Where’s the rainbow, Raj?

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As Maharashtra’s political landscape fragments, Raj Thackeray makes a risky play for power

Sidharth Bhatia Current Affairs Commentator

Photo: Deepak Salvi

ONE DOESN’T have to be a secularist, pseudo or otherwise, to understand the main purpose of the rally held by Raj Thackeray in Mumbai on 21 August. He himself made it clear that he was against the manner in which Muslims had behaved at another protest march on 11 August. He hit out at the police and the administration for treating Muslims gently. And he declared that Bangladeshi infiltrators were behind the violence during that march, brandishing a green passport allegedly left behind at the venue by a Bangladeshi. No ambiguity there, then.

The march by Muslim groups, during which several fringe elements — hotheads, mischief-makers, agent provocateurs — indulged in violence, even molesting women cops, was the immediate trigger for Raj Thackeray’s rally. But the agenda is much bigger and long-term. Raj seized the opportunity and moved quicker than his cousin Uddhav Thackeray’s Shiv Sena. At stake is crucial political space in Maharashtra. Raj knows he does not have much time if he wants to remain a credible political force in the state. The alternative is stagnation.

The Shiv Sena won handsomely in the 2012 Mumbai Municipal Corporation elections, which gave the party a boost after it performed badly in the 2009 Assembly elections. But the Marathi manoos vote is still up for grabs. The Shiv Sena remains intact for the present but what will happen in the coming years is anybody’s guess. To make any kind of serious dent in the Shiv Sena’s votebank among Maharashtrians, Raj has to not only come up with emotive issues but also demonstrate that he has the capacity to deliver results at the grassroots. This will require organisation-building, which can take years. Another way would be to get local level leaders to defect, but that is not going to happen anytime soon because the Sena remains well entrenched.

So far Raj’s party has only picked up a reputation for violence, Shiv Sena-style, either beating up innocent north Indian taxi drivers or toll gate officials. Neither has much electoral traction.

A quicker way to attract more voters would be to broaden the message. Hindutva seems the obvious answer, because that will definitely pull in voters from other, non-Maharashtrian communities who normally align with the BJP. Curiously, Raj is coy about that and has denied that he is an adherent of Hindutva, even though it could pay electoral dividends. He may be just biding his time on that one, to see if it indeed has currency.

When Raj started the MNS in 2006, he wooed both Dalits and Muslims. Is he jettisoning them now?

When he launched the Mahrashtra Navnirman Sena (MNS) in 2006, Raj made it clear he would have an inclusive platform; his party flag has blue and green stripes, to symbolise Dalits and Muslims respectively. He was a supporter of the Raza Academy, the main organiser of the 11 August rally. Any open flaunting of Hindutva would therefore have to be clearly thought out. Yet, the temptation to indulge in some Muslim-bashing is always there, which is why the finger has been pointed at Bangladeshis.

Maharashtra’s political scene is far more crowded than many other states and the voters are much more fragmented. There are five main parties in the fray and also a left front that manages to perform creditably. The Congress got less than one-third of the total seats in the last Assembly elections. The key alliances are fraying — the Congress and the NCP are mutually suspicious and constantly sniping at each other and the BJP-Shiv Sena combine too is fraught with tension. Raj remains independent, though the Shiv Sena claims he has the backing of the Congress. Yet, at some stage he will want to play a bigger role, either as a king, or at least a kingmaker. The BJP would welcome a partnership with him.

Elections to the Lok Sabha and the Maharashtra Legislative Assembly will be held in 2014. Everyone is jockeying for space and looking for opportunities. Current wisdom suggests that the Congress-NCP alliance, though it may not collapse, does not have the wherewithal to win again. Chief Minister Prithviraj Chauhan, whatever his strengths, is not regarded as someone who will lead the party to victory. The death of Vilasrao Deshmukh has also hit the Congress hard, because he was a fundraiser, organiser and vote-getter. On the other hand, the Shiv Sena-BJP combine too does not have any leader that can deliver a statewide victory.

This spells an opportunity for Raj Thackeray who hopes to increase his tally of 13 seats and play a key role in the next Assembly. He will take advantage of every chance he can get to raise issues that he feels will please the Marathi manoos and others, even if means playing the communal card. Other parties may follow the same script. As the stakes become bigger, there are fears that this will raise the temperature in Maharashtra in the coming months.

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