The Maharashtra Navnirman Sena (MNS) founder Raj Thackeray’s current tour of the Vidarbha region has surprised political circles as it has come at a time when the party has been struggling to regain its lost grounds on his home turf, Mumbai, and in some urban pockets of Pune and Nashik.
The MNS has remained non-existent in Vidarbha, which has always been dominated by pan-India parties like the Congress and the BJP, with their respective allies, the NCP and the Shiv Sena, having played second fiddle to them so far.
Raj’s foray into Vidarbha is a pointer to the MNS’s plans to contest the coming municipal corporation elections in Nagpur, Chandrapur and Amravati in the region. His tour is aimed at doing the spadework for setting up the MNS’s organisational bases across the cotton region ahead of the civic polls across Maharashtra.
MNS sources said, “Raj has taken a pragmatic approach. The message to party office-bearers and workers is to focus on organisation building,” adding that the signal sent out to the MNS workers is that they should not count on any alliances and start gearing up to fight the civic polls on the party’s own steam.
The MNS has already said that it would contest from all 227 seats in the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) polls.
During his five-day Vidarbha visit, Raj, who arrived in Nagpur by train Sunday, would also explore the ways and means in which the MNS could make inroads into the support bases of the Shiv Sena following its split that has left the Uddhav Thackeray-led Sena bruised and battered.
On the very first day of his trip, Raj met Union minister Nitin Gadkari at Nagpur’s new multi-coloured musical fountain at Phutala Talav. Raj’s relationship with Gadkari, who represents Nagpur in the Lok Sabha, has always been cordial.
In the coming days Maharashtra will see polls in 27 municipal corporations: BMC ( 227 seats) , Thane (132), Ahmednagar (68), Akola (80), Amravati (87), Aurangabad (113), Bhiwandi-Nizampur (90), Chandrapur (66), Dhule (74), Jalgaon (75), Kalyan-Dombivali (122), Kolhapur (81), Latur (70), Malegaon (84), Nagpur (151), Nanded-Waghale (81), Nashik (122), Navi Mumbai (111), Pavel (78), Parbhani (65), Pimpri-Chinchwad (32), Pune (58), Sangli-Miraj-Kupwada (78), Solapur (102), Ulhasnagar (78), Vasai-Virar (115), Mira-Bhayander (95).
The BJP, which now already has an alliance with Chief Minister Eknath Shinde-led rebel Sena faction, has continued to remain non-committal over the question of any alliance with the MNS, although senior state BJP leaders share cordial relations with the MNS chief. The saffron camp seems to be divided in its views on the issue.
When Union home minister Amit Shah visited Mumbai during the ten-day Ganesh festival, a BJP section wanted to set up an informal meeting between Shah and Raj. However, senior central as well as state leaders felt that the time was not ripe for such a meeting now.
Some BJP leaders and strategists believe that the party should not rush into joining hands with the MNS, arguing that it should be first thoroughly assessed what would Raj’s outfit, which has been relegated to the margins, bring to their alliance table besides getting a new lease of life for itself.
They also contend that the party should focus on its coalition with the Shinde Sena, streamlining its mechanism and overcoming its hurdles first. They also wonder whether and how the BJP-Shinde combine would be able to accomodate the MNS’s seat demands.
After breaking away from the Sena in 2005, Raj Thackeray, cousin of Uddhav Thackeray, formed the MNS. In the 2009 Maharashtra Assembly elections, the MNS won 13 seats in the 288-member House. However, in the successive Assembly polls held in 2014 and 2019, its tally plunged to one. In the 2019 polls, the MNS polled just 2.25 per cent votes.
In the elections to the 227-ward BMC in 2012, the MNS made its mark, winning 28 seats. In the 2017 BMC polls, the party could win only seven seats, of which six corporators joined the Sena.
Following repeated electoral setbacks, the MNS kept a relatively low profile over the past couple of years. Raj himself told media persons at Nagpur, “During the Covid-19 pandemic people were confronted with new challenges. So, we felt it would be improper to talk politics.”
Raj himself underwent a hip surgery that kept him out of action for the last one-and-half months. But soon after his recovery, he seems to be looking to strengthen his party and lead it into the coming civic body polls across the state.
MNS sources said, “After his Vidarbha visit, Raj will tour Konkan region. It will be followed by tours in Marathwada, and the north and western Maharashtra regions in the next few months.”
With the Lok Sabha and state Assembly polls slated for 2024, Raj has decided to focus on building his party to enable it to fight the civic polls in urban areas across the state. He has already expanded his political agenda to include Hindutva to his “son of soil” narrative in a bid to make a wider outreach to the people. The MNS is looking to take the space, especially in urban pockets, it believes has been vacated by the Sena due to a split following the rebellion of the Shinde faction against the Uddhav-led party.