NAGPUR, Maharashtra — Until recently, Raj Thackeray, chief of the Maharashtra Navnirman Sena, was actively trolling Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Home Minister Amit Shah. A notice by the Enforcement Directorate, and a day-long inquiry, cast a prolonged spell of silence over the once-vocal MNS chief.
He piped up during the Maharashtra assembly elections last year, but lapsed into silence when his party was routed. On Thursday, Raj spoke after a gap of almost two months, but his speech left many — both within his party and outside — shocked, surprised and perplexed.
Almost 14 years after the formation of the MNS, Thackeray called for a party conclave and changed his party’s flag from green, blue and saffron to just saffron — offering a clear indication of the path he intended to choose.
If anyone was still harbouring any doubts, they were quickly dispelled when Raj began his speech with, “My Hindu brothers and sisters”, a twist on the “My Marathi brothers and sisters” salutation that he had adopted when he set up the party.
Raj also announced a protest march to protest the nation-wide protests against the controversial Citizenship Amendment Act that, critics say, makes religion a basis for citizenship.
“It is time to throw out Pakistani and Bangladeshi migrants out of our country,” he announced, suggesting the man who had once called Modi a “threat to India democracy” was suddenly chanting from the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) prayer book.
Raj was, as he reminded his slightly disoriented party cadres, a Marathi but also a Hindu too. The saffronisation of their flag, he said, was a necessary corrective of a previous mistake.
The previous flag was selected as some people suggested it goes with social engineering, he claimed, “I was only 37 years old then and I listened to them.” The tipping point, he claimed, was the protests against the Citizenship Amendment Act and the proposed national register of citizens
“With CAA and NRC, suddenly Muslims began to hit the streets for protests. I was told that the anger is over the scrapping of article 370 and Ram Janma Bhoomi verdict. This entire anger was expressed in these protests,” he said. “How many among these protesters were Indian Muslims and how many were outsider Muslims? If Muslims from our country are supporting outsiders, why should we be with you then?”
This being Raj Thackeray, political watchers have dismissed his sudden love for saffron as a political act. But this also being Maharashtra politics, the real question these watchers say is, “For whose benefit?”
A vacuum on the right?
For many, Raj’s decision has been prompted by cousin Uddhav Thackeray and the Shiv Sena’s decision to run the Maharashtra government by allying with the Congress and the NCP.
Although Shiv Sena still claims to be espousing the real Hindutva cause, its alliance with Congress-NCP has clearly left a political vacuum for a certain kind of saffron politics.
A close associate of Raj confirmed that the discussion and thinking over the prospect of shifting towards hardcore Hindutva began only when the Shiv Sena went with Congress-NCP and formed the government. But MNS spokesperson Sandip Deshpande said Raj had always been saffron.
“Our leader has explained in his speech that it was not a sudden shift. We have always been taking this stance since the very beginning,” Deshpande told HuffPost India. “To take a position of pro-Hindutva is a different subject, and to criticize Modi when he commits mistake is a different topic.”
When asked about the clear anti-Muslim line taken by Raj, Deshpande said, “ He has been speaking like this for years. He clearly said that he is taking this stand over the issue of NRC and CAA.”
When asked if Shiv Sena’s decision to go with Congress which resulted in a vacuum for Hindutva politics in the state prompted Raj Thackeray’s decision, Deshpande said, “ Well, you can say that.”
But another MNS leader informed that Thackeray did not really involve everyone in the process of making this decision, but admitted there was no real opposition to him in the party.
“Basically, he doesn’t do much of analysis and his DNA as he said is Hindutvawadi,” the MNS leader said. “I think he might have had certain calculations. There was a discussion over CAA and NRC. The discussion began when Shiv Sena went with Congress-NCP.”
But what was true, the MNS member said was, “that he wanted this flag for a long time.”
“We are still trying to take stock as to what effect this position will have on the rank and file of the party,” the MNS member continued. “But I can assure you Sharad Pawar had nothing to do with it. It is basically to fill the Hindutva vacuum in the state.”
Even so, the MNS member admitted that entering the pro-BJP space, when anti-BJP space was increasing, could be counter-productive.
‘A desperate attempt’
For senior Shiv Sena leader Shishir Shinde, who had joined Raj when he formed MNS only to return to Shiv Sena a couple of years ago, Raj’s new turn was a desperate attempt to stay relevant.
“A person has to make moves to stay alive. But I don’t think this adventure will be successful. Because when Balasaheb Thackeray would talk of Hindutva, it was a different age,” Shinde said. “Today’s younger generation has moved away from caste and communal polarisation at least in Maharashtra. You can see the Muslims protesting but there were no riots.”
“The new generation is not interested in such divisive issues,” Shinde continued, in the Shiv Sena’s perplexing new liberal avataar. “Now our kids know their friends by their first names not by surnames.”
Another former MNS leader, who is now with Shiv Sena, said that it was not fair of Raj to blame his partymen for his mistakes.
“Everyone knows Raj Thackeray doesn’t really listen to anyone. The previous flag was cleared by him and now he is saying he was not in its favor. You should learn from your mistake not blame your party workers for it,” said the Shiv Sena leader.
By going closer to the BJP, he is somewhere allowing the BJP to use him
Pointing at Pawar
Raj Thackeray has announced his new ideological stance two weeks after he met former Maharashtra CM and senior BJP leader Devendra Fadnavis in Mumbai, prompting everyone to speculate that he might align with the BJP in future.
Everyone knows, it turns out, except for the BJP.
“If any party wants to walk with us on an ideologically similar stance then they are welcome. Anyone who talks of nationalism and patriotism is welcome,” Former Maharashtra finance minister and senior BJP leader Sudhir Mungantiwar told HuffPost India. “If Sharad Pawar takes a similar stance tomorrow and supports CAA, we will welcome him.”
But Mungantiwar refused to comment on whether MNS’s new ideological stance will help it eat into BJP’s vote bank
BJP’s Maharashtra president Chandrakant Patil has ruled out any alliance with the MNS as long as it doesn’t shun its anti-migrant agenda.
But BJP spokesperson Ganesh Hake told a local news channel that it was Sharad Pawar’s brain behind Raj Thackeray’s new flag and agenda.
“Sharad Pawar wants to use MNS to divide Hindu votes. He used Raj Thackeray in Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha elections,” Hake told a Marathi news channel ABP Majha. “The Shiv Sena has turned green but that doesn’t make MNS Saffron. Sharad Pawar is trying to empower MNS in the name of Hindutva and Maharashtra Dharma but it won’t affect the BJP.”
For Dhaval Kulkarni, the author of the book The Cousins Thackeray, Raj’s new moves appear directed at the Shiv Sena cadre who may be uncomfortable with Uddhav’s recent pivot away from the party’s core agenda, and Maharashtra’s fluid new political climate.
“With three parties coming together to form the government, he understood that the anti-incumbency space needed to be filled to stay relevant,” Kulkarni said. “There is anxiety in Shiv Sena voters after the formation of this government. But we will have to see if this Shiv Sena voter can deviate.”
But moving closer to the BJP had its perils, Kulkarni said.
“By going closer to the BJP, he is somewhere allowing the BJP to use him,” he said. “But the BJP eats into the voter base of its allies. It will be interesting to see what happens with MNS now. It’s a gamble by Raj.”