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Sharad Pawar Makes Raj Thackeray Maha Campaign’s Disruptor-in-Chief, and Why It Has the BJP Worried

To the discomfiture of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), Maharashtra Navnirman Sena (MNS) chief Raj Thackeray has emerged as the chief campaigner for the opposition this election season.

This development has taken place despite the MNS deciding not to field a single candidate for any of the 48 Lok Sabha seats up for grabs in Maharashtra. According to speculation, the brain behind this great disruption in state politics is Maratha strongman Sharad Pawar.

Pawar, the head of the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP), was instrumental in roping in the firebrand MNS chief who has been spearheading an anti-BJP and, more specifically, an anti-Modi campaign. It is a role reversal for Thackeray who was once a great admirer of Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

The election results on May 23 will indicate if Pawar and Thackeray have been able to effectively play the role of “disruptors” of the BJP-Shiv Sena alliance in Maharashtra at a time when the ruling combine is hoping to repeat its performance from the 2014 elections, when it rode the so-called Modi wave that had pulverised the Congress and the NCP.

The grand old party could secure just two seats and the NCP managed four of the 48 Lok Sabha seats. This had drastically changed the politics of the state — four months later, the BJP decided to contest independently and relegated the Sena to a minor partner’s position in Maharashtra.

This time around, Modi and BJP chief Amit Shah kept in mind the Congress-NCP defectors before planning the scenario of the Maharashtra polls. Since the BJP is in power in both the state as well as the Centre, resources will not be an issue for the party.

But Pawar and Thackeray, directly and indirectly, are seeking to cleverly scuttle the saffron design – they have raised awkward questions in their campaigns and have sought to expose Modi’s claims.

NCP’s Dhananjay Munde, nephew of the late BJP stalwart Gopinath Munde, is another leader who has emerged as a key campaigner for the Opposition. His speeches are lapped up by leaders such as Pawar and Thackeray.

During his election meetings in the state, Modi has attacked Pawar on several occasions. Doing so indicates the NDA’s acceptance that the Congress-NCP combine is the real opposition, instead of Prakash Ambedkar-Asaduddin Owaisi’s Vanchin Bahujan Aghadi, which whittles down any attempts by the third player to divide Dalit-Muslim votes.

The Congress-NCP combine has picked up confidence after the first phase of elections since initial feedback suggests a keen contest in the Vidarbha region, which had seen a Modi wave in the 2014 Lok Sabha polls.

Retaining its grip over Maharashtra has become crucial for the BJP following a “mahagathbandhan” of the Samajwadi Party (SP), Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) and Rashtriya Lok Dal (RLD) in Uttar Pradesh and the loss of power in Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Chhattisgarh and Karnataka.

In addition to farmers’ distress, Maharashtra has witnessed two major agitations over the last five years – these included demonstrations seeking reservation for Marathas and the reactions to the Bhima Koregaon violence in January 2018. It remains to be seen what influence these agitations have on the Lok Sabha elections.

While the Congress may not have a “face” in Maharashtra, its caste combinations have not eroded. On the other hand, Pawar’s strategy and Thackeray’s campaigning, combined with technology and a communicative style, have alarmed BJP’s managers, strategists and leaders.

An “urban” Thackeray, who has caught the attention of the youth and those hailing from rural and semi-urban places, is bringing to the fore the promises made by the BJP five years ago. In his rallies, Thackeray often plays short clips of the promises made by PM Modi during his 2014 campaign and then seeks to counter the claims with facts and figures.

Renowned Marathi poet and lyricist ND Mahanor has likened Thackeray’s role to that played by writer PL Deshpande, who helped the then Janata Party in the post-Emergency Lok Sabha elections in 1977. The multi-faceted personality, affectionately called Pu La (which stood for Purushottam Lakshman, his first and middle names), had campaigned against the Congress.

That Thackeray’s campaign has unsettled the ruling combine is evident from the attacks directed at him by the BJP in general and by Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis, in particular.

The saffron party has ridiculed Thackeray by equating his role to that of an “uninvited guest”, using the phrase “begani shaadi mein Abdullah deewana”. The BJP has also claimed that the Ma Na Se (as the MNS is known in Maharashtra) has become the Oo Na Se (Umedwar Nasleli Sena), an organisation without candidates.

Thackeray, through his meetings, blogs and cartoons, has not sought votes but has exposed the BJP and its star campaigners. While rural distress, jobs and scarcity of drinking water are the main issues in the state, the BJP has focused on national security, Pakistan and attacking rivals, especially Pawar, Thackeray has alleged.

The second and third phases of polling, on April 18 and 23, respectively, will further crystallise the outcome of the Maharashtra polls that will have a bearing on the Assembly in the state later this year.

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