“Marvellous” is how Raj Thackeray had summed up his nine-day tour of Gujarat in 2011, undertaken at the personal invitation of then Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi. “I believe you are very lucky to have Narendra Modi as your leader,” the Maharashtra Navnirman Sena (MNS) chief had said at a press conference held during the visit.
On Friday, addressing his first rally this election, in Nanded, Thackeray gave another description for the PM: a Hitler who was the biggest threat to Indian democracy. The MNS chief has announced he would be addressing similar rallies against the BJP across the state.
Even as the MNS’s ties with the BJP have been strained, Thackeray and Modi have shared good personal equations. The attacks seem dictated by the MNS chief’s need to keep himself relevant at a time when his party’s political fortunes are dwindling.
While in the run-up to the Lok Sabha elections, attempts had been made by the NCP to cash in on this by getting Thackeray on board its alliance with the Congress, the Congress resisted, apparently due to fear of repercussions of aligning with a party with a militant regional agenda. However there seems to be a tacit understanding that Thackeray would campaign for Congress-NCP candidates where needed.
Last month, Thackeray said the MNS would not be contesting the Lok Sabha polls and asked party workers to campaign against Modi, Amit Shah and the BJP. He has raised questions over the attack in Pulwama, Kashmir — among the worst on security forces in the history of militancy in the Valley — and over jobs.
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MNS leaders claim their campaign would help the Congress-NCP. “The questions the party chief is asking will force people to think about them,” says a party leader, pointing to the MNS’s lingering influence in its stronghold of Mumbai, Thane and Nashik. In its first election in 2009, when the MNS had won 13 seats, 12 had come from this region.
The MNS hopes that the rallies would, in turn, help party preparations for the Assembly polls due later this year. “The MNS chief has already given the call to start preparing for the Assembly polls,” said the leader, adding that the party won’t join hands with the Congress-NCP.
While admitting that MNS votes may not easily transfer to other parties, MNS leader Sandeep Deshpande said, “But, the MNS will have to be given credit if the Congress and NCP candidates win at places where the MNS chief is addressing rallies.”
Seeking that the MNS be brought into the Congress-NCP alliance, NCP leader Ajit Pawar recently acknowledged, “MNS candidates had secured over a lakh votes (in certain constituencies) even in the last state polls.”
Having debuted with 13 seats in the Assembly in 2009, the MNS is currently down to 0, having lost its only MLA who won in 2014 to the Shiv Sena. Of its original 13 MLAs, only three are still with the party. Its Assembly polls share fell from 5.71 per cent in 2009 to 3.1 per cent in 2014. The same is the story in the Lok Sabha. While the party has never won an LS seat, in 2009, it had got 4.07 per cent of the votes, and two of its 10 contestants (Nashik, Mumbai South) had finished second. In 2014, it got just 1.5 per cent votes.
But Thackeray still manages to draw crowds, making him a poll asset, and attacking Modi gives him a larger profile. “If you want to make a name for yourself in boxing, there is no point fighting the weak boxers. You need to challenge the champion,” a senior MNS leader said.