21/08/2019 8:10 AM IST | Updated 22/08/2019 11:58 AM IST

Raj Thackeray's ED Summons Could Spell Trouble For BJP-Shiv Sena

The summons, which has brought Maharashtra’s opposition on the same page, will also give the MNS chief a chance to flex some political muscle

Hindustan Times via Getty Images

NAGPUR, Maharashtra — In the 2019 Lok Sabha election, the BJP-Shiv Sena combine won most of the seats in Maharashtra, taking full advantage of the fragmented opposition and Narendra Modi’s popularity to paper over the cracks in its own alliance.

But even among the anti-BJP side, there was one clear winner—Raj Thackeray, the Maharashtra Navnirman Sena (MNS) chief, who used his oratorical skills to deliver rousing anti-Modi tirades and drum up support for the Congress-NCP alliance. Though MNS put up no candidates in the general election, Thackeray’s witty speeches, which drew large crowds and hordes of TV cameras, rejuvenated his own dispirited cadre and helped him chart his own path back to political relevance.

Even after the election results, while most opposition leaders slinked away to lick their wounds, Thackeray pounced on EVMs as his weapon of choice, alleging that the BJP’s victory was because it managed to manipulate the machines. In July, he even wrote to the Election Commission of India, asking that the Maharashtra assembly elections be held using ballot papers.

Now, after weeks of trying to get major opposition leaders to join his anti-EVM campaign, Thackeray, once seen as Shiv Sena founder Bal Thackeray’s rightful heir in oratory skills as well as whipping up xenophobia, has been served an Enforcement Directorate (ED) summons for Thursday morning. 

Coming barely months ahead of the state assembly elections, the summons will not only let Thackeray portray himself as the victim of the BJP’s political vendetta, it will also give his party, which currently has no MLAs in the state assembly, the chance to flex some muscle in Mumbai. 

The MNS, which was founded in 2006, had a meteoric rise initially, winning 13 assembly seats in 2009 with ‘Marathi pride’ its sole agenda. But five years later, in 2014, the party won just one seat, and even that MLA soon left to join Shiv Sena.

While Thackeray tried different tactics, including supporting Modi, to turn his political fortunes, nothing really clicked until the 2019 Lok Sabha election campaign.

What is the opposition saying?

Opposition leaders, who have often accused the BJP of using central investigative agencies such as the ED and CBI to settle political scores and lure rivals, allege a political conspiracy here as well.

Vanchit Bahujan Aghadi leader Prakash Ambedkar claimed on Monday that he had called Thackeray’s close aide and senior MNS leader Bala Nandgaonkar 10 days ago to alert him about a possible ED action.

“After the current notice to Mr. Thackeray, it is very clear that this is the politics of blackmail. Congress leaders are also getting blackmailed and so are half of the leaders in the Nationalist Congress Party,” Ambedkar said, reported The Hindu.

Nandgaonkar also confirmed that Ambedkar had warned him about the ED’s plan.

According to an MNS leader close to Thackeray, a top BJP functionary in the state made a “friendly call” to Thakeray and told him to “stop” his anti-EVM campaign.

“The BJP leader told him that even he won’t be able to save him despite being his friend,” the MNS leader told HuffPost India on condition of anonymity.

After news of the summons broke on Monday, Sharad Pawar’s close aide and senior NCP leader Vidya Chavan rushed to meet Thackeray at his residence in Mumbai.

During the conversation, which was caught on camera, Thackeray can be heard speaking to Chavan about Maharashtra CM Devendra Fadnavis’s claims of winning 250 out of 288 seats in the upcoming assembly election.

“Should we play marbles only in 28 seats then?” he is heard demanding of the NCP leader during a discussion on his current favourite topic: EVMs.

After the meeting, Chavan told reporters that Thackeray had received the summons because the government was scared about his anti-EVM campaign.  

“Many in my party have been served ED notices. All of us in the NCP are with Raj and even the Congress party is with him in this battle. This morcha will happen on the scheduled day, the threats don’t matter. How come ED serves notice on eve of opposition protests?” Chavan said.

The NCP leader was referring to a big morcha organised by Thackeray against EVMs. It was originally scheduled for August 21 but was postponed to 29 August due to the floods in western Maharashtra. 

Congress’s Maharashtra unit president Balasaheb Thorat and Swabhimani Shetkari Sanghatana leader Raju Shetti have also questioned the timing of the ED notice and declared support to Thackeray.

CM Fadnavis has denied all allegations of vendetta, saying that he also heard of the ED summons only through the media.  

“We have got nothing to do with the ED. ED  works independently so if he has received the notice, he should answer it. If he is not at fault then there is no reason for him to panic,” he told reporters.

Getty Images
MNS chief Raj Thackeray showing PM Modi's video clip during a rally in the run-up to 2019 Lok Sabha election

What has the ED summoned Thackeray for?

A week before the agency issued the notice, an English newspaper’s Mumbai edition had reported, citing sources, that Thackeray was likely to receive a summons.

The ED’s summons is related to a case pertaining to alleged irregularities related to IL&FS group’s loan and equity investment in a company called Kohinoor CTNL, which was set up by Unmesh Joshi, the son of  senior Shiv Sena leader and former Maharashtra chief minister Manohar Joshi.  

The Indian Express reported that in 2005, Unmesh Joshi, along with IL&FS and Raj Thackeray-owned Matoshree Construction, jointly bid for the NTC’s Kohinoor Mill, buying the 4.8-acre property for Rs 421 crore.

At the time, Thackeray was still part of the Shiv Sena. He broke away in 2006 and formed the MNS. 

Thackeray exited Matoshree Construction in 2008. 

The ED grilled Unmesh Joshi for around 8 hours on Monday.

What is the MNS planning?

As news spread of the summons to Thackeray, MNS leaders initially called for a bandh in Mumbai, warning residents not to step out of their homes unless necessary. But, the party soon called this off, claiming that Thackeray had asked them to ensure that people are not harassed. 

On Thursday, the Mumbai police detained some MNS workers, fearing a law and order problem in case they turned up outside the ED’s office in Fort area of Mumbai. 

India Today reported that a close watch is being kept on MNS workers in different parts of Mumbai. 

“Because of the position he took in the run-up to the Lok Sabha election, the entire country developed feelings for him. We are receiving thousands of calls, messages, and communication on social media since the day he has been served ED notice. The situation is tense in the state. We are going to march towards the ED office peacefully on August 22,” Nandgaonkar had said in a press conference in Mumbai on Tuesday.