A white flag for the estranged Thackerays?

Come December, and the entire state will train its eyes on Mumbai, and begin debating on the possible outcome of the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) elections, scheduled for February next year. The reigning confusion over possible political alliances would have cleared by then.

It is already clear that the Shiv Sena-BJP combine, which rules the BMC currently, will contest the polls jointly. But it's difficult to predict whether the Congress and NCP, partners in the Democratic Front government, would challenge the saffron combine. There is looming uncertainty over the fate of the troubled alliance, and MLAs, ministers of Congress and NCP in Mumbai themselves aren't sure about its future.

One party that is sure to be under the public glare would be the Raj Thackeray-led Maharashtra Navnirman Sena (MNS), founded in March 2006. Going by its performance -- 13 MLAs (reduced to 12 after the death of Ramesh Wanjle) and the status of the single-largest party in the Kalyan-Dombivli civic body, the MNS can no longer be considered a political novice.

Dussehra greetings
The current political scenario in the state capital is rather intriguing, especially in the wake of the Dussehra rally held by Shiv Sena, where Raj was completely ignored and failed to find a single mention in the speeches delivered by either Bal Thackeray or his son Uddhav. This is bewildering, considering that it was only last month that Uddhav was heard making vituperative statements about his cousin, saying: "A person who lived, grew up and ate in Matoshree has now become a traitor. The mute animals living in the forests are better than such turncoats."

Ever since Raj quit Shiv Sena in late 2005, the Thackerays have rarely missed an opportunity to take potshots at their estranged clan member. Enough spleen has been vented from both factions. The Dussehra 'greetings' from the father-son duo were promptly reciprocated by Raj. In his first public address since the Dussehra rally at a party function on Thursday, he did not refer to the Shiv Sena, directly or indirectly. No rancorous remarks, no show of ill-will. So what brought about this new-found civility? Several factors. For one, the Thackerays -- both Uddhav and Raj -- have one common agenda now: attacking NCP leader and Deputy Chief Minister Ajit Pawar.

So on one hand we have hope springing of a possible truce between Shiv Sena and MNS. And on the other hand, we have the NCP trying to make inroads into the civic body, with an annual budget of Rs 22,000 crore. A royal battle is all set to ensue for the BMC.

Calculated risk?
Ajit Pawar's decision to take on the mighty Thackerays may be seen as a foolhardy move by most, but is in reality a calculated risk. Pawar is well aware that most of NCP's followers have been won over by Raj Thackeray recently. Pawar's show of bravado, and his unconcealed attempts to project himself as someone who dares to take the Thackerays head on, could be a strategic move to rally anti-Raj youth into his fold.

After the elections for the Kalyan-Dombivli Municipal Corporation, the MNS, in spite of emerging as the single largest party, chose to sit as the Opposition, conceding power to the Shiv Sena-BJP combine. If MNS and Shiv Sena do call a truce in Mumbai, this strange compromise may well be repeated, leading to the over-arching supremacy for the Thackerays in the municipal ranks.

Perhaps the Thackerays have realised that as long as they fight among themselves, they will alienate, and eventually lose the traditional Marathi voters. Moreover, Raj may not want to invite blame from his kin over being responsible for the Sena's loss of the BMC. As they say, blood is thicker than water.

From the looks of it, Shiv Sena will not let go of the BMC easily. True, they have managed the city's affairs poorly. The party can hardly boast of having done anything to make Mumbai a world-class city. But if the Sena-BJP combine loses, both Sena and MNS stand to lose. Needless to say, the Shiv Sena as a party will certainly find it very difficult to stage a comeback in the near future. And Uddhav's leadership capabilities will also be questioned. It's one of those do-or-die, fight-or-flight, all-or-none situations. Get your popcorn ready and settle down for the show.

The writer is Political Editor, MiD DAY

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