In a major make-or-break announcement aimed at infusing life into his party reeling under the recent electoral setback, Maharashtra Navnirman Sena (MNS) chief Raj Thackeray said he would contest the assembly polls and would be the party's chief ministerial candidate.
Raj will thus become first from the Thackeray family to directly contest elections.
Raj, who explained away his party's debacle in the LS polls as an outcome of the Narendra Modi wave, pointed to how the 'Mahayuti' led by BJP-Shiv Sena, which had won an unprecedented 42 of the 48 Lok Sabha seats in the state, had faced similar setbacks in the past.
Raj's announcement will be a morale booster for the cadre reeling under the LS setback, where all its 10 nominees forfeited deposits. MNS leaders believe that like the strategy of projecting Modi as the PM candidate had paid off, the people of Maharashtra too may cast their lot with a 'strong leader' like Raj. Though they didn't reveal from where he may contest, there are speculations that Raj may opt for a seat in Mumbai or Nashik, where the party has strong presence.
"I have come to a decision. In the coming assembly elections, Raj Thackeray will himself contest polls," said Raj amidst thunderous ovation. He was addressing the party rally at Somaiya grounds in Sion, where he was the sole speaker.
"If you and I win the confidence of the people and if they give us the mandate, Raj Thackeray will lead," he added, making his chief ministerial ambitions clear.
Raj's uncle and late Shiv Sena supremo Bal Thackeray and his son and Sena president Uddhav, have never contested polls. Incidentally, Uddhav too has hinted about his chief ministerial ambitions, though his ally, the BJP, is seeking to usurp the role of the senior partner in the saffron alliance.
Interestingly, Raj said he had been in two minds about contesting the Lok Sabha elections, but had decided to go ahead after the Sena reaction consequent to former BJP president Nitin Gadkari appealing to him to refrain from contesting to prevent a split in the anti-Congress vote.
"Who will say this is a meeting being held in the shadow of a defeat?," asked Raj, in his around half-an-hour long speech, pointing to the crowd that had thronged the Somaiya grounds.
Raj also congratulated Modi for the electoral victory.
"It is essential to understand this election," said Raj, clad in a light coloured kurta, adding: "The BJP and its allies were elected only on Modi's name, nothing else."
He said the landslide victory had come as a surprise to even BJP leaders. He also ridiculed Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi as the man responsible for that party's electoral wipe out. "The opposition never wins. The ruling party loses," said Raj, questioning whether the BJP would have secured so many votes had they not had a face like Modi.
He said he was a witness to electoral setbacks faced by the Sena in its initial days. "I have imbibed from a young age as to how one needs to overcome defeat," said Raj.
"In the coming Vidhan Sabha elections, you will see me making a surge. I am not saying this to vitalize you, I have thought this over. You will know the strategy in stages," said Raj. He also tried to whitewash his party's inability to take the agitation against toll to its logical end and pointed to how they had managed to close down 65 toll nakas in the initial stage itself.
Raj also chided critics for writing the party's obituary after the elections, pointing to the massive response to the rally.