MUMBAI: In the run-up to an election in which the opposition was woefully short of firebrand orators, it was expected that Maharashtra Navnirman Sena (MNS) chief Raj Thackeray would dominate the campaign and news cycle. After all, that’s what had happened a few weeks before the Lok Sabha election, when TV cameras delightedly focused on Thackeray and his caustic utterances as he travelled from rally to rally, campaigning against the BJP.
But the 51-year-old was unusually subdued this time, emerging from hibernation just days before the election. And just like the general election, his efforts didn’t bear much fruit—only one of the MNS’s 101 candidates for the assembly election has won a seat.
While 78-year-old Sharad Pawar and his NCP look set to dominate the opposition space over the next five years, Thackeray, the man once seen as the rightful heir to uncle Bal Thackeray, will have a tough time staying relevant.
Since the election result on Thursday, the MNS chief has not spoken in public or tweeted or issued any official statement on the result.
An MNS leader who spoke to HuffPost India on condition of anonymity, said that the result was not entirely unexpected.
“He (Raj) was in two minds about contesting the election. He decided to contest at the last minute, by which time the momentum was already with NCP chief Sharad Pawar. Also, he failed to do what Pawar did. When he was served the ED notice, he failed to use it to his advantage but Pawar showed how you turn a case against you into an election issue,” said the MNS leader, who lost the election.
When Thackeray was served an ED notice and called for an inquiry, he asked his cadre not to protest and surprisingly became quiet for over a month in the run-up to the election. In contrast, Pawar turned the ED notice he received into a major spectacle and volunteered to appear before the agency, bringing angry NCP cadre onto the street. Finally, the ED and Mumbai Police had to request him not to come.
From then, it was advantage Pawar all the way.
A leader close to Thackeray, who claimed that the MNS chief’s silence after the ED inquiry was misconstrued, fears that it might happen again if he doesn’t speak within the next couple of days.
In contrast, Thackeray’s cousin and Shiv Sena chief Uddhav is holding all the right cards at the moment, and is trying to extract a better deal from alliance partner BJP.
The MNS, which won 13 seats in its first assembly election in 2009, has been on a downhill trip, winning only one seat in 2014 and 2019 (its lone MLA from 2014, Sharad Sonawane, quit the party and joined Shiv Sena earlier this year).
This time, the only saving grace for Thackeray is Pramod (Raju) Patil, the MNS candidate from Kalyan rural seat who won by a margin of 7,154 votes because the Congress and NCP didn’t field any candidates there.
The party’s vote share has dipped to 2.25% from 3.1% in 2014.
Some of his candidates—Sandip Deshpande, Santosh Nalawade, Sandip Jalgoankar, Kishor Shinde and Harshala Chavan—did put up a good fight but failed to win.
Another MNS leader said the Thackeray will now focus on the 2022 BMC polls.
Dhawal Kulkarni, senior journalist and author of the recent book The Cousins Thackeray, thinks that Thackeray’s biggest flaw is a lack of consistency.
“His problem was that he began preparing for the election at the last moment. Otherwise he would have won more seats, including the Shiv Sena bastion of Dadar… I personally feel he (Raj) can rise from the ashes once again but he will have to show consistency. Despite this debacle, there exists a space for MNS apart from the four major political parties in the state but he has always failed to tap it,” he said.
Kulkarni added that Thackeray will have to find his place in the growing anti-BJP space.
“He still has a chance of emerging as the anti-BJP force. A leader, who has charismatic authority can never be written off,” said the journalist.