The Congress-NCP-led government’s soft-pedaling on taking action against MNS chief Raj Thackeray for instigating his cadres to vandalise toll booths across Maharashtra has raised questions about the party enjoying tacit support from the state government. The ruling coalition is looking at splitting the anti-incumbency votes whereas the current agitation is helping the MNS hold on to what critics say is an eroding base which is perceived to be under threat from the Narendra Modi-led BJP and Delhi CM Arvind Kejriwal’s Aam Aadmi Party (AAP).
MNS leaders too are surprised with Raj’s sudden call for a renewed agitation against toll collection which began in 2012 but fizzled out later. Till Wednesday, MNS workers boasted about vandalising 50 toll stations.
Shiv Sena and BJP leaders accused the MNS of hit-and-run activism and claimed that the protests were prompted by the likelihood of the party losing some of its core and floating constituencies to the BJP, which is wooing voters with the combination of Hindutva and development. The emergence of AAP is also seen as a serious threat. The presence of the MNS led to the defeat of Sena-BJP candidates in nine Lok Sabha constituencies in 2009.
MNS leaders said the agitation against toll will give a much-needed “programme” to party workers before the Lok Sabha and assembly polls. “We should have taken the issue to its logical end in 2012,” admitted an MNS leader, referring to the protests. The party says the issue finds resonance with not just the car-owning middle and upper-class citizens but also the poor who travel in state transport buses which have to pay toll.
Raj’s party highlighted the lack of transparency in toll contracts like vehicle figures and collections, and alleged that operators were making windfall gains. The MNS then posted activists at 40 major toll nakas to collect these figures. Raj created a flutter by claiming that the five entry points to Mumbai would see collections of Rs14,524.79 crore till the completion of the concession period in 2027 as against the Rs2,100 crore contract.
The MNS chief asked people to stop paying toll till the state government ensured transparency. However, the campaign petered out later with the MNS blaming the police crackdown for it.
However, the MNS scored a victory of sorts when the MSRDC and PWD decided to set up digital display boards with toll collection details at toll nakas. It also brought into focus the need for an independent and impartial toll monitoring agency. Even Congress and NCP leaders admit about the need to break the ‘omerta’ surrounding these contracts. PWD officials said the traffic projection figures on which toll rates and concession periods are based may be highly indicative.
MNS functionaries recall how the 2012 campaign had touched a chord with travellers and motorists, many of them non-Maharashtrians, who would spur them on during their fortnight-long vigil. They are sceptical of a similar response this time.
“The AAP may pose a threat to the MNS as it speaks a language similar to Raj regarding a systemic change once elected to power. However, unlike Kejriwal’s blitzkrieg in Delhi, MNS corporators and legislators have been seen as unable to bring about major transformations in their constituencies,” said a senior BJP leader. He said that was the reason the MNS was trying to ensure that there was no vacuum in its electoral catchment. “No new activity must be started six months before the polls. People see it as an election stunt and it may fail to make an impact,” the leader said.
The MNS, which is otherwise known for its violent protests against North Indians, has been silent on the agitation front for around a year.