Or, is it the BJP's game plan?
And, what is that gameplan?
"Raj Thackeray has been asked to focus only on Uddhav Thackeray and Sharad Pawar as his targets and dilute their standing among Maharashtra's voters. It is likely that Raj Thackeray will air family secrets that only he, Uddhav and Balasaheb were privy to. The sole game is to tarnish Uddhav Thackeray's image as a 'Thackeray'," Vivek Bhavsar tells Prasanna D Zore/Rediff.com.
"The BJP's solo aim in Mumbai and Maharashtra is to finish off the Shiv Sena and Sharad Pawar's NCP."
Raj Thackeray's spectacular rise and fall and his many flip-flops
When Raj formed the Maharashtra Navnirman Sena in 2006 he toured the state and people did feel then that he was the true political heir to Balasaheb Thackeray's legacy. Nobody thought Uddhav would choose politics as his vocation.
Maharashtrians entrusted their faith in him and voted as many as 13 of his MLAs to the Vidhan Sabha in 2009, 27 corporators in the BrihanMumbai Municipal Corporation and a majority in the Nashik Municipal Corporation. That was the MNS's golden era.
The problem is Raj is a lazy politician; he loves waking up late and doesn't make an effort to meet party workers.
When he began on a promising note in 2009 he had promised a development blueprint, but since then nobody has got to see this development blueprint.
People gradually began to lose their faith in Raj's politics and his dilly-dallying. Flirting with different ideologies further eroded his credibility among his followers.
When he began, the MNS flag sported saffron, green and blue indicating his need to appeal to the Muslims and the Dalits. He didn't much succeed in internalising this ideology in the MNS or gain significant support from these sections.
Then just before the 2014 Lok Sabha elections he changed tack and tried to appease Modi by visiting Gujarat and praising its development model. He even called Modi the only Vikas Purush just to win the support of Gujarati voters in Maharashtra's urban areas. In 2014, he had decided to sit on the BJP's lap.
That proved costly as his hardcore Marathi manoos supporters, who still looks at the BJP as a baniya (traders) party, felt that Raj was acting as tghe BJP's B Team.
That led to his political downfall as many of his MLAs could not win in the 2014 Vidhan Sabha polls in the state and many deserted him for greener pastures, including the Shiv Sena and BJP.
Lack of consistency and the many who left Raj Thackeray
Except for Bala Nandgaonkar and Nitin Sardesai, not many of the 13 who had won on an MNS ticket in the 2009 assembly election stood by him.
In fact, many of the leaders who are still standing by Raj are student leaders from the Bharatiya Vidyarthi Sena (the Shiv Sena's student wing), who had left the Sena along with Raj.
When Raj led the BVS, it was his fief and not the Sena's student wing. So these second-rung MNS leaders were always part of the 'Raj Sena' when in the BVS.
Leaders like Praveen Darekar (now in the BJP and Leader of the Opposition in the Maharashtra Legislative Council) and Ram Kadam (earlier an MNS MLA, but now a BJP legislator).
In fact, Darekar was so loyal to Raj Thackeray that during the BVS days he would even pawn his gold chain to raise money for organising agitations. Today, Darekar has emerged as Fadnavis's (former Maharashtra chief minister and Leader of the Opposition in the Maharashtra Assembly Devendra Fadnavis) blue-eyed boy.
In 2019, Raj changed tack again and went against Modi with his now famous 'lava re toh video' (play that video where Modi, while contesting 2014 election as BJP's prime minister candidate had promised Rs 15 lakh in every poor person's bank account and made tall promises) that tormented the state BJP no end.
It was not easy for his supporters to see Raj's consistent flip flops and lack of a rooted political strategy. He lost credibility as a political leader with these flip flops.
This inconsistency in striking a chord among his supporters eroded his political base. In Mumbai's BMC, its home base, the MNS tally fell from 28 in 2014 to just 7 in 2019. Out of these seven, six later joined the Shiv Sena, clearly indicating that the MNS's elected representatives don't trust Raj Thackeray to strengthen his hold even in urban areas.
It's do or die for Raj now
In 2022, Raj has realised that the MNS' beating up of north Indians, talking about sons-of-the-soil issues, seeking support of Muslims and Dalits, Modi-bashing did not materialise into votes and seats.
With every flip and flop his political base has shrunk further and further. He couldn't find a sweet spot with the ideology or strategy he wanted to pursue.
On the personal front, Raj took a complete backseat when his son's health was not doing well.
It's do or die for Raj now.
Why north Indians and Marathi manoos matter in Mumbai
This is where the BJP's aim to dethrone Shiv Sena from the BMC and Raj Thackeray's search for re-establishing the MNS's political clout dovetail.
If you look closely, the BJP doesn't have a strong cadre network in Mumbai like the Shiv Sena and to some extent the MNS.
Powerful turncoats from all the political parties in Maharashtra who have been joining the BJP since Modi came to power in 2014 know that there is no political alternative before the people for another decade or so given the way that party is entrenching itself across India.
While politicians may have their opportunistic reasons to gravitate towards the BJP, ordinary, on-the-fence voters, shows inclination to vote for a party that they see as well-entrenched.
In Mumbai, north Indians, who make up for approximately 30 per cent of the voters in the city, have been voting overwhelmingly for the BJP. Its clout in Uttar Pradesh has helped the BJP.
Alternatively, north Indians in Mumbai who have their roots in Bihar, are not that fond of the BJP. A good slice of Bihari voters in the city support the Congress. But their share as voters from north India in Mumbai is not as significant as those who belong to UP.
Then there are the Marwari-Jain voters who have always sided with those in power in Mumbai. These sections, this time around, is confident of the BJP's victory in the BMC. They are also confident that once the BJP captures BMC, the three-party Maha Vikas Aghadi will collapse soon. Given this situation, these voters are likely to vote overwhelmingly for the BJP.
Historically, 30 per cent of the sons-of-the-soil Marathi manoos have voted for the Shiv Sena-BJP combine whenever they fought the BMC election in alliance.
When the BJP, Shiv Sena fought separately, then this section either goes for the BJP or the Shiv Sena, or, and most importantly, searches for another party that represents their core beliefs.
Raj and BJP: Made for each other?
The BJP wants to catch this section, which will play a crucial role in deciding who wins the BMC next, and this is where the MNS, feels the BJP, will prove to be of tremendous value.
The BJP knows the MNS holds sizeable sway over the vote of the Marathi manoos. Add Raj's Thackeray lineage and it further boosts the BJP's chances of dislodging the Shiv Sena from the BMC and break the MVA government in the state.
To execute this plan, the BJP needs Raj Thackeray desperately.
Even today, the MNS on its own may not win more than eight to nine seats in the BMC in their strongholds of Mahim (north central Mumbai), Bhandup, Ghatkopar East (both in north east Mumbai), Kandivali (north west Mumbai) and some pockets in south central Mumbai.
That leaves Raj with little room to manoeuvre but tag along with the BJP and become its mouthpiece for raising the communal climate in Mumbai and other urban municipalities in Maharashtra.
The itchy poser before the BJP now is to either openly strike an electoral alliance with the MNS -- which it might defer for now given the MNS's history of bating north Indians in Mumbai -- or execute its agenda by supporting Raj through the backdoor. The BJP has huge money power and the MNS has significant cadre base on the ground.
As things stand, as per these two parties' internal understanding the BJP will stand solidly behind the MNS by providing material resources. The only condition is the MNS will have to choose its candidates suggested by the BJP.
Of course, the script that Raj Thackeray will read in public will also belong to the BJP.
Thackeray vs Thackeray: In comes Narayan Rane
To steamroll this initiative and coordinate with Raj, the BJP has chosen the Shiv Sena's bete noire Narayan Rane, as its pointsman.
Fadnavis will strategise the BJP's 'Capture BMC' blueprint; Narayan Rane will be its executor; Raj Thackeray will be the flagbearer.
The main thrust of this strategy will be to create a strong religious rift between Hindus and Muslims.
Given the recent polarisation over the hijab controversy, The Kashmir Files, use of loudspeakers atop mosques and chanting of the Hanuman Chalisa as a retaliatory measure, the only issue that would possibly cut ice with the 30 per cent Marathi voters and BJP's hardcore north Indian constituency in Mumbai is the chanting of Hanuman Chalisa and loudspeakers and till now Raj is playing exactly that tune.
Till the time Raj doesn't take on Uddhav Thackeray stridently on issues that create polarisation, he knows that he won't be able to pull the Marathi voter on the fence towards the MNS. People will have to elect one of the two Thackerays.
Uddhav Thackeray is in alliance with the Congress whose minister Aslam Shaikh had openly objected to the hanging of 1993 bomb blast convict Yaqub Memon. That latent anger still simmers in the heart of hardcore Shiv Sena supporters and the MNS and BJP will do all it takes to bring this anger to the fore. That will surely work against CM Thackeray.
Uddhav did create a huge swell of goodwill in Mumbai, Maharashtra and the world, given Mumbai's status as India's financial capital, over his handling of the COVID-19 pandemic. India's image as a nation grappling with a pandemic hinged upon how Mumbai dealt with it. Ordinary Mumbaikars, across the political divide, was happy with the chief minister's handling of the situation.
But after Nawab Malik's arrest by the Enforcement Directorate and the way the BJP projected Malik as a Dawood Ibrahim accomplice, it has created an impression that Shiv Sena patriarch Balasaheb Thackeray's son is shielding a Muslim minister who allegedly had links with Mumbai bomb blasts mastermind Dawood Ibrahim. This event has dented the chief minister's personal image.
The image of Uddhav Thackeray as an efficient administrator has been dented severely and he is now being seen as an appeaser of Muslims and a Hindu-baiter. The BJP seems to have succeeded in creating this image of the Thackeray Sarkar. This could jolt the Shiv Sena's performance in the next BMC election.
Who after Balasaheb Thackeray?
In these conditions, the BJP is baiting Raj Thackeray to don Balasaheb Thackeray's Hindu Hridaysamrat mantle. The BJP wants Raj Thackeray to fill this void created due to Balasaheb's death, which Uddhav has obviously failed to capitalise on.
The BJP wants Raj Thackeray to emerge as the new Hindu Hridaysamrat in Maharashtra just like they have built Yogi Adityanath's image as Uttar Pradesh's Hindu Hridaysamrat.
Even if hardcore Shiv Sena supporters in Maharashtra have acknowledged that Raj Thackeray is reading the BJP's script, word-to-word, over the common civil code or loudspeakers atop mosques, they are lapping it up.
The new voters, especially ones who voted for the first time in 2014, and voted for Modi's brand of strident Hindutva, and who have no inkling of how Balasaheb Thackeray emerged as the Hindu Hridaysamrat after the 1992-1993 Mumbai riots and subsequent bomb blasts, who is now in his/her mid-20s, and who live under the fear of Muslims overwhelming Hindus sometime in the future, who have been brainwashed by consuming news via social media, will have a huge impact on the forthcoming BMC election.
Why Raj? His last name matters
This young brigade, who is enamoured of Modi and votes for his brand of Hindutva in Lok Sabha elections, is being influenced by the BJP using Raj Thackeray as its mascot of masculine Hindutva to dethrone the Shiv Sena in Mumbai. So, those who don't want the Shiv Sena as well as the BJP can move towards Raj Thackeray's MNS.
The section of Marathi manoos, which is sizeable and yet unhappy with Uddhav Thackeray's appeasement of Nawab Malik but which also considers the BJP as a party of baniyas could vote for the MNS.
The BJP is aware of these voting patterns of the Marathi manoos and so are propping up Raj Thackeray to weaken the Shiv Sena on its janmabhoomi (the city where the party was born) and karmabhoom (and the city from where it began its political journey).
Interestingly, the Aam Aadmi Party may also play a role in the Shiv Sena's likely dethronement from Mumbai. I am confident that the AAP will win at least 10 seats in Mumbai, thanks largely to Congress and Nationalist Congress Party voters preferring Arvind Kejriwal's brand of politics.
Raj Thackeray's gameplan?
This is not actually Raj Thackeray's gameplan. It is the BJP's gameplan to unseat the Shiv Sena's stranglehold over Mumbai.
It is a hard truth that no party in Mumbai can win the BMC without support from north Indians who form roughly 30 per cent of the city's voter base.
Even though Mumbai has been a cosmopolitan city, the MNS knows that if it has to create a credible and sustainable political space for itself, after its spectacular rise and fall since its birth in 2006, it will have to remodel itself on Balasaheb Thackeray's and the BJP's strident Hindutva.
Interestingly, the BJP which won 82 seats on its own against the Shiv Sena's 84 in the 2017 BMC election, has assiduously crafted a strategy to emerge victorious with around 95-105 seats on its own in 2022 in the 227 member corporation.
Even in 2017, the Shiv Sena was saved by six MNS corporators who ditched Raj Thackeray to join the Shiv Sena and help it reach the 97 mark with the help of smaller parties.
With 82 seats, the BJP consciously decided to stay out of the power game and prepare itself for 2022.
Last year, before the Ganesh festival, when the BJP was agitating for reopening of temples in Maharashtra, it conducted an internal survey, which gave the BJP 70-77 seats in the BMC. That was the time when Uddhav's image as an able administrator during the pandemic was on the ascent.
Subsequent surveys conducted by the BJP gave it 95-105 seats on its own. Obviously, the BJP will steal these 13-23 seats from Shiv Sena's tally of 84.
There is a possibility that 20 seats where the MNS had emerged as runner-up or second runner-up in 2017 will play spoilsport for the Shiv Sena and dent its overall BMC tally this year.
Ultimately, this will be advantage BJP. Even if this math doesn't add up or comes close to it, the BJP and MNS will ally to wrest the BMC from Shiv Sena.
The bhagwa (the saffron colour of the Shiv Sena's flag) will not fly over BMC this time.
The Congress shall not get more than 20-22 seats; it has 27 corporators now. The Samajwadi Party (six seats in 2017) and Asaduddin Owaisi's AIMIM (All India Majlis Ittehadul Muslimeen) (two seats in 2017) would get routed in 2022; the AAP will win the SP's and AIMIM's combined seat tally.
The quid pro quo: The BJP's offer to MNS
According to my information, the last election rally for the BMC will see Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Raj Thackeray address a joint rally in Mumbai.
The BJP has asked the MNS to focus on 20-25 seats from where it can seriously harm the Shiv Sena's chances and in return the BJP has promised to help the MNS win 8 to 10 seats.
The BJP has also promised the MNS to help it win five Lok Sabha MPs in 2024 and one Rajya Sabha seat.
The BJP's solo aim in Mumbai and Maharashtra is to finish off the Shiv Sena and Sharad Pawar's NCP.
Raj Thackeray has been asked to focus only on Uddhav Thackeray and Sharad Pawar as his targets and dilute their standing among Maharashtra's voters.
It is likely that Raj Thackeray will air a lot of family secrets that only he, Uddhav and Balasaheb were privy to. The sole game is to tarnish Uddhav Thackeray's image as a 'Thackeray'.
In fact, the BJP is gearing itself for a mid-term poll in Maharashtra along with the assembly election in Gujarat. The BJP is confident of winning 125 seats -- from the 106 it has now -- in Maharashtra if it goes for a mid-term poll.
The BJP has also assured the MNS of 25 sure shot wins in the Vidhan Sabha and form a government with the MNS's support in the state.