Today, the Maharashtra Navnirman Sena is offering an alternative political platform to Shiv Sena’s Hindutva politics. But we need to see how long Raj Thackeray’s new theatrics last, and how much of an impact it will create in the state’s politics.
It is a déjà vu moment in Maharashtra’s politics, particularly in Mumbai. Raj Thackeray, in a fiery speech addressing the office-bearers of his party, laid down the future course for all of them. Rather, he just attempted to re-ignite the past that brought Balasaheb Thackeray to the limelight in the 1980s. The founder of the Shiv Sena had begun to champion Hindutva in the mid-1980s with his outspoken provocations that always included typical statements tantamount to hate speech against Muslims. It was a new path charted by Balasaheb Thackeray leaving aside his original concerns for Marathi Manoos.
The Shiv Sena was founded in 1966 in the name of protecting the interests of the Marathi speaking population in Mumbai and its suburbs. Two decades later, from 1985-86 onwards, Balasaheb Thackeray embraced Hindutva to challenge the Congress hegemony in Maharashtra. His nephew, Raj, is clearly trying to emulate his success by following the same formula. He broke away from the Shiv Sena and formed a new political outfit named Maharashtra Navnirman Sena (MNS) in 2007. Even though his departure from the Shiv Sena was because of leadership issues, Raj tried to paint it as concern for Marathi Manoos. The MNS was able to create a storm in the politics of the state by winning 13 seats in the legislative assembly in the year 2009. The storm, however, lost steam soon after the state elections. Many suspect that the then ruling coalition in the state, consisting of the Congress and the NCP, ensured ‘logistical’ support to the newly formed outfit of Raj Thackeray to split the anti-Congress votes. The data supported this suspicion.
In an annual gathering of the office-bearers of MNS on 23rd January, Raj Thackeray spoke about almost all the issues that Balasaheb Thackeray used to speak about in the 1980s. Raj Thackeray almost used the language of Balasaheb Thackeray which made the latter a divisive figure in the state’s politics. He was as disliked by those who felt threatened, as he was loved by his supporters. The problem with Raj Thackeray, so far, is that nobody hates him! This is, perhaps, the only dissimilarity between him and his uncle, Balasaheb Thackeray. Otherwise, in his teens, Raj captured the attentions of Shiv-Sainiks for his remarkable resemblance to Shiv Sena Pramukh. Many believed that Balasaheb Thackeray, indeed, was grooming Raj as his heir apparent in the Shiv Sena.
Raj is as good at mimicry as his uncle was and both of them have been fine cartoonists. Raj seems to have the same passion in the belly that Balasaheb Thackeray had while addressing the mass-gatherings. Both have been part-time politicians in their youth with a capacity to attract the full attention of the public. It’s only with Hindutva that Balasaheb Thackeray became a full-time politician, and his outfit turned into a formidable political party. Today, Raj Thackeray has no choice but to try to emulate Balasaheb Thackeray’s style and content. In his speech on the 23rd of January, he attempted to create his Hindutva following by raising issues such as the use of loudspeakers during namaz. He also thundered against those who are attacking Hindus without mentioning who are attacking Hindus. Most importantly, the MNS changed its flag to project itself as a saffron outfit. The new MNS flag is saffron in colour, with an imprint of the official stamp of King Shivaji’s court known as Shiv Mudra. Earlier, the MNS flag had blue, green and saffron colours. The MNS also used V D Savarkar’s portrait in the backdrop of the stage, along with a portrait of Prabodhankar Thackeray, the grand-father of the Thackeray siblings. As if these were not signals enough to the Bharatiya Janata Party, Raj Thackeray also announced unequivocal support to both CAA and NRC. Raj’s support to the Modi government comes at a critical moment when BJP’s allies within NDA are distancing themselves from these measures. Again, in the style of Balasaheb, Raj questioned the continuity of the Samjhauta express between India and Pakistan, while proclaiming that the police of an Indian state has the capacity to flush out all the illegal Pakistani and Bangladeshi migrants within 48 hours.
The question is whether Raj Thackeray’s MNS would be able to repeat the feat of the Shiv Sena in Mumbai and its suburbs. The Shiv Sena grew after the dismantling of the left-leaning opposition to the Congress in the state, and Mumbai in particular. The Shiv Sena’s growth was accompanied by a countrywide crisis within the Lohiaite socialist movement, wherein it turned to regional caste-based politics. The socialist movement in Maharashtra, with many stalwarts in its kitty, simply failed to sustain the changes occurring on the national canvas. This created a large vacuum in the state’s politics that the Shiv Sena filled in quickly. That was also the time when the BJP had just begun to expand and was a junior partner to the Shiv Sena.
Today, the BJP is the number one political party in the state. There seems to be no political vacuum at the surface right now. Nonetheless, MNS’ Hindutva assertion has the potential to unpack the current ruling coalition if the Shiv Sena gets carried away with presumed political threats from the MNS. In 2007, when Raj broke away from the Shiv Sena, many feared a mass migration of Shiv Sainiks to MNS. Then, the Shiv Sena was out of the state government for 8 years and it remained in the opposition for 7 more years. Yet, Shiv-Sainiks and loyal voters did not jump ship. But then, it was a choice between the Marathi Manoos politics of MNS and the established politics of Shiv Sena.
Today, the MNS is offering an alternative political platform to Shiv Sena’s Hindutva politics. If Uddhav Thackeray’s party tries to project itself as more Hindutva vadee than the MNS or the BJP, it could unsettle its governmental alliance with the Congress. If it doesn’t, its mass base can make a shift towards the MNS. This is a real challenge for Uddhav Thackeray. The only solace for him is that MNS draws wonderful political plans in its drawing room but hardly takes it out to the masses on the ground. We need to see how long Raj Thackeray’s new theatrics last, and how much of an impact it will create in the state’s politics.
Parimal Maya Sudhakar
23 Jan 2020