As the countdown to the civic elections in Maharashtra begins, both the Shiv Sena and the Bharatiya Janata Party have, literally, opened shop. It is clear that these are the two main contenders for the polls and there is a virtual exodus from other political parties towards the saffron allies. But it is also becoming increasingly obvious that they will not be allying with each other — while the Shiv Sena has thrown open the doors of Matoshree, Uddhav Thackeray’s residence, to all and sundry, the BJP has not been far behind by holding “Join BJP’’ events at its party offices across the state. On the last count, the Sena had scored more than the BJP with the Congress and the NCP watching from the sidelines in dismay as many of their party workers and office bearers choose to quit and seek greener pastures — which led senior NCP leader Ajit Pawar to rake up a controversy this week. He said that political office bearers are routinely bought and sold by various dispensations. He was probably speaking out of experience for even the NCP might have indulged in horse trading in rhe past, though this time round it might be just the tickets that the defectors are after.
Of the four major civic bodies going to the polls between now and February 2017, the Congress perhaps stands a fighting chance of winning a decent number of seats in the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation, though displacing the Sena might still be an uphill task. The BJP and the Sena who were allies until the last election in 2012, it is clear, are now bitter rivals in the bid to win Mumbai. BJP functionaries have described the Sena and its party leader as “rakshasas”’ who need to be destroyed like Ravana was. Party MP Kirit Somaiyya even described those who control the BMC (read Sena) as “mafia”’. The Sena retaliated by holding a morcha against the BJP’s perceived failures in government – quite ironic that it shares power and is an equal partner in that failure.
The situation is much the same in Pune, where the NCP might stand a fair chance at the polls and Nagpur where the BJP and the Congress are the main contenders. But it is the Nashik Municipal Corporation that has actually heated up the competition between the two saffron allies. In 2012, Raj Thackeray’s Maharashtra Navnirman Sena had posted a surprising victory, though still short of a majority, and then teamed up with the BJP to seize power in the civic body. Later it broke with the BJP to form a “mahagatbandhan” (mega-alliance) with the Congress and the NCP. Now, however, its stables are virtually empty with most of its horses having bolted. A majority of its corporators have joined the Shiv Sena, some have made tracks towards the BJP and it is unlikely that the party will even be able to save its face during the polls — that is if it finds enough candidates to contest on its ticket, in the first place.
The MNS has been reduced to a political cipher – and not just in Nashik. A few months ago, when Raj Thackeray raged against the award of new auto-rickshaw licences to non-Maharashtrians and called for the burning of such auto-rickshaws, he found there were no takers. He had to call off that agitation within a couple of days as not a single party worker was willing to risk life, limb or career by indulging in loot and arson. But the signs of slipping support were apparent much before. The MNS had been unable to put up candidates for elections from the teachers and graduates constituencies to the Maharashtra Legislative Council as there were not enough voters from these two faculties who wished to associate with the party. It straddled two horses during the 2014 Lok Sabha polls when the Sena and the BJP were allies, putting up candidates against his cousin Uddhav’s party to help the Congress but avowing support to Narendra Modi at the same time. Voters rejected the MNS soundly even during the subsequent assembly polls where his party strength was reduced from 13 to just one MLA.
Says senior journalist Kumar Ketkar, “Unfortunately, Raj has not learned his lessons. You cannot build a party through threats and blackmail. You need solid grassroots programmes and support.’’ Of which the MNS has none.
Raj is unable to move beyond political blackmail – and the softest target in this regard is Bollywood. When he threatened to burn auto-rickshaws if the government licensed non-Marathi speakers, both the government and the auto-rickshaw manufacturers had his measure and knew how best to tackle him. With no political prospects in the future, the handful of MNS workers still loyal to Raj have been reduced to threatening and blackmailing – the latest being the refusal to allow the release of Karan Johar’s Ai Dil Hai Mushkil despite his apology and promise not to include Pakistani artistes in his movies in the future. Because that is not what the MNS is looking for – they have no use for contrition and apologies. Johar must take some lessons from Rahul Bajaj who knew how to stop the burning of his auto-rickshaws and defeated the MNS in a day.
Threat and fear, however, is the only way the MNS can now keep itself in the news. It is now not worth even the tickets it might want to hand to whoever is willing to contest the civic polls on its behalf. Meanwhile, the Shiv Sena and the BJP are having the last laugh - but only for the moment. They have admitted too many defectors into their parties, all of who are demanding their pound of flesh and causing much heartburn among old time workers who had been hoping for tickets to the civic polls. Once it becomes clear which way the pendulum swings during ticket distributions, resentments are likely to rise to the fore and upset the Sena-BJP applecart. It is anybody’s guess then who runs away with the cheese.