The Maharashtra Navnirman Sena (MNS) chief, Raj Thackeray, is currently keeping a low profile, as most of the political parties in the state have begun preparations for the coming Lok Sabha elections in 2014.
Ever since he left the Shiv Sena and set up his own paraty, Raj Thackeray has been treading very cautiously, since he wants to chart his own way, on his own terms, knowing fully well that the road ahead is not a rose garden. However, he has been maintaining his own separate identity without leaning towards any of the two powerful alliances in the state – the Congress- Nationalist Congress Party (NCP)’s Progressive Democratic Front and the Shiv Sena-Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-Republican Party of India (Athawale) National Democratic Alliance.
However, in the recent past, he has displayed political fluidity in that his party has gone to the polls alone, but has negotiated in the post-election period, depending on his priorities. Though his main concern has been to draw large numbers of Shiv Sainiks to his party, he has also been allowing growth by attracting youth and disillusioned workers of other political outfits. Thus far, he his party has fought electoral battles independently.
He now stands at a crossroads as the state prepares for a battle royale between two prime ministerial candidates – Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi, who is the BJP’s prime ministerial candidate and Rahul Gandhi – heir apparent of the Congress. Raj Thackeray has been an admirer of Modi and visited Gujarat and lauded his development work. He has been attracting youthful crowds with his talk of charting out a more focussed path of development for Maharashtra and his talk of jobs for sons of the soil. So it was natural for him to visit Modi’s Gujarat and praise Modi’s achievements.
Initially, Raj’s closeness to Modi had made the Shiv Sena a little wary of the l atter. Another reason was the aggressive image of Modi, who is perceived as a Hindutva hardliner. In fact , when the BJP was in two minds over naming Modi as their PM candidate, Balasaheb Thackeray had publicly endorsed the BJP’s leader of opposition in the Lok Sabha, Sushma Swaraj, as the most ideal candidate for prime ministership in case the NDA came to power. The Shiv Sena mouthpiece, ‘Saamna’, had made some noise over how NDA partners ought to have been consulted before the BJP finalised its PM candidate. However, once Modi was officially anointed as the prime ministerial candidate, the party fell in line.
The Shiv Sena is weary of vote division on account of MNS candidates in the fray. Since the coming elections are for the Lok Sabha, where the Sena does not have any direct interest, it is averse to the MNS being wooed by the BJP to join the anti-Congress bandwagon. The Modi team is also aware that every seat counts in the final analysis. The vote division will only continue in the event of the MNS contesting more seats in the coming elections, affecting the prospects of the SS-BJP candidates, as it happened in 2009 elections. Modi would certainly try to win over the MNS, since he is eager to increase the NDA seat count in 2014.
The MNS will have to decide whether to join as an independent identity or keep a safe distance from the NDA, as well as the UPA. Though there is no major stake for the MNS, it is totally focussed on the coming state legislative assembly elections also scheduled for 2014. Raj knows that to prepare for the assembly elections, his party must test the waters during the Lok Sabha elections. The question is what strategy the party should adopt to contest the Lok Sabha elections – if it fights alone, then it would hurt well-wisher Modi and if it joins hands with the NDA, there is a danger of reducing its own bargaining power, as it would not be possible to contest as many seats as an NDA partner in the assembly elections. It is possible to go along with the NDA in Lok Sabha elections, but contesting the assembly elections on its own may not go down well with the voters.
The Congress is keen to see that there is a split vote in the Lok Sabha elections, so that the prospects of the Congress-NCP candidates in the fray are brightened. Both the Congress and the NCP would like the MNS to stay away from the NDA and independently contest as many seats as possible. In fact, lots of eye brows were raised when Raj Thackeray and Chief Minister Prithviraj Chavan held a meeting. Many believe that apart from the agenda for the meeting, both discussed the political scenario in the state.
Raj Thackeray’s MNS has a defined anti-Congress tone and he would not like to see his support base wither away. He cannot afford to allow the growth of the perception that his party is directly helping the Congress-NCP alliance by dividing the saffron votes. He will have to do considerable tight-rope walking in case he wants to maintain his distinct political identity so that his party can rise as a regional power in the coming years.
Observers point out that in 1999, when Sharad Pawar had set up his own separate political outfit, he had contested against the Congress, but forged an alliance to form a coalition government in what could be viewed as a political hattrick. Power is always a great binder. If the Congress-NCP can fight and also try to expand their respective party bases while running a coalition government, why can’t the Shiv Sena and the MNS do the same?
So, apart from the MNS’ public posturing, as well as by the other parties, a lot of Track Two diplomacy will also take place. The parties may not reach any understanding publicly, but they may work out some formula surreptitiously, where they do not hurt each other’s interests. There is a lot that stays hidden from the public.
The question of Raj Thackeray joining the NDA will continue for some time, until elections are announced and candidates are fielded. It is a difficult for Raj, as his future course of action depends on it and he does not want his party to be tied down by any seat -sharing formula, as he feels that his party has the potential to grow further, not at the cost of others, but on its own steam. He holds a trump card in a politically divided Maharashtra and will be watched closely by friends as well as foes.

   Prakash Bal Joshi

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