In a move set to upset political equations in Maharashtra and introduce friction in BJP-Shiv Sena ties, Maharashtra Navnirman Sena (MNS) chief Raj Thackeray announced on Sunday that the party would contest the Lok Sabha elections but would support the BJP’s Narendra Modi as prime minister “for the sake of our country”.
Addressing his cadre at the party’s eighth foundation day celebrations here, Raj read out names of seven candidates for the Lok Sabha elections, to be fielded from the MNS stronghold cities of Mumbai, Pune and Nashik. Six of these seven constituencies have a Shiv Sena candidate, while the seventh is being contested by the BJP.
The MNS entry is expected to take votes away from the BJP, Sena-led grand alliance in the state, while the support to Modi will leave Raj’s cousin Uddhav Thackeray on tenterhooks.
“The MNS will show its strength in the elections and the second list of candidates will be declared soon. The last few days have been full of speculation and questions on my silence.
MNS bowls a googly: to fight LS, but back Modi
It is important to allow everyone to speak and then have the final word. Yes, we will fight elections,” Raj said.
“Our MPs who get elected will support Narendra Modi,” he added. “He should become the prime minister. For the sake of our country’s future, our MPs will support him.” Till a few months ago, the MNS chief had been critical of Modi.
State BJP president Devendra Fadnavis was guarded in his response, welcoming the MNS’s unconditional support to Modi but adding that the BJP would have welcomed it “wholeheartedly” if the MNS had decided not to field candidates. He also asserted that there would be no effect on BJP-Sena ties. “Happy to know everybody has realised that the Narendra Modi wave is unstoppable. There is no confusion in the BJP as it will always work for NDA candidates,” Fadnavis said.
BJP leader Vinod Tawde saw Raj’s move as a bid to get back to the centrestage. “In the past few months he tried to distance himself by criticising Modi, but that did not work to his advantage. Now he realises that if he rakes up Modi’s name, it brings him in the electoral fray.”
Former BJP president Nitin Gadkari had met Raj last week and requested him not to field candidates so as to not hurt the BJP’s prospects. On Sunday, he too reiterated the strength of the 25-year-old BJP-Sena tie-up. “We are happy Raj has decided to support Narendra Modi. However, we would like to make it clear that the BJP-Shiv Sena-RPI alliance will stick together and work towards defeating opponents,” Gadkari said. The Sena mouthpiece Saamna had described Gadkari as “pucca trader (businessman)” following his meeting with Raj.
NCP spokesperson Nawab Mulik said the MNS appeared to be “confused”. “Not long ago, they were critical about Modi.”
With fights on most seats in Maharashtra a four-cornered contest because of the presence of the Aam Aadmi Party, the MNS could give some advantage to the Congress-NCP combine.
The MNS’s candidate list released on Sunday included senior MLA Bala Nandgaonkar (South Mumbai), actor-director Mahesh Manjrekar (Mumbai North West) and Aditya Shirodkar (Mumbai South Central), who is the party’s youth wing leader and son of Matoshree Infrastructure Chairman Rajan Shirodkar.
Nandgaonkar is pitted against the Congress’s Milind Deora, the Sena’s Arvind Sawant and the Aam Admi Party’s Meera Sanyal in South Mumbai. Aditya Shirodkar will be taking on sitting Congress MP Eknath Gaikwad and the Sena’s Rahul Shewale. Manjrekar will fight sitting Congress MP Gurudas Kamat and Sena senior leader Gajanan Kirtikar.
Besides, the MNS has fielded Raju Patil from Kalyan Dombivili, Ashok Khandebarad from Shirur, Pradeep Pawar from Nashik and Deepak Paigude from Pune (the seat with a BJP candidate).
Dr Surendra Jondhale, Head of Mumbai University’s Department of Civics and Politics, said Raj’s move was clever politics, with him having nothing to lose. “In case his MPs were elected, he would have supported Modi in government formation. It makes sense for him to stick his neck out for Modi and take benefit of the latent support from this association. By doing so he has managed to create a rift between the BJP and Sena, which could weaken the Sena further, and this is what Raj wants,” said Jondhale.
The MNS had played a key role in the defeat of at least 10 Sena and BJP candidates in 2009, when it had contested 12 Lok Sabha seats. The party’s candidates had managed to draw over one lakh votes each.
“We are contesting to win. We are not here to promote the Congress-NCP or defeat the Sena-BJP,” Nandgaonkar said.