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MNS to continue violent stir against Mumbai’s hawkers, but will it gain the party popularity?

Raj Thackeray hopes to regain lost ground by taking up issues close to people’s hearts, but no one is confident the stir against hawkers will help

mumbai Updated: Oct 23, 2017 17:08 IST
Naresh Kamath
Naresh Kamath
Hindustan Times
MNS chief Raj Thackeray.

Will the Raj Thackeray-led Maharashtra Navnirman Sena (MNS) be able to recreate the energy it had in 2008, which led to its electoral success a year later?

In 2008, the MNS ran a campaign against north Indians living in the state, attacking migrant hawkers, taxi drivers and workers. At the time, the action seemed to have resonated with young Maharashtrian voters who felt that they were losing out on opportunities because of north Indian migrants.

Since the past two days, the MNS has been targeting hawkers in the vicinity of railway stations, and it plans to continue this agitation, in the hope of using people’s anger and frustration with the Railways, following the stampede on the Elphinstone Road station foot-over bridge on September 29 that killed 23 commuters, to gain popularity.

A lot of criticism has been directed against the railway administration for not preventing hawkers from blocking the limited space on foot-over bridges as well as at the entry/exit points at stations, and the MNS is hoping to use this to revive itself.

On Saturday morning, MNS workers were seen ransacking stalls, throwing away wares and assaulting hawkers at various railway stations such as Thane, Kalyan, Vasai, Nalasopara and Wadala. This comes after Raj Thackeray’s protest march following the stampede on October 5, when he warned the railway administration that his workers would evict hawkers MNS-style if they did not clear access to railway stations in 15 days.

Though the police have started arresting party workers in connection with these attacks, party sources said they will continue the violent agitation, but neither MNS workers nor political analysts have any conviction that this campaign will actually improve the party’s fortunes.

Political commentator Surendra Jondhale said people are no longer enthused by the MNS’ vandalism. “It was a different era altogether in 2008. Now, people no longer take Raj Thackeray seriously. He is seen more as a nuisance than a serious politician,” Jondhale said.

In private, MNS workers admit that the ground reality has changed in the past few years, and that 2008’s enthusiasm is missing. “There is confusion among workers owing to lack of direction from the top leadership. In addition, the party has not stood by its workers who are facing several legal cases; we have been left to fend for ourselves,” said a MNS functionary, who refused to come on record. “There is widespread feeling among MNS workers that Rajsaheb is surrounded by a coterie that has no mass base and that he is cut off from ground reality.”

The defection of six Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) corporators to its arch-rival Shiv Sena has further dented the MNS’ image.

The party’s been on the back foot since its defeat in the 2014 Assembly polls, and this year’s loss in the BMC elections worsened the situation. Over the last few months, Thackeray has been doing everything to reinvent his party, including appointing youngsters in key posts, consistently attacking Prime Minister Narendra Modi and trying to tap the anger against the ruling party, and leading a morcha against the railway administration.

In its early days, it had seen huge success, bagging 13 Assembly seats and 28 seats in the BMC. However, in 2014, it faced a humiliating defeat with its Assembly tally dipping to just one legislator; in the 2017 civic polls, its tally slipped to seven corporators. After the 2014 elections, the MNS saw defections by many top leaders such as like Pravin Darekar and Vasant Gite, who joined the BJP. And now, six of Thackeray’s seven BMC corporators have defected to the Shiv Sena.

MNS leader Sandeep Deshpande denied that the party workers are demoralised. “The workers are geared up for any agitation, and we have received a lot of public support for our railway agitation. We don’t plan agitations keeping in mind political gains, we do it for the welfare of the people,” he said.

First Published: Oct 23, 2017 17:08 IST