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Raj Thackeray has Assembly polls on mind

MNS chief, who backed Modi in 2014, has been going hammer and tongs at BJP and Shiv Sena even though his party is not contesting the Lok Sabha elections

Firstpost print Edition

Liberals couldn’t have imagined they’d fall in love with Raj Thackeray. But it’s happened, and smack in the middle of the Lok Sabha elections.

It’s all about Prime Minister Modi. At a time when the Congress-Nationalist Congress Party combine has failed to up the ante against the BJP-Shiv Sena alliance, the Maharashtra Navnirman Sena chief entered the 2019 battleground and stirred the pot like never before, energetically and intelligently campaigning against the Modi-Shah duo and the return to power of the Bharatiya Janata Party.

With a dozen-odd public meetings in a fortnight, Thackeray has drawn massive crowds, created social media buzz, made BJP leaders uneasy, and managed to send a quiet warning to the Shiv Sena.

It’s an amazing turnaround for a man written off not so long ago by political pundits. The MNS–founded in 2006 after separating from the Shiv Sena–drew a blank in the 2014 Lok Sabha and Assembly polls. Thackeray’s candidates lost their deposits in the Lok Sabha polls, and he got just one MLA, who was poached by the Sena a month ago. In the 2017 Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation polls, six of seven MNS corporators switched over to the Sena.

Thackeray and his MNS were out in the cold.

Till 2019 that is. The man has come roaring back with public rallies pulling in massive crowds, and watched over by thousands of others on social media.

What gives? Raj Thackeray’s entry into the Battle of 2019 was neither sudden nor unplanned. As early as mid-2017, Thackeray, who invokes similarities with Sena patriarch and his uncle, the late Balasaheb Thackeray, began taking an anti-Modi and anti-BJP stance.

The 51-year-old MNS chief has directed his jibes at Prime Minister Modi in particular and the BJP in general through his cartoons, relentless, superbly timed, and satirically ruthless. The cartoons tweeted by his social media team carry Marathi and English text; his speeches in Marathi posted on YouTube have Hindi and English sub-titles.

Voting for Maharashtra’s 48 seats is over, but the damage has been done.

There is a political context to Raj Thackeray’s latest foray. The Congress-NCP alliance has no teeth; that the Leader of the Opposition in the Assembly Radhakrishna Vikhe-Patil has been canvassing not for his party, the Congress, but for the Shiv Sena in his home constituency of Shirdi, while his son crossed over to the BJP and has contested against the NCP in the Ahmednagar constituency, are fairly symptomatic of affairs.

Demonetisation, raging rural distress and unemployment have catalysed unrest among the masses but the Congress and NCP opposition have not leveraged it. The BJP and Sena have held on to their turf.

Thackeray has sought to enter into that vacuum without contesting the Lok Sabha elections, in contrast with the Prakash Ambedkar-led Vanchit Bahujan Aghadi (VBA) that put up candidates in alliance with Asaduddin Owaisi to eat into the opposition space.

For four years, the Shiv Sena behaved like a jilted partner of the BJP. But when the Sena sheathed its sword, Thackeray sensed a chance. He deployed a multi-pronged strategy. One, that he or his party were not in the fray, but he was campaigning against the BJP and Modi-Shah since their return was a threat to democracy. Two, he would use technology like no other leader ever has. Thackeray juxtaposed well-researched audio-video presentations on big screens at his rallies to amplify the effect of his fiery speeches: satire and fact-check, hand-in-hand.

Audiences lapped it all up as Thackeray tore into the Modi-Shah aura, his presentations juxtaposing Modi’s claims with reality. Is Modi sincere about Namami Gange project? What about the Mudra Loan Scheme? Is demonetisation the biggest scam since 1947? What did Modi say about the Aadhaar initiative, and how did his stand on Aadhaar and GST change after he became PM?

His catchphrase of ‘E Lav Re To Video’ (hey, play that video) became a social media rage. A rattled BJP shot back just before the last phase of voting with ‘Pahach To Video’ (let’s see that video), but the MNS shot back with a 56-mark paper–a yes/no or choose-from-the-options question paper for the BJP.
“I am not doing this for myself but for my country,” Thackeray declared at his final rally at Nashik last week. “When you cast your vote on Monday, remember these two men–Modi and Shah–must be erased from the country’s political canvass; you are voting for democracy.”

This is the same Raj Thackeray who in 2012 backed Modi’s bid for the top job. It is this history with Modi that Raj is desperate to erase. “I was wrong and so were you,” he said at one of his rallies, “we were all taken in by lies.” “The Congress was bad,” he has reminded people on why they had voted for a change in 2014, “but the BJP and Shiv Sena have turned out worse.”

Thackeray senses an opportunity in the Assembly polls due later this year. His main challenge is to rebuild the scarred, deserted MNS. But Raj is on his way.

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