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6-min read

Resurgence on Agenda, Raj Thackeray Takes a Leaf Out of Uncle's Book to Woo Shiv Sena's Pro-Hindutva Voters

The MNS chief launched an image makeover for his party by adopting a saffron flag, signifying his formal shift to Hindutva, and is scheduled to hold a rally on Sunday against illegal Bangladeshi and Pakistani immigrants.

Dhaval Kulkarni |

Updated:February 9, 2020, 1:26 PM IST
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Raj Thackeray
File photo of MNS chief Raj Thackeray. (Photo: Reuters)

The Thackerays are known for being blunt and politically incorrect, often calling a spade a spade, and sometimes, even a shovel.

But when Raj Thackeray, the nephew of late Shiv Sena chief Bal Thackeray, split from the party and launched the Maharashtra Navnirman Sena (MNS) in 2006, the tiger cub seemed to have changed his stripes.

In his inaugural rally on March 9, 2006, Raj made all the right noises on issues like secularism. His party flag, unveiled earlier, was a manifestation of this political correctness, with strips of saffron, green, blue and white.

The flag, which was designed by Raj’s childhood friend and Boxing Federation of India secretary general Jay Kowli, aimed at appealing to all social sections beyond the traditional Maharashtrian and Hindu base of the Shiv Sena.

However, in a ‘ghar vapasi’ of sorts, Raj seems to have hitched himself and the MNS to the majoritarian agenda once espoused by his parent party, the Shiv Sena.

In the party’s state-level convention on January 23, the first such event after it was launched, Raj launched an image makeover by adopting a saffron flag, signifying his formal shift to Hindutva.

The message was in the air right from the word go, with Raj beginning his speech with greetings for Hindus rather than Maharashtrians, as he would do earlier. He announced a ‘morcha’ (protest march) on February 9 against illegal Bangladeshi and Pakistani immigrants.

Raj stated that he was a Marathi, but also a Hindu. He linked the protests against the controversial Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) and National Register of Citizens (NRC) to anger among Muslims over the Supreme Court (SC) ruling for the Ram Temple at Ayodhya and the scrapping of Article 370, which conferred special status on Jammu and Kashmir. The February 9 march is planned as a counter to these protests.

Raj claimed that many of those involved in the anti-CAA, anti-NRC protests were illegal infiltrators. He said he would meet his estranged cousin and Maharashtra chief minister Uddhav Thackeray to share information about Muslim clerics spreading disaffection in parts of Maharashtra.

Significantly, Raj also took up issues close to the heart of the Hindu right-wing like loudspeakers blaring the call for prayer from mosques,

With the Shiv Sena, Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) and the Congress burying differences to be part of the Maharashtra government, the opposition and anti-incumbency space has been left to the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) to fill.

The Maha Vikas Aghadi government under Uddhav is composed of parties that have little in common in terms of ideologies and shared agendas, and hence, is living out its own contradictions.

The MNS hopes that by taking on a new skin, and hitching itself to a majoritarian, pro-Hindutva agenda, it can fill some of the anti-incumbency political space. More importantly, the MNS seems to be intent on wooing the Shiv Sena’s pro-Hindutva voters who are not too happy with it breaking bread with “secular” parties like the Congress and NCP.

This may also enable an electoral adjustment, understanding or even an alliance with the BJP in the future, with the latter gaining from Raj’s crowd-pulling abilities, something has been unable to get him votes so far.

Considering Raj’s charisma, the MNS game plan may comprise taking over some of the pro-CAA, pro-NRC space in Maharashtra from the BJP.

In the 1980s, when the Sangh Parivar and BJP launched the Ram Temple movement, the late Shiv Sena chief almost hijacked it in Maharashtra. Bal Thackeray famously claimed he was proud of his Shiv Sainiks if they were involved in demolishing the Babri Masjid. The MNS may be looking at a replay of history over CAA and NRC, though it lacks the organisational muscle, political agenda and consistency of the Shiv Sena.

Like the Ram Temple agitation, which was based on a matter of faith, the CAA and NRC controversy is linked to a question of communal identity and assertion with its barely designed communal overtones.

However, this shift to Hindutva contains an inherent contradiction. The MNS was born as a nativist, sons-of-soil party, which claimed to uphold the rights of Maharashtrians. Adopting Hindutva will mean that the MNS will have to soft-pedal on issues of Maharashtrians, as Hindutva is incongruent with a Marathi agenda, especially in a city like Mumbai, where Marathi speakers are not in a majority but form the largest minority.

The Shiv Sena’s shift to Hindutva in late 1980s paid dividends in the short term, but the contradictions between Hindutva and a nativist agenda, gradually manifested themselves, creating a political opening for the MNS.

In 2008, the MNS took a strident, anti-outsider stand targeting Hindi-speaking migrants from North Indian states. This position paid dividends in the 2009 assembly polls, with the MNS getting 13 legislators elected to the lower house of the legislature.

However, MNS leaders state that they will assert their Hindutva agenda in the confines of ‘Maharashtra Dharma’ (Marathi identity). But this is easier said than done. As for the MNS, which is smarting after successive electoral debacles and desertions, it may lead to estrangement of sections like Maharashtrian Muslims and Buddhist Dalits. These social cohorts are uncomfortable at the assertions of social and political Hindutva.

A senior Shiv Sena leader too claimed that Raj was trying to take a leaf out of the late Bal Thackeray’s book.

But Maharashtra already has two mainstream political players in the Hindutva space — the Shiv Sena and BJP. As BJP leaders admit, there is no reason for the party to promote another player for eating into these votes. They state that if it wants to align with the BJP, the MNS will have to settle for the position of a smaller ally, like the sub-regional formations affiliated to the BJP.

Moreover, the BJP has eaten into the upper-caste Hindu and Brahmin base of the MNS in areas like Dombivali and also weaned MNS leaders like Pravin Darekar, who is the BJP’s leader of opposition in the legislative council; Mangesh Sangle and Ram Kadam.

In 2009, when the MNS was at the height of its popularity, the party was accused by the Shiv Sena and BJP, then in the opposition, of serving the agenda of the Congress and NCP by eating into anti-incumbency votes. The BJP also derived vicarious pleasure by needling the Sena by using the MNS.

In the subsequent Lok Sabha elections, Raj supported Narendra Modi as the prime ministerial nominee, but also put up party candidates.

After the MNS realised that much of its vote base had moved back to the BJP, Raj put Modi and then BJP president Amit Shah in his cross-hairs, launching a surrogate campaign for the Congress and NCP in the 2019 Lok Sabha polls. This campaign, which used audio-visual tools for fact-checking the BJP’s claims, had become a talking point nationally.

However, with the Congress and NCP aligning with the Shiv Sena, Raj and the MNS seem in the throes of yet another realignment, this time towards the BJP.

Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) founder Kanshi Ram, an organiser par excellence, is known for saying ‘pehle giro, phir girao, phir chun ke aao’ (first be defeated, then defeat and then win), to underline his party’s political trajectory. Due to its own inconsistencies, the MNS has been stuck on the ‘giro’ phase as evidenced by its consistent defeats. Can a shift to Hindutva help it make the jump to being a victor?

Perhaps, only time will tell…

(The author is a Mumbai-based journalist and author of ‘The Cousins Thackeray: Uddhav, Raj and the Shadow of their Senas’. Views are personal).

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