I have always said that if Maharashtra Navnirman Sena (MNS) chief Raj Thackeray were less dependent on property builders and brokers to run his party and paid more attention to the grassroots, he could soon emerge as formidable a GenNext leader as Sharad Pawar in his time.
Sadly, after Pawar, who still remains the uncrowned king of Maharashtra, there is really no politician in the state who has mastered the political chessboard. However, Raj's latest move this weekend has clearly both stalemated and checkmated his rivals.
It is silly for anyone to presume that when former BJP president Nitin Gadkari met Raj last week, it was to appeal to him not to put up candidates in the Lok Sabha polls - apart from admitting that there is no Narendra Modi wave in the country. It was a move, had Raj fallen for it, guaranteed to finish off the MNS before the October assembly elections.
He has little to lose by putting up candidates in the Lok Sabha polls but he would surely have lost every advantage by dancing to Gadkari's tune. Now, he stands a good chance of winning at least one Lok Sabha seat - that of Pune which is a Congress/BJP constituency - and if that happens it will still be counted as a cent per cent score.
However, simultaneously avowing that his candidates would support Narendra Modi for prime minister is the masterstroke that Raj has played. The move is guaranteed to confuse the voters who might otherwise have preferred Modi to the MNS. Every seat counts in this race to the ultimate goalpost and if MNS candidates are going to wean away even just the Shiv Sena's voters, it ultimately reduces the BJP's tally in the Lok Sabha.
That is why I wonder why Gadkari should have risked annoying the Sena, the BJP's oldest ally, at the 11th hour. The Sena is unlikely to swallow this insult without making some of its own covert moves (the BJP national leadership is now attempting to pacify Sena chief Uddhav Thackeray). That is why I suspect that Sharad Pawar seemed upbeat soon after Raj's announcement even as he was in the midst of addressing a grave situation like the severe damage caused to crops by the recent hailstorm across the state.
Pawar has suffered a minor ignominy in the fact that after a bitter fight with the Congress to retain 22 of the 48 seats from Maharashtra, the NCP has had to concede one - Hatkangale - back to the Congress for lack of a credible candidate. But there has been an amiable exchange of the Raigad and Hingoli seats by the two allies - clearly the NCP, which started on a weak wicket, is all set to maximise its advantages and minimise the risks in the race to Parliament.
I can see Pawar is spoiling for a good fight - in the past he had shut Bal Thackeray up by threatening to match his every abuse with some vintage rural rusticity of his own. Now, with the Swabhimani Shetkari Sangathana, a Sena-BJP ally, proving a fly in the ointment (the reason the NCP had to concede Hatkangale), Pawar has threatened Raju Shetti, the sitting MP, with every kind of abuse to match Shetti's own.
With the fight already getting that bitter at this early stage, Raj's entry into the fray can only add spice to the election campaign by creating a unique situation whereby two parties - and two brothers - purporting to be on the same side will yet be at each other's throats. So whose applecart does that upset?
Maharashtra's deputy chief minister Ajit Pawar recently mocked the 'mahayuti' (the Sena-BJP and their three allies) by saying that "five people coming together do not make for Pandavas and victory."
Clearly this election is no less than a modern-day Mahabharata. And the MNS, at best, is only half an ally. That is somehow worse, and more fraught with danger, than having Shikhandi fight against you. And that too when there is no Bhishma Pitamaha around. The war could be over even before it has begun.