Dramatic Change in Raj Thackeray's Avatar a Boost to Congress-NCP in Maharashtra

Thackeray’s sudden emergence is being seen as a master stroke by Sharad Pawar – both to reduce Prakash Ambedkar-led VBA’s relevance in the state and keep the BJP-Sena in check.

Mumbai: Raj Thackeray’s party is not fielding any candidate in this Lok Sabha election. His 13-year-old party was almost decimated in 2014 with no MP, or MLA (the lone MLA joined Shiv Sena last month), and with just a handful corporators being retained in the state. However, this season, Thackeray seems to have emerged as one of the strongest “opposition” voices.

After having addressed over half a dozen rallies across the state – starting April 6, Maharashtrian New Year ‘Gudi Padwa’ – Thackeray was at south Mumbai’s Shahid Bhagat Singh ground on April 23, addressing a huge gathering. Once a parochial leader, whose politics was rather restricted to stoking hyper Marathi-nationalism and asserting redundant ideals through violent means, was at the centre stage as a “transformed, rational thinking man”.

He meticulously stood before a large gathering, and one after another dispelled a long list of “myths” that he said Prime Minister Narendra Modi has been spreading in the past five years. The grand stage, with two massive LCD screens attached on either side, showed clips of past speeches delivered by Modi. His volunteers were seen wearing T-shirts with the message: “Ey, Lav re toh video (Hey, just play that video)”, one of his most viral dialogues from the past month.

“They claim I have been dancing to Pawar’s tune (NCP supremo Sharad Pawar) and my scripts come directly from Baramati… As if I learned to walk only yesterday,” he announced. His supporters burst into a roar of laughter. He then, in his signature smug style asked one of his volunteers to play a set of few pre-edited videos. Those videos had Modi address several rallies in Maharashtra and Gujarat before 2014 and express his gratitude for Pawar. At the end of those videos, he asked: “Ataa hyana kaay mhanaav (What should I call him now?) Mala Pawar sahebaani chalavna shikavla ki hyaana? (Did Pawar teach me how to walk or him?)”

Both BJP and Sena leaders have been accusing Thackeray of having been a prop in the hands of Pawar, pitched to create a “false opposition”. A few months ago, Pawar had approached Thackeray to officially join the Congress-NCP alliance in the state. But Thackeray had declined the offer. Instead, he has been seen aggressively campaigning against BJP-Sena across the state. Thackeray, until the 2014 elections, had openly supported Modi. He had even visited Gujarat and was all praises for Modi’s governance in the state.

“Yes, I had supported Modi. I won’t take back any of my past statements. He had promised acche din and I had trusted the dreams he showed us. Today, I am only asking him to tell us what happened of those promises,” he said, without shying away from his past stance.

Seeing Thackeray’s popularity grow, the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation – which is Sena ruled – had earlier denied permission for his Mumbai rally. On April 23, at the rally, Thackeray openly took pot shots at the Sena and urged his supporters to shun it. “The two biggest problem facing this country is Modi and Shah. The only way to support this nation is to weed the problem out. Supporting Sena means supporting these two,” he said.

Raj Thackeray at a rally on April 23. Credit: Sukanya Shantha

Each of his jibes was received with roars and applause from the crowd. Both men and women, mostly Maharashtrians, had gathered to listen to Thackeray speak. “I was in Mahad to listen to Raj saheb’s speech only five days ago. I could not have missed a chance to listen to him again, so I travelled to Mumbai,” said Nilesh Mohite, an MNS supporter. “What Raj saheb has been speaking is what has been missing from the news media. We have been brainwashed each day by both Modi and the media,” Mohite further added.

Reliance India Limited chairman Mukesh Ambani had recently extended his “complete support” to Congress candidate Milind Deora. Thackeray, in his speech, called this shift in Ambani’s loyalty from BJP to Congress “a big message to the country,” not limited to the south Mumbai constituency where Deora is contesting. “Ambani is Uddhav Thackeray’s close friend. He has still decided to side with a Congress candidate. This is a clear indication Modi is heading towards defeat,” he claimed.

He tried to turn BJP’s divisive politics of branding every criticism as anti-national on its head by calling Modi the “ultimate anti-national man”. He put out a series of pictures of Modi, reportedly clicked days after the Pulwama attack on February 14, and asked his supporters to closely look at “Modi’s expressions, clothes and the carefree attitude with which he had continued to travel across the world”. “40 jawans laid their life for this country and this man was busy touring and posing for pictures,” Thackeray said.

He also pulled out an order letter reportedly issued by the defence ministry which had alerted the army about the possibility of an attack on the route that the jawans had taken. “Even when there were clear warnings issued, Modi government did nothing to save them. The warning alert had categorically asked for the soldiers to be airlifted, why were they sent there then? To die?” he asked.

The surprise moment was when Thackeray invited one Janardan family on stage to speak of its experience of having their family picture circulated on the social media by the BJP IT without their consent. A pro-BJP page had allegedly lifted the family’s picture to promote Modi’s schemes. The picture has since been removed from the page.

Thackeray, after breaking out from his family party Shiv Sena, had launched his own outfit in 2006. His politics since then and until recently has been xenophobic, rhetorical and on some instances even anti-constitutional. The party has unabashedly indulged in violent attacks on north Indian migrants and even terrorised the film industry.

Even if scripted, this sudden change in Thackeray’s avatar has certainly given the Congress-NCP a boost in the state and has turned into the ruling BJP-Sena’s nightmare.

Until early this year, Prakash Ambedkar-led Vanchit Bahujan Aghadi (VBA) was the only third party to be looked at as a strong contender trying to squeeze in some space in the state politics. Critics have pointed to Thackeray’s sudden emergence as a masterstroke by Pawar – both to reduce VBA’s relevance in the state and also to keep BJP-Sena in check.