Maharashtra: BJP scripting a Thackeray vs Thackeray contest

States 360º: A meeting between Raj Thackeray and Union home minister Amit Shah in New Delhi last week has triggered speculation

Raj Thackeray (centre) and son Amit (left) with home minister Amit Shah (photo: @RajThackeray/X
Raj Thackeray (centre) and son Amit (left) with home minister Amit Shah (photo: @RajThackeray/X

Navin Kumar

Though public memory is short, few in Maharashtra have forgotten Raj Thackeray’s electrifying campaign against the BJP in 2019, when he made use of LCD screens and old videos of Narendra Modi at public rallies to mock the prime minister. The estranged cousin of Uddhav Thackeray even called Modi ‘Hitler and ‘feku (braggart)'.

A meeting between Raj Thackeray and Union home minister Amit Shah in New Delhi last week has triggered speculation that the BJP and Raj’s Maharashtra Nirman Sena (MNS) could contest the Lok Sabha elections together. As Uddhav, the chosen successor of father Bal Thackeray, wryly commented, in Maharashtra, people vote for the Thackerays and not Modi, which explains the BJP’s keenness to embrace the MNS leader.

Uddhav was reminding people of the three-decade alliance between the Shiv Sena and the BJP in the state, in which the Sena more often than not played big brother. In 2019, the two had a bitter separation after the general elections when Uddhav accused the BJP of going back on a pre-poll understanding that the chief minister’s office would be left to the Sena.

MNS has been a marginal and declining force in the state, with its vote share restricted to 2.5 per cent. Moreover, both MNS and its chief have the reputation of being anti-North Indian, and memories of his toxic remarks against people from the North are still fresh.

The party, formed in 2006, had briefly hogged headlines after beating up North Indian job seekers in Mumbai in 2008 and championing the cause of local residents and the 'Marathi manoos'. It went on to win 13 seats in the Assembly in 2009, its influence extending across Mumbai, Thane, Kalyan and Nashik. But MNS has been on the wane since then, not contesting the Lok Sabha elections in 2019, and presently holding just a single seat in the Assembly.

It is largely owing to the rowdyism of the MNS cadre and Raj’s anti-Hindi speakers image that the BJP has kept its distance from him. But the saffron camp appears less than confident in Maharashtra, even after splitting the Shiv Sena and the NCP (Nationalist Congress Party) and having hijacked the state government.

Another explanation doing the rounds is that Raj is being wooed by the BJP so that his son Amit can be pitted against Uddhav Thackeray’s son Aditya Thackeray in the South Mumbai constituency.

An alliance with the MNS, feel BJP insiders, could be risky for the party, and potentially alienate the large number of migrants from North India working in Mumbai, a population of approximately 3.5 million, according to reports. Raj's rabid anti-Hindi reputation could even damage the BJP in Hindi-speaking states such as Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and Jharkhand, they warn.

Yet another explanation for the BJP-Raj Thackeray bonhomie is said to be the Enforcement Directorate (ED), which interrogated the junior Thackeray for eight hours in 2019 in connection with the alleged laundering of Rs 91,000 crore by a firm called Kohinoor CTNL, in which Raj was a partner. Nothing has since then been heard about the case, though.

The bottom line is the BJP’s efforts to divide the Marathi-speaking votes of Uddhav, and its worry at chief minister Eknath Shinde’s failure to win the confidence of the Marathi manoos, who still seem to be standing behind Uddhav. The BJP could be testing the waters to see if Raj can emerge as a more viable inheritor of Bal Thackeray’s legacy, and a more reliable ally in the state.


Sharad Pawar (centre) clearly retains the support of his clan (photo: @PawarSpeaks/X)
Sharad Pawar (centre) clearly retains the support of his clan (photo: @PawarSpeaks/X)

Ajit ‘Dada’ Pawar Isolated

Meanwhile, Ajit ‘dada’ Pawar finds himself cornered and isolated on the family’s home turf in Baramati, with younger brother Srinivas Pawar and his wife becoming the latest to condemn Ajit's betrayal of uncle Sharad Pawar. In a widely circulated video, Srinivas can be heard berating Ajit as "ungrateful", and pointing out that he was an MP, a minister, and a deputy chief minister as many as four times, and all because of his uncle who is now 83 years old.

With Srinivas coming out in support of Sharad Pawar’s daughter and sitting MP Supriya Sule, Baramati will be a tough election to win for the rebel Pawar, who planned to field his wife Sunetra against Supriya. With Sharad Pawar’s sister Saroj Patil also coming out in support of Supriya, the battle lines are well and truly drawn.

The BJP, which had apparently instigated Ajit to rebel and wrest the Baramati seat from the senior Pawar’s family, is said to be having second thoughts too. The attempt to fire the gun using Ajit’s shoulder having failed, it is now toying with the idea of fielding a BJP candidate in Baramati.

Ajit had earlier burned his fingers by fielding son Parth in the election against the advice of Sharad Pawar. Parth had lost, even while Ajit was still with Pawar senior. Now with almost the entire Pawar clan standing with the patriarch, the going has just got tougher for Ajit.

To add to his woes, the Supreme Court has come down heavily on him for continuing to use Sharad Pawar’s photographs in his party's publicity material. When the Election Commission of India had declared the Ajit Pawar faction as the official NCP and allocated the existing ‘clock’ symbol to it, why was the faction still using the senior Pawar's images, the apex court asked.

After the tongue lashing from the court, the Ajit Pawar faction is now obliged to mention that its symbol is still ‘sub judice’, and avoid using the Sharad Pawar's photographs in its posters, hoardings etc.  **** 

A Test of ‘Shakti’

The BJP’s lame attempt to twist Rahul Gandhi’s use of the word shakti (power) in his address at the Shivaji Park rally of the INDIA bloc at the close of the Bharat Jodo Nyay Yatra, does not seem to have worked. Even as Prime Minister Narendra Modi himself accused the Congress leader of having abused the women of India in his speech, the laboured accusation found few takers.

The Congress leader had spoken of the evil power (shakti) used by PM Modi and the BJP to mislead people and stifle the Opposition. Much more significant was Gandhi’s visit to the memorial of Bal Thackeray, the Shiv Sena founder, which helped cement ties with Shiv Sainiks.

Even more powerful was Gandhi’s appearance in Dharavi, the sprawling slum in the heart of Mumbai, which is being handed over to the Adani Group. The million-strong residents and the maze of workshops and manufacturing units that make up Dharavi are to be dispersed and rehabilitated elsewhere, according to the plan. A survey is being conducted by a private company, a third party, with residents complaining that they should have been consulted.

Gandhi compared Dharavi to an "island of skills" that can take on the manufacturing might of China, provided the skills are strengthened and given opportunities to expand. He strongly advocated plans to develop the skills of the people in Dharavi and opening up bank credit for them.

Sharad Pawar with Rahul Gandhi at the Shivaji Park rally (photo: @PawarSpeaks/X)
Sharad Pawar with Rahul Gandhi at the Shivaji Park rally (photo: @PawarSpeaks/X)

The people in Dharavi have the potential to grow like Shenzhen, a manufacturing hub in China, he said, and with proper hand-holding, they could challenge products "made in China". 

Residents, however, are restive and fear both dislocation and loss of land and livelihood.


One Encounter Too Many?

Agra-born Pradeep Sharma, who grew up in Dhule and joined Mumbai Police where he emerged as an encounter specialist, is back in jail. A bench of the Mumbai High Court has set aside his acquittal by a trial court in the case of the abduction and killing of one Ram Narayan Gupta alias Lakhan Bhai, a 'shooter' working for underworld don Chhota Rajan.

While the trial court had sentenced 21 accused, including 13 policemen, to life-imprisonment, it had acquitted Sharma. In its 867-page judgment, the high court has pointed out the discrepancies in the trial court's order to set aside Sharma’s acquittal.

The controversial super cop, who has inspired several gangster movies, had also been accused of conspiring with another controversial policeman Sachin Vaze to plant explosives in a car parked near Antilia, the famed castle of Mukesh Ambani. The car owner’s body was found a few days after the explosives-laden car was detected. While Sharma was allowed bail by the Supreme Court, his luck has apparently, finally, run out. 

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