Under 72 hrs to go before the first vote is cast in the Maharashtra assembly elections, and things are hotting up. All major parties are having their last election rallies in Mumbai this weekend (Shivaji Park has suddenly become the epicentre of all Maharashtra politics) and we are hearing the familiar noises (having said that, as compared to the slogan-shouting of yesteryears, this hardly seems like an election campaign). The tiger continues to roar, albeit not as forcefully as he used to do a decade back, and the hand is back asking for votes in the quest for a third successive term (a rarity in modern-day politics). But the one gathering the most steam, and therefore chugging along to forefront of the political stage, is the railway engine.
Whether you like him or hate him, you cannot ignore him. And whether anyone living in the state (Maharashtrian or otherwise) likes it or not, it is becoming increasingly apparent that the keys to the next Vidhan Sabha are firmly in the hands of Raj Thackerary. Even though he has fielded only 145 candidates (half of the assembly strength), he is virtually certain to get the third lagest number of seats. And the quantum of seats he gets (opinion polls predict anywhere between 10 to 35) will probably decide the composition of the assembly and more importantly, who will form the next state government. And the man is certainly basking in the limelight. Yesterday's speech at the Shivaji Park was vintage Raj Thackeray and his uncle's stamp could be seen all over (especially when he spoofed Sonia Gandhi). In fact one smart thing that Raj is doing is sticking to Marathi in all his interviews, even if it is with NDTV 24*7. It was quite amusing to see Rajdeep Sardesai interview Raj, both of them knew each others language fully well and yet both were speaking different languages without an interpreter !!. Seeing Raj speak in Marathi (and thus reinforcing his Marathi agenda) would have surely made a small portion of the Marathi electorate see him in a new light (I confess I was impressed !!). As the 13th of October draws close, he is likely to steadily pull many more Marathi votes.
And what about the two main alliances ? The Cong-NCP combine should count themselves extremely lucky (did someone say third-time lucky ??) if they somehow manage to squeeze their way to the 145 mark. A decade of largely unimaginative and ineffective state governance (no major industries coming, farmer sucides, power problems, the vexed migrants issue in Mumbai) has led to a significant anti-incumbency wave. Now, in most cases, this would have meant that the opposition gallop towards the seat of power in Mantralaya. But is the Sena-BJP combine ready to get power ? More importantly, will it get somewhere close to a majority ? Its biggest challenge, of course, would be to reclaim Mumbai, Thane and Pune, on which it has been steadily loosing its grip. If it can achieve that, it can justifiably harbour hopes of forming the next government. But for those hopes to get translated into reality, they would need that man again. And so too would the Congress. And Raj Thackeray has kept his cards close to his chest, only revealing that he will support any one who forwards his agenda. If he is true to his word, and if it does transpire that the next government would be dependent on him, he is very likely to demand more than his pound of flesh for himself and the 'Marathi speaking public of the state' (note carefully that he does not say Maharashtrians, thus presenting a more inclusive agenda). Of course, what all this translates to for the Marathi speaking public on the ground after the next government is formed remains to be seen.
With the counting votes to happen on 22nd October, it is going to be a nervous Diwali for politicians and their supporters all over the state. But maybe one man will sleep more peacefully than the others !!.