This is a ‘ghar wapsi’ few had predicted. Fourteen long years after he established a relatively inclusive political party and only eight months after he launched a scathing attack on the BJP’s top brass, Raj Thackeray dialled back to his roots. In a decisive manner, the 51-year-old Maharashtra politician, ever the doppelgänger of his late uncle and Shiv Sena chief Bal Thackeray, reset his political compass on Thursday to a potent mix of aggressive Hindutva and Marathi sub-nationalism.
Thackeray began his address at a conclave of his Maharashtra Navnirman Sena rank and file with salutations to “my Hindu brothers, sisters and mothers” instead of his characteristic “my Marathi brothers, sisters...” Throughout his extempore speech, he pressed the Hindutva button several times: ‘India isn’t a dharamshala to look after all refugees, Muslims from Bangladesh and Pakistan aren’t welcome here; if my aarti doesn’t disturb anyone there’s no reason why namaz (azaan) should be on loudspeakers; the Citizenship Amendment Act and National Register of Citizens are good moves; and I support Prime Minister Narendra Modi in these.’
- For now, BJP leaders are speaking in different voices on the possibility of aligning with Raj Thackeray, but sources say there are offline discussions about making this happen.
- BJP hopes to exploit a ‘chink’ in the coming months – by pitting Raj Thackeray’s Hindutva plus Marathi sub-nationalism against Uddhav Thackeray’s Hindutva plus Marathi sub-nationalism.
- Raj Thackeray and MNS cadre have qualities that could be very useful to the out-of-power BJP which cleverly uses social polarisation and violence to its benefit.
- That Raj chose to follow a path parallel to the BJP’s – or the old Shiv Sena’s – cannot be a good thing for the MNS.
Raj Thackeray’s Re-Embrace of Hindutva Would Help BJP
To emphasise the side he chose, he declared that MNS would undertake a pro-CAA pro-NRC rally on 9 February in Mumbai. To underline his renewed allegiance to Hindutva, he changed his party's flag with three colours – saffron for Hindus, blue for Dalits and OBCs, green for Muslims – to a blazing all-saffron embossed with the royal seal of Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj.
This must have sounded like music to the leaders of BJP in both Maharashtra and New Delhi for two reasons.
Modi and Home Minister Amit Shah’s most trenchant and visible critic – “arre, laav re toh video” rallies of Raj Thackeray in April last year in the run-up to the Lok Sabha elections had taken the state by storm – was finally on their side. And the MNS, which for all purposes is a Shiv Sena clone, could help fill the vacuum in its political formation which was created when the Sena broke off their alliance to join forces with Congress and Nationalist Congress Party.
For now, BJP leaders are speaking in different voices on the possibility of aligning with Raj Thackeray, but sources say there are offline discussions about making this happen. Raj Thackeray’s embrace – or re-embrace – of Hindutva – mixed with Marathi identity politics would, indeed, greatly help the BJP by cutting into Shiv Sena’s votes.
His pan-Maharashtra popularity and audience connect are attributes the BJP could cash in on. And one Thackeray could counter the other.
Uddhav Reaffirms ‘That ‘Colour & Conscience’ Are ‘Saffron’
Since Shiv Sena chief and Raj’s cousin Uddhav Thackeray decided to align with Congress-NCP to form the Maha Vikas Aghadi (MVA) government in November, he has been accused of diluting his party’s Hindutva, compromising on its core philosophy of Hindutva nationalism with Marathi sub-nationalism for power, and making its saffron flag shades lighter. The MVA’s common minimum programme makes direct references to being secular. This contradiction is what Raj Thackeray and Maharashtra BJP hope to exploit.
Coincidentally, chief minister Uddhav Thackeray chose the same day, his father’s birth anniversary, to reaffirm that his and his party’s “colour and conscience were still saffron and would remain so”.
He was felicitated by his party at a programme lavishly mounted with ethnic songs and dances followed by performances by film and television stars; it was meant to commemorate “the fulfilment of promise given to Balasaheb” that the Sena would have its chief minister in Maharashtra.
Displaying his bitterness with the BJP, which he claims went back on its agreement to share the top job in the state, Uddhav Thackeray said, “they made me out to be a liar which I’m not. I’ve never run away from the battlefield...I don’t cry, I fight... Shiv Sena hasn’t changed, we are as saffron as we were”.
These words were hugely reassuring to the thousands of Sainiks that thronged the grounds at Bandra Kurla Complex. The inherent contradictions are for the 59-year-old Uddhav Thackeray to resolve, his headache as it were, to continue his father’s political philosophy. Now, he must contend with a belligerent cousin at his heels too. It wasn't a coincidence that the BKC ground was swathed in saffron with even chairs draped in the colour.
The philosophy had yielded handsome electoral returns to Thackeray Senior through the 1990s and later.
But that was a different era with more defined political contours. The Sena was the larger and more influential party in its alliance with the BJP, and could set terms of engagement. The BJP, then in its nascent stages, hung on to every instruction and entertained every whim of Bal Thackeray. When the BJP became diffident about the Babri Masjid demolition, Thackeray was the first to claim credit that “my boys have done it”.
BJP Hopes to Pit One Thackeray Cousin Against Another
In the political re-alignments that have since happened, the BJP expanded its footprint and the Sena became its junior partner in the Modi era in 2014. Five years later, it quit the alliance to form the MVA. But, as only one-third part of the MVA, it cannot stamp the new alliance with its Hindutva philosophy or saffron colour; it isn’t in a position to set the terms of engagement or negotiate hard bargains, especially on Hindutva. This is the chink that the BJP hopes to exploit in the coming months – by pitting Raj Thackeray’s Hindutva plus Marathi sub-nationalism against Uddhav Thackeray’s Hindutva plus Marathi sub-nationalism.
As Raj Thackeray unveiled his new flag and launched his son Amit as a MNS leader – to nobody’s surprise given the dynastic principle in political parties – his imminent alignment with the BJP was one half of the political buzz in Mumbai.
The other was, unsurprisingly, that he had been set up by NCP chief and the architect of MVA alliance Sharad Pawar, as part of a long-term plan to counter the BJP from within its fold. There's unlikely to be any confirmation of this but as they say in Maharashtra, anything is possible with Pawar.
What Does Raj Thackeray Stand to Gain?
The re-alignment works perfectly fine for the BJP at this time, but what’s in it for Raj Thackeray?
First up, he continues to remain relevant in Maharashtra’s politics and it’s a big thing given that his party slid from having a vote share of 21 percent and 13 seats in the 2009 state Assembly to barely 2.25 percent, and one seat ten years later. This is not how he might have imagined his place in the state's political landscape, but his inability to expand his party's footprint or make electoral gains has meant that the MNS would be an appendage to a larger, more influential, party; the Congress will not entertain him, he cannot be with the Shiv Sena for obvious reasons. Aligning formally or informally with the BJP allows him to remain relevant.
Second, Raj Thackeray and the MNS cadre have qualities that could be immensely useful to the out-of-power BJP which cleverly uses social polarisation and violence to its benefit – to be belligerent on the streets, to have nuisance value, to create or be involved in law-and-order disruptions, and so on.
If Raj Thackeray allows the BJP to make use of these qualities, he confirms what even his sympathisers and erstwhile colleagues have accused him of: loaning his political capital to whoever bids for it and being fickle-minded in his causes.
Raj Thackeray Signals ‘Approval’ Of Modi Once Again
Early last year, Raj Thackeray took most people by surprise when he campaigned hard against Modi and Shah, virtually taking over the Congress-NCP's campaign for the Lok Sabha election. He had not fielded a single candidate of the MNS and he did not ask the huge crowds to vote for Congress-NCP either. But the thrust of his messaging was clear – that Modi and BJP needed to voted out. He used the Prime Minister's videos against journalism-like factual evidence to show Modi's poor record of governance. Raj Thackeray had come a long way given how much he adored Modi and the now-infamous Gujarat Model in the pre-2014 days. With Thursday's turn, he signalled his approval of Modi once again.
Raj Thackeray has identified and put the MNS’s might behind certain causes, but his track record has been inconsistent.
He had a stellar blueprint drawn up for Mumbai's development but he did not push it, he campaigned hard on the issue of exorbitant toll taxes but abandoned it after limited success. The party has seen high levels of attrition and shrinking at a time when others are expanding. The party's electoral fortunes were dim. Raj Thackeray, then, was at a crossroads, which isn't a bad thing in itself.
That he chose to follow a path parallel to the BJP's – or the old Shiv Sena's – cannot be a good thing for the MNS. That, in doing so, he will push Uddhav Thackeray to be more Hindutva and saffron, cannot be good news for Maharashtra.
(Smruti Koppikar is a Mumbai-based independent journalist, editor and chronicler. She tweets @smrutibombay. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed in this article are that of the writer’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)