BJP-Shinde camp wants a Thackeray in its corner to wear out another, takes to Ganpati diplomacy


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Mumbai: In Maharashtra’s political landscape, the ten-day Ganesh Chaturthi festival is more than just about festivities. The ‘courtesy calls’ made by politicians to each other’s homes usually give a glimpse into the manoeuvres happening behind the curtains.

This year’s ‘Ganpati diplomacy’ gives more than a whiff of the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP’s) gameplan to further weaken the Uddhav Thackeray-led Shiv Sena already maimed after a rebellion led by Chief Minister Eknath Shinde and cement itself ahead of the Mumbai civic polls expected to be held later this year. The Raj Thackeray-led Maharashtra Navnirman Sena (MNS) is the prop in the plan.

A string of BJP leaders held meetings with MNS chief Raj Thackeray last week. CM Shinde, who led the vertical split in the Shiv Sena, and BJP Mumbai president Ashish Shelar made separate visits to Raj Thackeray’s residence for the Ganesh festival.

While these leaders did not make any official comments on their visits, insiders from the BJP, the Shinde-led rebel Shiv Sena faction, as well as the MNS, say the meetings and visits were “political posturing” to visibly bring MNS closer to the ruling parties. The MNS, they say, has the ability to play spoiler for the Thackeray-led Shiv Sena by cutting into the latter’s Marathi Hindu vote bank, as it has done in the past.

Meanwhile, for the beleaguered MNS, which has been in a rut since 2014, it’s an opportunity to politically rejuvenate itself.

“They [the BJP] are trying to increase the importance of Raj saheb. A Thackeray in their corner will help them in their battle with Uddhav saheb in the civic polls. And, it’s a win-win for us,” a senior MNS functionary told ThePrint, not wanting to be named.

“Whether this will be through an open alliance or tacit understanding, we don’t know yet. But, right now, they are at least trying to create that environment by posturing,” he added.

Also Read: Eye on BMC polls, Sena’s Shinde faction builds cadre strength in Thackeray bastion Mumbai

‘Will join hands one way or other’

Earlier this week, senior BJP leaders such as Vinod Tawde, the party’s national general secretary, and Chandrashekhar Bawankule, the BJP state president, visited Raj Thackeray at his residence, Monday and Tuesday respectively.

Apart from this, BJP Mumbai president Shelar and party MLC Prasad Lad visited Raj Thackeray Wednesday and Thursday respectively.

CM Shinde also made a courtesy visit Thursday.

Asked about a possible alliance with the MNS for the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) election in the backdrop of these meetings, Fadnavis told reporters in Pune Friday that: “There is no such discussion at our end. Probably, there is some discussion at your end.”

A BJP functionary, however, told ThePrint, “The MNS will join hands with the BJP for the election one way or the other, either in an alliance or through an understanding for some seats.”

MNS to supplement Shinde’s Sena in Mumbai 

This time, the BJP is aggressively eyeing the BMC, which was controlled by the Shiv Sena for 25 years till an administrator took charge in March this year after the term of the general body ended.

While the Shinde-led rebellion has damaged the Thackeray-led Shiv Sena to a large extent, both locked in a court battle to protect the symbol, the Shinde faction is not as strong as the Thackeray-led Shiv Sena in Mumbai.

Even though five of Shiv Sena’s 14 MLAs in Mumbai have jumped to the Shinde camp, the party’s ground cadre and its ward-level shakhas the last rung of its administrative units are still largely loyal to the Thackeray’s Shiv Sena.

The MNS has been trying to capitalise on the split within the Shiv Sena, protecting Raj Thackeray as the real heir of Shiv Sena founder Bal Thackeray, his uncle.

The MNS, which adopted the Hindutva agenda by changing the party’s flag to saffron in early 2020, has also strongly emphasised its commitment to the ideology with Raj Thackeray taking up issues such as loudspeakers atop mosques. The party has also launched a membership drive calling ‘Hindavi rakshaks’ and ‘Maharashtra sevaks’ to join the party.

A second MNS functionary told ThePrint, “The Shinde camp also needs us because they know they don’t have the cadre in Mumbai. And, we were nowhere in the political narrative until now. Earlier, it was all about the BJP and the Shiv Sena. Then, it was about the Maha Vikas Aghadi (MVA) and BJP. Now, with the Shiv Sena divide, we are finally getting a chance to be seen in the political landscape again.”

An MLA from the Shinde camp said, “We are expanding in Mumbai, but we know it’s not our strength. The MNS has impacted Shiv Sena’s prospects in Mumbai earlier, and the BJP leaders think it can do so again.”

“The MNS doesn’t have enough power beyond being a nuisance factor for the Uddhav saheb-led camp in Mumbai. So, we are not threatened in any way,” he told ThePrint on condition of anonymity.

Also Read: Which is the real Shiv Sena? Thackeray & Shinde camps woo cadre in battle for ‘bow & arrow’

MNS playing spoiler for Shiv Sena in the past 

The MNS was formed in 2006 after Raj Thackeray walked out of the Shiv Sena, following Bal Thackeray’s decision to anoint his son as his successor. It played the Shiv Sena’s ‘sons of the soil’ and ‘Marathi pride’ cards more aggressively than the Shiv Sena itself and tasted some quick success at the early stages.

In the 2009 Lok Sabha elections, the MNS fielded 11 candidates, none of whom got elected, but the party got the people to take note by damaging Shiv Sena’s prospects in many seats. In the assembly elections the same year, the MNS contested 143 seats and had 13 of its MLAs in the state assembly in its very first attempt.

In the 2012 BMC elections, the MNS won 28 of the 227 wards and significantly trumped the Shiv Sena in all six wards in the latter’s bastion of Dadar and Mahim.

However, the party has been facing defeat after defeat since 2014.

In the 2014 Lok Sabha polls, the party fielded 10 candidates, all of whom lost their deposits. In the assembly elections that year, the party ambitiously contested 219 of the 288 seats, forfeiting deposits in 209 seats, and winning just one.

In the 2017 BMC elections too, MNS’ fortunes continued to plummet with the party’s tally dropping to seven corporators, six of whom joined the Shiv Sena later that year.

While the party opted to sit out the 2019 Lok Sabha election, it contested 101 seats in the Maharashtra assembly election in the same year, and once again won just a single seat.

(Edited by Siddarth Muralidharan)

Also Read: ‘Don’t have symbol, but have the ideology’: Raj Thackeray’s using Sena troubles to revive MNS 

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