On 23rd January, (Balasaheb Thackeray’s 93 birth anniversary) Raj Thackeray changed his party’s flag. From a multi-coloured one with Railway Engine on it, he went straight for a Saffron flag with Shivaji Maharaj’s Royal Seal (Rajmudra) inscribed on it. For his party, Maharashtra Navnirman Sena (MNS), this is not just a change of Flag, (Zhenda) but complete re-launch of agenda. It’s quite evident that this happened because, in Maharashtra, Shiv Sena went into a post-poll alliance with NCP-Cong. Now the question is why this step and why now?
On 9th March 2006, by breaking away from his Uncle Balasaheb, Raj had launched MNS. A result of sibling rivalry between Raj and Uddhav; who apparently was leading the fight for the throne. For most of the observers, amongst these two, Raj clearly was a better candidate to lead the party. He was a better organizer and a far better orator. But for Balasaheb, blood was thicker than water, which was evident through various decisions regarding party hierarchy etc.
And though Raj Thackeray broke away from Shiv Sena he could never come out of the overarching large shadow cast by Balasaheb’s massive popularity and influence. Which was Shiv Sena’s biggest strength! To turn this hindrance into an advantage, Raj modelled his party exactly like Shiv Sena. Right from the inception, neither Raj Thackeray nor his party functionaries ever made an attempt to hide their identity, aspiration or plan. Their rank and file came from the same social background as Shiv Sena’s, their party goals would match that of with Shiv Sena and they even targeted the same voters. They wanted to replace Shiv Sena.
On the back of disgruntled Shiv Sena leaders (who had shifted to MNS) angst and disappointment of many voters, MNS met with some success initially. In 2009, it fought first assembly elections in Maharashtra and won 13 seats by cornering 5.7% of popular votes. In 2012 it achieved massive success by capturing Nasik Municipal Corporation. However due to lack of party structure, next assembly in 2014 and next in 2019 proved to be a disaster. MNS only won one seat each in both.
So 14 years on, Raj Thackeray, a firebrand orator, a leader with a mass following, blessed with a rich legacy and with all the money and street power at his disposal, was back to square one! So what does he do? Obviously what an entrenched, entitled dynast would do and has done before. Go for another low hanging fruit! Chase disappointed Hindu votes. Hence Saffron Flag with a Rajmudra!
But then why delve into an already crowded market place? When most of the political parties are turning their gaze towards Hindu vote, why Raj Thackeray wants to become another Me Too? And why compete with BJP? The big daddy of Hindu votes.
The reason is Sharad Pawar! And his new project. At this ripe age of 80, he is getting ready for a one last swan song. If you look at Sharad Pawar’s career briefly, there is one trait, which you just can’t miss. This man’s greed for power has no limits. He has taken so many U-Turns, that he makes Kejriwal looks a beginner. He became MLA for the first time when he was 27 and a CM at 38. Since then till today, he formed his own party twice, only to wind them up and join Congress twice. Only to leave it again in 1999, citing Sonia Gandhi’s ‘Foreign Origin’. Only to ally with Congress in 2004 again. For the next full decade, he was Agricultural Minister in Sonia’s cabinet.
In 2014 General Election Modi wave sank Congress and also regional players like NCP. But in the Maharastra Assembly elections, held a few months later, instead of fighting alongside with Congress, NCP went in alone. BJP notched its best performance ever by winning 122 seats, Just short of the halfway mark of 148. Shiv Sena was is no mood to support BJP. But Mr U-Turn of Indian politics again, true to his character showed his colours and supported BJP. Which forced Shiv Sena to support the government one month later.
Come 2019, this time pre-poll alliance of BJP-Shiv Sena won a clear majority. Capitalizing on Uddhav Thackeray’s greed for Chief Minster’s chair, Sharad Pawar, without blinking, formed an alliance with Sena & Congress! The party which took pride in demolishing Babri and party which believed Prabhu Ram was mythological character agreed to share power. Everybody was stunned!
When it comes to making compromises and taking u-turns there is no one like Sharad Pawar. And all this, either to stay in power or close to power.
Coming back to a new avatar of MNS and Sharad Pawar connection. After losing Shiv Sena, the disappointment in Hindutva camp is palpable. There is also anger amongst those who voted for Sena candidates because of alliance with BJP. And with BJP going full throttle on Hindu Agenda (Ram Mandir, Abolition of 370 and Triple Talaq etc) it is in pole position to capitalize on that anger and corner most of the Hindu vote. To dent this possibility, a wily old fox from Baramati and his disciple, have created this decoy of new Hindu Right party in Maharashtra.
By doing this Sharad Pawar is attempting a Modi on Modi. He is using ‘Hindu’ parties to wean away BJP’s Hindu vote. MNS is not the first party with which he is trying that. Shiv Sena is first! Sena fought the 2019 assembly elections on pretext on ‘Hindu’ party. But broke away from BJP after elections. That’s what Raj & Pawar are trying to do.
In 2019, BJP won a massive mandate of 303 seats. The principal reason, of course, being Modi’s popularity, consolidation of Hindu votes and an efficient welfare management system. But another important reason is, ideologically allied players have refused to cede any space to Congress and vice versa. For Example, in Uttar Pradesh (UP), Samajwadi Party (SP) & Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) and Congress, who otherwise were part of Mahagathbandhan, fought against each other. Resulting in the triangular contest, benefiting BJP. It won 67 seats out of 80.Ditto in case of Aam Admi Party (AAP) and Trinamul Congress (TMC).In Bihar, Nitish Kumar’s Janata Dal (U) though a Centre-Left party, deserted UPA in 2017 and came back into NDA. These Third Front parties and Congress have some kind of voter base but are also fighting each other. Which makes BJP’s job much easier.
Now when Raj Thackeray is turning full Saffron, he is going mainly for voters who will desert Shiv Sena. But the aim is to stop BJP from advancing. In this whole jigsaw puzzle, the only missing piece now is BJP allowing Raj Thackeray to come closer. The duo’s dream of harvesting the crop of disgruntled Hindu voters is not going to be realized till MNS is ‘seen to be’ close to BJP. Devendra Phadnavis and Amit Shah must resist temptation and stay away from MNS.