Lok Sabha elections 2024: Will Raj Thackeray’s political flip-flops end up benefitting Uddhav?

17 April,2024 11:12 AM IST |  Mumbai  |  Devashri Bhujbal

Raj Thackeray`s drastic shift from criticising the BJP in 2019 to extending unconditional support in the 2024 Lok Sabha elections has not only bewildered his followers but also left MNS office-bearers perplexed

Raj Thackeray. Pic/PTI

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The recent Gudi Padwa rally in Shivaji Park, Mumbai added another twist to Maharashtra politics. Maharashtra Navnirman Sena (MNS) chief Raj Thackeray declared his unconditional support for the ruling alliance, particularly emphasising his backing for Prime Minister Narendra Modi. This announcement caught many off guard, as there were expectations that Raj Thackeray would nominate an MNS candidate in the Lok Sabha elections and align with the Mahayuti alliance.

The Mahayuti has not yet announced a candidate for Mumbai South, leading to high speculation that this prominent seat might be contested by the MNS. Raj Thackeray's meetings with Union Minister Amit Shah and Deputy CM Devendra Fadnavis fuelled speculations that, with BJP's support, the MNS could indeed field its candidate.

The MNS cadre and Raj Thackeray's supporters were initially excited. The party had not contested the 2019 Lok Sabha elections. However, Raj's announcement of neither fielding any candidate nor joining the ruling alliance, but merely offering unconditional support to PM Modi, left his followers baffled.

The question arises: With Raj's lack of a concrete ideology and reluctance to engage in direct political battles, will his stance ultimately benefit the BJP and Mahayuti, or will it instead favour Uddhav Thackeray and the MVA? Experts suggest that the Thackeray brand voters may lean more towards Uddhav than the politically indecisive Raj.

Shrinking credibility

Raj Thackeray's shifting political stances have elicited mixed reactions from his supporters. Memes have flooded social media, comparing Raj's support for PM Modi in 2014, his aggressive criticism of the BJP and Modi in 2019, and now his renewed unconditional support. Consequently, Raj Thackeray's credibility among his followers is declining. Following Raj's announcement of unconditional support for BJP and PM Modi, some MNS office-bearers resigned.

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MNS' general secretary, Kirtikumar Shinde, who departed from the party disheartened by Raj's decision, stated, "MNS chief Raj Thackeray had taken a stand against PM Modi and BJP in 2019. Today, after five years, Raj saheb has changed his political stance at the most crucial moment in the country's history. Political analysts will debate how wrong or right he is. But what about the fighters (a reference to party workers) who believe in their principles? They feel crushed. What about that?" Shinde queried in a social media post.

Vrushabh B, a voter from Pune district, said, "The MNS was founded with the ideology of representing the 'Marathi manus', and it garnered significant acceptance. In the 2009 assembly elections, the party secured several seats. MNS even held power in the Nashik Municipal Corporation. People believed in Raj Thackeray's strong stance in safeguarding the Marathi identity. However, he faltered as a party leader. While he has a fan following, he struggles to translate it into votes."

"From fiercely advocating for 'Marathi manus' to supporting BJP and PM Modi, who is accused of diverting industrial investments from Maharashtra to Gujarat, Raj has lost people's trust. What is his true ideology? While people criticise Uddhav Thackeray for altering his political stance and aligning with Congress, how many times has Raj Thackeray shifted his position?" Vrushabh asked.

The Thackeray brand votes

Whether it's Uddhav or Raj, the substantial support these two leaders receive from the Marathi people is largely due to their family name - Thackeray. The staunch followers of Balasaheb Thackeray continue to back his son, Uddhav, as well as his nephew, Raj. While Uddhav assumed the presidency of the Shiv Sena (undivided) after Balasaheb, Raj was initially viewed with more anticipation. However, Raj's frequent political oscillations and his decision to abstain from contesting elections have disheartened his followers.

As the saying goes, winning and losing are integral parts of the game, but it's the act of fighting the battle that keeps the cadre alive. Take, for example, the Vanchit Bahujan Aghadi led by Prakash Ambedkar, which has nominated 14 candidates for the Lok Sabha elections. While the party may not secure many seats, the enthusiasm among its workers and supporters is palpable as they see their party putting up a tough fight.

Political commentator Ashok Wankhede explains Raj's shifting stance as an "anti-Uddhav stand," which paradoxically ends up benefiting Uddhav. "In 2019, Raj held rallies criticising BJP while Uddhav was contesting in alliance with BJP. This indirectly supported the then undivided NCP and Congress. However, Raj's rallies failed to sway Shiv Sena and BJP voters. In this election, Uddhav is allied with Congress and NCP, and Raj is supporting BJP. It appears more like Raj's opposition to Uddhav," Wankhede observed.

Wankhede said, "Raj Thackeray still maintains an image of a party representing the Marathi manus. However, his backing of the BJP, which has been accused of diverting industries to Gujarat, clashes with the pressing issues facing Maharashtra, such as drought and unemployment. Instead of advocating for the concerns of the Marathi manus, Raj is extending unconditional support to the BJP. This is likely to disappoint Marathi voters. Despite constituting only 1.5 percent, the MNS still commands a vote share."

Wankhede further added that the Thackeray brand vote bank appears to be tilting towards Uddhav Thackeray, who is actively addressing issues within Maharashtra. Supporters are likely to opt for Thackeray who has fielded candidates, rather than the one who isn't contesting elections himself.

Lack of planning?

It has been over a week since Raj Thackeray declared his support for the BJP. Concluding his Gudi Padwa speech, he directed his party workers to gear up for the state assembly elections later this year. However, the grounds for this decision, the party's ideology, and the issues it will prioritise were not mentioned. It's expected that since Raj has extended support to the ruling alliance, the MNS will campaign in support of Mahayuti candidates for the Lok Sabha elections. Yet, there's still no clarity on whom and when the MNS will participate in Mahayuti campaigns. With only a couple of days left until the first phase of Lok Sabha polls, the MNS has yet to officially kick start campaign activities.

Since Raj's announcement, MNS has cancelled its election coordination meetings twice. Raj held a press conference confirming that the MNS will campaign for Mahayuti, but he did not clarify whether he himself will enter the campaign field.

Pritam Cheulkar, an MNS office bearer in Mumbai suburbs, said, "Raj saheb has instructed us to campaign for Mahayuti candidates. We are confident that MNS votes won't go to Uddhav Thackeray, as he is aligned with Congress. We will soon commence campaigning for BJP and Mahayuti."

"We are not sure if Raj saheb will also join the campaigns. However, we (MNS cadre) hope he will," he said, but couldn't confirm when the cadre will commence campaigning. This lack of planning as the polling days draw near raises the likelihood of Thackeray supporters shifting towards Uddhav, benefiting the MVA, and further diminishing the credibility of the Raj Thackeray-led MNS.

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