After the crushing defeat of his Maharashtra Navnirman Sena (MNS), in the 2014 Assembly elections, Raj Thackeray is attempting to revive the fortunes of his party.
Following his address to his followers at the 10th foundation day of his party, it is now quite clear Raj is planning another aggressive campaign to win back the space the MNS had created for itself in 2008-09.
The reason is predictable: The next two to three years are crucial for him. Elections will be held for the civic bodies governing Mumbai and some other cities in early 2017.
In fact, the local bodies’ elections in 2017 will be seen as a mini-Assembly elections, ahead of the 2019 Assembly polls.
The parties that do well here will be able to use the benefit of momentum they get in the local elections.
The Mumbai, Nashik and Pune civic bodies are important for the MNS as it had a strong presence in these cities once, which it now seems to be losing — in the 2014 Assembly elections, it drew blank in these areas against the 13 seats it won in 2009.
If Raj manages to show his might in the Mumbai, Thane, Nashik and Pune elections, he can hope for a better performance in the Assembly polls, his real target.
If he fails, the MNS will be in danger of losing its significance in state politics.
Little wonder then that the next couple of years are ‘make or break’ for Raj.
Will he manage to swing it his way?
A lot depends on how people respond to his new agenda and whether he works on the areas in which his party was lagging after its success in 2009.
For a party that won 13 seats within three years of its formation, the MNS could not consolidate its position in state politics. It did not have a strong second-rung leadership. No statewide organisational set-up was established. Further, it was not seen to be taking up issues that really mattered to the people.
The only issue it raised forcefully was the demand for scrapping toll charged on vehicles. This had limited appeal.
Being a unipolar party, often its local leaders wait for the leadership’s message to start agitations over issues that bother the people.
For instance, when the suburban railway tariff was hiked in the first railway budget of the Modi government, several parties protested, but there was no reaction from the MNS.
The party leaders had not got a clear signal on what to do. Even issues like net neutrality or proposal to impose tax on provident fund saw enormous reaction in Raj’s target group but the MNS didn’t even bother to talk about it.
It is not clear if this will change now.
Going by his appeal to followers for violent agitation against auto-rickshaw permits being given to “outsiders”, it is likely Raj will stick to his sons of the soil agenda. The question is: Will it work now?
As the MNS will not be getting any support from non-Maharashtrians, it will need issues to attract its core support base — the middle-and-working-class Maharashtrians in the cities.
Unlike in 2009, however, the MNS is now facing stiff competition from the Shiv Sena and the BJP in wooing this section.
Since the 2014 polls, Uddhav Thackeray has changed gears and emerged an aggressive leader.
Chief minister Devendra Fadnavis has equal appeal among the middle classes and urban Maharashtrians. This could be another reason why the initial attraction that Raj held is on the wane.
Will he be able to win back his core support base and again emerge as a key political force? The next couple of years will give us the answers.