Has Raj Thackeray’s brand of politics come to an end? Changing times & minds suggest so

MUMBAI,DHAVAL KULKARNI : A year-and-a-half after his party’s electoral Waterloo, MNS chief Raj Thackeray is trying to resurrect his anti-outsider plank with an eye on the civic polls due next year as evidenced by the call to his cadre to burn new autorickshaws, permits for which he alleged would largely be given to migrants.

However, will this purported revival plan yield dividends, considering that aspirations of the party’s natural voter catchment have changed and a lot of water has flown under the bridge since 2008, when the MNS launched it’s anti-North Indian protests, giving Raj the halo of an alter ego of Maharashtrians?

MNS insiders admit that this politics of violence may have run its course with the youth and first-time voters, who are upwardly mobile, have largely cosmopolitan sensibilities, and prefer development-oriented politics rather than one based on extreme positions. Moreover, the party has been hit by dissensions and problems — an inability to take issues to their logical end, a weak party organisation, urban-centric approach, absence of a credible programme for cadre and too much reliance on the charisma of the mercurial Raj rather than on any ground-level work.
Speaking at his party’s 10th foundation day, Raj lashed out at the state government and alleged it had been decided that 70-72% of the 70,000 autorickshaw permits would go to people from other states. Raj asked his partymen to “evacuate the passengers and the driver when they saw a new autorickshaw or an autorickshaw with a new number plate… and set it on fire”.
“The BJP-Shiv Sena-led state government has been caught in a cleft. If it initiates criminal action against Raj, it will automatically make him into a hero,” noted a senior MNS leader, adding that in such a scenario, the Sena stood to lose more than the BJP in the coming BMC polls. The MNS was trying to use the issue to reach out to lower-middle class Maharashtrians, who bear the brunt of the influx of outsiders in an unregulated, burgeoning, informal economy, making them economic competitors.
He admitted that the party may not be able to garner the same sympathy and generate the same penetrating power like in 2008 when the MNS and Samajwadi Party activists had even clashed on the streets. In the 2009 assembly polls, the MNS garnered 13 seats, which came down to just one in 2014, indicating the shrinking of its core and incremental vote.
The MNS leader added that the party had little to show in terms of constructive work in the 10 years of its existence. “Sadly, voters lack political and intellectual grist and fall for these issues… The problem is there is no intellectual Marathiwaad (pro-Marathi stance) in politics,” he lamented.
Surendra Jondhale, professor, department of civics and politics, University of Mumbai, said, “It is not going to click. It is not politically creative imagination. It is creating more confusion in his followers about his politics.”
“The same weapon cannot be used several times in politics. The MNS has raised issues of the Marathi manoos but failed to take them to their logical end. Once political credibility is lost, restoring it is an uphill task,” noted a Shiv Sena activist, who cut his teeth in the Bharatiya Vidyarthi Sena, which was then helmed by Raj.
“Instead of raising this point, Raj should have focused on bread-and-butter issues, like the plight of the drought-affected and on livelihood and infrastructure issues confronting Mumbaikars,” he stressed.
“In 2009, Raj gained the incremental vote not just for the Marathi agenda, but also because he created a new hope. He clicked even among upper-class Maharashtrians who never voted for the Shiv Sena. However, this has been frittered away,” said a BJP MLA, adding that spells of long silence from the party, punctuated by bouts of aggression, did little to shore up its image.