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Shailesh Gaikwad, Hindustan Times
August 13, 2013
For the last few weeks, MNS Chief Raj Thackeray has been surprisingly quiet. His aides say he is grappling with a question. And any answer he arrives at could impact state politics over the next few years.

The question facing the MNS chief is oft-repeated in political circles – Will he join forces with the Shiv Sena-BJP combine?

Party insiders say that the party top brass is divided on the issue. A number of MNS leaders, most of them MLAs, are of the opinion that they should join the saffron brigade. They advocate that the party needs to be a part of the ruling formation to consolidate its base.

Even seven years after Raj formed the MNS, the party has failed to expand its reach beyond a few cities. Though it has 11 MLAs in the Assembly, it is not in a position to influence the government. It's the same story in the Mumbai and Pune civic bodies.

The party is in power in the Nasik civic body, but with the BJP's support and with a give-and-take arrangement with the Sena.

As the 2014 polls near, no one in the MNS is confident that the party can win enough seats in the Assembly polls to come to power. The only way to do so, they feel, is to join hands with one of the two major alliances in the state—the Congress-NCP or Sena-BJP. Since the first option would be difficult to accept, party insiders say the MNS should go with the Sena-BJP, who, they feel, are its natural allies.

But those opposing the idea insist that joining the Sena-BJP would be a major setback for the party, as the MNS is largely aiming for the Sena's voter base.

If the MNS goes with the saffron brigade, the latter would be able to avoid a split in the opposition votes and can get the maximum benefit from anti-incumbency votes.

With no MNS candidates in its constituencies, the Sena may turn out to be the biggest gainer. The Sena could even re-establish its hold over the Mumbai-Thane-Pune-Nasik belt, where it had yielded ground to Raj's party in 2009 polls.

This would undo the groundwork laid by the MNS in the last four to five years, say MNS functionaries who are opposed to the alliance. They want the party to chart its independent course and emerge as a credible third option for voters.

But then, politics is also about compulsions.

For past two years, BJP has been chasing Raj. It began with nomination of Nitin Gadkari as BJP chief—who has personal rapport with Raj.

He wanted his party to win power in his home state and began efforts to bring the MNS on board the saffron alliance. At that time, Gadkari aides such as Vinod Tawde, Sudhir Munguntiwar were frequenting Raj's Shivaji Park residence. While Raj was cosying up to the BJP, the latter's leaders were seen taking his party for granted. Their public comments irked Raj who then announced that he wanted to go solo.

Now, in the run-up to the elections, the BJP has resumed efforts to bring the MNS close to it. A section of BJP is trying to do this through Gujarat chief minister Narendra Modi, whom Raj has praised often.

Going by the talk within the party, a very influential industrialist has indicated that he is ready to play peacemaker between the two Thackeray brothers, if that helps Modi and the BJP improve their tally.

No wonder Raj is under tremendous pressure to go with the Sena-BJP. Will he give in or choose to chart his independent path?