The Congress has reason to smile at the MNS agitation as it could boost Raj Thackeray’s image and cut into Shiv Sena votes

It was a dead-of-the-night arrest in 2008. Maharashtra Navnirman Sena (MNS) chief Raj Thackeray was intercepted while on his way to Ratnagiri in Maharashtra and held in custody overnight. This was following a violent agitation against North Indian migrants in Mumbai — and just two years after he had split the Shiv Sena, the party founded by his uncle Bal Thackeray, to form the MNS. The anti-North Indian stir was an event that saw the MNS at its belligerent peak.

His arrest this Wednesday, February 12, could not have been less dramatic. He was taken into custody barely two hours after the MNS had begun its roadblockade of Maharashtra’s highways to protest tolls, only to be released within hours. It was a move that has set off rumours of “a deal’’ with the government, a charge the MNS vehemently denies.

After the 2008 stir, the party had virtually gone into hibernation, barring a few sporadic protests. It did raise the toll issue in 2012 but soon withdrew, claiming that it had been successful in winding up 65 toll booths. “Little was done in the last five years to strengthen the organisation. There were no major agitations or even regular party meetings,” says Maharashtra Times political editor Sandeep Pradhan.

An attempt at resurrection

Critics see the anti-toll agitation as an attempt to resurrect the party’s (the MNS’s) image before the Lok Sabha poll. A point made most vocally by the former Shiv Sainik, Chhagan Bhujbal. Now Public Works Minister, Mr. Bhujbal is the main target of the anti-toll agitation. “The MNS has become irrelevant. That is why they are desperate to agitate and Raj Thackeray is desperate to get arrested,” he says.

The anti-toll stir may not have the same resonance with Marathi voters as the anti-migrant plank but it has once again focussed the spotlight on the MNS. For the Congress-Nationalist Congress Party (NCP), struggling with anti-incumbency at the Centre and the State, this is welcome news, and a reason why many feel Mr. Raj Thackeray’s agitation has the tacit support of the ruling parties.

“There seems to be an understanding between the ruling parties and the Raj Thackeray because a stronger Raj Thackeray means a weaker Shiv Sena,” says senior journalist Kumar Ketkar. In a caustic editorial in the party newspaper Saamna, the Shiv Sena said, “The script for this play has been written by the Congress-NCP. The agitation is the background music and the arrest is the climax.”

These are allegations the MNS has denied. “When I hold talks with the Chief Minister, reporters will be present so that they can see for themselves that there is no deal,” Mr. Thackeray told reporters. The party says it will continue its agitation if talks with the government are not satisfactory.

In the 2009 election, Mr. Raj Thackeray was a major spoiler and dented the vote of the Shiv Sena-Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) alliance. In the Lok Sabha poll that year, the Sena could not win a single one of the six seats in Mumbai, a city which had long been its bastion. The MNS drew a significant number of votes in each of those six seats. In the Assembly elections that followed, the Congress-NCP won nearly 20 more seats than anticipated because of the Raj Thackeray factor.

The MNS currently has 13 MLAs in a 288 member assembly. It is also in power in the Nasik Municipality and has a sizeable number of corporators in powerful civic bodies including Mumbai, Kalyan-Dombivali, Pune and Jalgaon.

Mr. Raj Thackeray has not said how many seats he will contest in the forthcoming Lok Sabha poll, but he has clearly positioned himself against the BJP’s prime ministerial candidate Narendra Modi. “For the Congress party which is faced with the Modi factor and the emergence of the Aam Aadmi Party, a stronger Raj Thackeray who will cut into opposition votes, is good news,” says a senior Congress leader.

The affected

In the context of the anti-toll agitation, the Congress has another reason to smile. It hurts its alliance partner, the NCP. The Public Works Department and the Maharashtra State Road Development Corporation Limited, which oversee the road network in the State, are controlled by the NCP. Mr. Raj Thackeray has trained fire on that party’s minister Mr. Bhujbal so far, but not at Chief Minister Prithviraj Chavan. This has not gone unnoticed. “The Opposition is targeting the NCP,” grumbles NCP state President Bhaskar Jadhav. “Our ally is saying nothing, thinking this will hurt only us. But they should remember that when a team loses a match, even the captain is hurt.”

The NCP is now caught between hoping to gain from the damage Mr. Raj Thackeray does to the saffron alliance and trying to protect its own image. The Congress is looking at how to maximise the discomfort that Mr. Thackeray’s agitation brings to the Sena-BJP and the extent to which his progress undermines the Modi factor. The Sena is railing against the stir in its party mouthpiece. Mr. Raj Thackeray himself is really looking ahead at the State Assembly rather than the Lok Sabha election in which he has little at stake. It’s poll season in Maharashtra.

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