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A fight to the finish?

It’s a slur that is bound to hurt Raj Thackeray (41), and it doesn’t help that it comes from the Shiv Sena, headed by his uncle Balasaheb and cousin Uddhav (49).

india Updated: Oct 01, 2009 00:32 IST
Rajendra Aklekar

The Jinnah of Maharashtra.

It’s a slur that is bound to hurt Raj Thackeray (41), and it doesn’t help that it comes from the Shiv Sena, headed by his uncle Balasaheb and cousin Uddhav (49).

As the war between the cousins intensifies, the jibes are getting more offensive, and more frequent.

Wednesday’s edition of Saamna, the Shiv Sena mouthpiece, described Maharashtra Navnirman Sena chief Raj Thackeray as the new Mohammad Ali Jinnah, intent on dividing the Marathi people.

Blaming the Congress for encouraging Raj, the editorial said: “The Congress’s politics is more horrible than that of the Muslim League. The League at least openly demanded Pakistan. Just as Jinnah was used by the British to divide India, the Congress is using this Jinnah to divide the Marathi people.”

Ahead of the October 13 Assembly election, it’s a battle for survival.

Raj has already proved he has more command over the Marathi masses than anyone had thought, polling 10 lakh votes in the national election earlier this year.

The Sena, meanwhile, did not win a single seat in Mumbai — and won just 11 across the state, down from 12 in the 2004 general election, despite a desperate scramble to woo far-flung rural regions that they had earlier not needed the support of.

The drop has been attributed largely to the rise of the three-year-old MNS, which ate into the Sena’s votebank by offering a more militant approach and a more charismatic leader — Uddhav’s rather quiet style is quite un-Sena-like and the hordes don’t seem to know what to make of it yet.

Well, this election will be the quiet Thackeray’s last chance. And he’s giving it all he’s got.

For the first time ever, Uddhav hit back directly at Raj on Monday, likening him a “mouse in a trap” and warning that he should stop all his accusations immediately.

“If Raj continues his tirade against us, I will give a fitting reply at the saffron combine’s election rally at Shivaji Park,” he said.

Not quite Bal Thackeray’s fiery rhetoric, but a big step for the nature photographer.

Speaking at his first election rally of the season, Raj had on Sunday declared that the Shiv Sena’s love for the ‘sons of the soil’ was “newfound”, and a “desperate attempt to protect its dwindling votebank”.

Raj also alleged that the party had done an about-turn on the Marathi manoos issue, promoting north Indian leaders like Sanjay Nirupam (a north Indian and two-time Rajya Sabha MP who quit the Sena to join the Congress in 2005).

Uddhav hit back, saying: “If Raj, who had received affection from Sena chief Bal Thackeray himself during his early years, can turn traitor and backstab Balasaheb, there is no point blaming strangers like Nirupam.”

The back-and-forth is likely to continue till October 13. But the truth is Raj has time on his side and little to lose, while Uddhav has everything riding on this election.

Even if it fares badly, the MNS can easily brush off this first Assembly election as a mere indication of how far the party has made it in three years, what areas it needs to work on and how soon it can hope to establish a presence in the state.

Given that the MNS has not even fielded candidates in all 288 seats, it’s clear that their main aim, in fact, is not to win — at least not this time.

The aim is to ensure that Uddhav doesn’t.

As political commentator B. Venkatesh puts it: “For Uddhav, this is a make-or-break election, and they both know it.”

That’s why Uddhav has roped in all the technology at his disposal — helplines, websites, SMS campaigns, even a poll manifesto open to public suggestions.

“That’s why he’s even roped in his son Aditya,” says Venkatesh. “He knows that the state, and his own party men, will see the results as a verdict on him and his leadership style.”

And that’s the real question: Can Uddhav, in fact, replace his father? And can he outshine his cousin?