to the Congress-NCP alliance. MNS followed this up in the 2009 assembly election as well. Surprising everyone, the party ended up winning 13 assembly seats, a majority of them in the Mumbai metropolitan region, with a few seats in Pune and Nashik areas.
However, the 2009 assembly election marked the peak of MNS and it has been all downhill ever since. The party’s vote share in the 2014 assembly election came down to just 3.2 per cent from 5.7 per cent in 2009.
Also, the party ended up winning just one seat compared to 13 seats in 2009. The lone Member of Legislative Assembly (MLA) also shifted to the Shiv Sena, leaving MNS with zero MLAs in the Maharashtra assembly.
MNS was primarily an urban phenomenon. The party did well in the local body elections as well, but has since regressed at local levels, too. In corporation elections held between 2009 and 2013, MNS had a total of 162 corporators.
The party had also managed to have its mayor in Nashik in 2012. However, between 2014 and 2018, only 25 corporators were elected on the MNS ticket across Maharashtra. Also, six of the seven elected corporators in Mumbai have since shifted their allegiance to Shiv Sena, further depleting the strength of MNS.
After the dismal performance in the 2017 civic body election, some of Thackeray’s hardcore loyalists have also jumped off the sinking ship. Shishir Shinde, ex-MLA and a prominent leader, has moved back to Shiv Sena.
The decision of the MNS to refrain from contesting the upcoming Lok Sabha election stems from its recognition of its significantly reduced ground strength and inability to influence the elections in any manner whatsoever.
Yet, ironically, the MNS is drawing bigger crowds than the Congress and NCP leaders are in various public meetings.
Congress-NCP Clutching At Straws
Despite MNS’ steep downward trajectory over the last 10 years, the Congress-NCP alliance has co-opted Raj Thackeray as its star campaigner. Thackeray himself has said that while he will not ask for people to vote for Congress-NCP, he will highlight the supposed failures of the Modi government.
First, it is indeed surprising that the Congress-NCP combine has decided to outsource a big part of its Lok Sabha campaign to a person who himself has run away from the Lok Sabha battle.
Congress-NCP’s reliance on Thackeray to educate its cadre on purported failures of the Modi government is symptomatic of the deeper organisational rot within their parties -- a result of the overwhelming preference for dynasts over the years rather than actual ground leaders.
Moreover, it confirms the premise that there is no leader in Congress-NCP’s ranks with enough credibility to match up to Chief Minister Fadnavis in the urban areas.
The entire cadre base and leadership of the MNS has come from Shiv Sena and is stridently opposed to the Congress. Also, the “Marathi manoos” agenda pursued by MNS since its formation is rooted in anti-Congressism. It is indeed a tall ask to expect the Marathi supporters of MNS to vote for the Congress-NCP combine just because Thackeray asks them to.
It is instructive to note that in areas of MNS influence in Mumbai, like Sewree, Mahim, Magathane, Vikhroli, and Bhandup among others, the Congress has struggled to even secure its deposits in elections in recent times.
Further, MNS’ presence and Thackeray’s influence, or whatever is left of it, is restricted primarily to the Mumbai Metropolitan Region. North Indian voters form a significant portion (estimated between 15 per cent and 20 per cent) of the population in this region. The Congress-NCP alliance with the MNS will likely repel a large chunk of this voter base, hurting their prospects rather than boosting them.
The Congress-NCP combine is definitely clutching at the straws by relying on Raj Thackeray to help them fight the Modi-Fadnavis-Uddhav onslaught.
Nonetheless, a full 10 years after his electoral debut, Thackeray is enjoying the spotlight on him. Maharashtra social media has more memes and videos on Thackeray than any other local leader barring Fadnavis.
Thackeray’s real impact will be known on 23 May – until then, he and MNS enjoy a small and unexpected resurrection.