Raj Thackeray believes that his campaign during the Lok Sabha elections, where he singularly focused on targeting Narendra Modi and the BJP, is a testament of his sincerity and this will convince the scattered opposition parties to unite.
Is Maharashtra Navnirman Sena chief Raj Thackeray really a selfless man or is he playing a devious game?
While most political observers are looking for answers to that question, the fact remains that he has gone from the extreme Right to left-of-centre, and this polar shift in his politics is befuddling veterans.
The MNS chief has pulled off the impossible — a quick audience with former Congress President and UPA chairperson Sonia Gandhi in New Delhi where they discussed many things, including an alliance in Maharashtra, which Gandhi has reportedly said might not be possible as the state units are opposed to the tie-up.
However, the meeting of a Nehru-Gandhi with a Thackeray is in itself a tectonic shift changing both the fault lines and perception about Raj Thackeray in Indian politics.
Thackeray began his friendship with Prime Minister Narendra Modi at a time when most political leaders considered Modi persona non grata, given the 2002 riots in Gujarat while he was the Chief Minister. Thackeray changed his mind about Modi when he realised he had been taken for a ride on the ‘Gujarat Model’ of development.
Thackeray seems to be convinced that Modi and Bharatiya Janata Party President and Union home minister Amit Shah are bad news for not just Maharashtra but for the entire country, and is trying to stop their juggernaut.
To this extent, he ran perhaps the best election campaign across India against Modi and the BJP during the recent Lok Sabha elections. He was the only other political leader, apart from former Congress President Rahul Gandhi, who full-bloodedly took on Modi, no holds barred and pulling no punches.
However, unlike Rahul Gandhi who was fighting for himself and his party, Thackeray was not fighting for his party, but for the Congress and the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP). It was out of gratitude for this that Sonia Gandhi readily met Thackeray.
The meeting in itself was a unique thing, because two political leaders so further removed by their politics and ideological moorings do not have ‘casual’ meetings, unless they are in a formal political alliance. Nor do they campaign for another party unless they are allies. Even Raj Thackeray’s uncle Bal Thackeray who founded the Shiv Sena with covert Congress support never openly campaigned for that party.
It is widely known that Bal Thackeray contributed to Congress’ victories in a covert fashion, but, his nephew now seems to want to help the Congress overtly. His expectation of a few seats during the forthcoming Maharashtra assembly elections, however, do not match or account for what he is setting out to do.
Raj Thackeray was visiting New Delhi after 14 years and the leaders who he chose to meet sends out an important signal. Thackeray did not even visit the national capital to distribute invitation cards to his son’s wedding last year and did not invite Modi, though other BJP leaders and ministers were on his guest list. In addition to Sonia Gandhi, Thackeray is believed to have sought audience with Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal, Rashtriya Janata Dal leader Tejashwi Yadav and West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee, among others.
Why the sudden and new-found love for leaders whose people he has targeted in the past on xenophobic grounds?
Thackeray believes that where the Congress failed in uniting the Opposition, he can succeed. He believes that his campaign during the Lok Sabha elections, where he singularly focused on targeting Modi and the BJP, is a testament of his sincerity and this will convince the scattered opposition parties to unite in defeating Modi.
This is easier said than done. Only a short while ago Raj Thackeray was a fascist in the making with his paranoia targeting Muslims and migrants in Mumbai from the very states whose leaders with whom he is now trying to form an alliance.
His meeting with Gandhi assumes significance when it is put in this larger context. The meeting was an attempt to lend him legitimacy. If he could convince her to hear him out, others too might not find it difficult to grant him an audience. He believes that all their goals are the same —to stop Modi in his tracks.
Raj Thackeray has certainly stepped where no Thackeray was welcome before. Sonia Gandhi’s leap of faith in welcoming a Thackeray to her house has been his biggest achievement so far. Time will unravel the rest.Sujata Anandan is a senior journalist and author. Views are personal.