Raj Thackeray’s proxy Hindutva gambit

The Maharashtra Vikas Aghadi (MVA) government has settled down to do business after the ministers were sworned in and the portfolios were allocated after much discussion between the three allies. Next twelve months are considered to be quite uneventful as the new government goes through it’s honeymoon period. The opposition BJP is trying to find it’s feet and would take some time to stabilize. The fringe players like the Vanchit Bahujan Aghadi (VBA) led by Prakash Ambedkar and the Maharashtra Navnirman Sena (MNS) led by Raj Thackeray will also try to tune their strategies, as per the changed political situation in the state. These smaller parties can’t let the BJP occupy the entire opposition space vacated by the Congress and the NCP.

Raj Thackeray has indicated that his party will move from its “Son of the soil” ideology to Hindutva. The move towards Hindutva is through proxy, by invoking the “Hindavi Swarajya” slogan of the great Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj. This is an extremely interesting symbolism that needs to be decoded to predict Raj Thackeray’s next move.

MNS New Slogan
Latest political strategy of the Raj Thackeray led MNS

MNS poster which signifies change in the party stance does not explicitly mention the word “Hindutva”. It mentions the word “Hindavi Swarajya” which can always be explained by saying that he would be following Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj’s ideal of working for all the Hindu castes and other religions, while rooting for Hindu rule. It remains to be seen what Raj says on the 23rd of January (Wednesday) in his party’s summit, about his party’s new direction. But before discussing on his future moves, let us check Raj’s moves of the last four odd years.

MNS fought the 2014 Lok Sabha elections on a few seats in Maharashtra. At that point of time, they fielded candidates only in those constituencies where the Shiv Sena candidates were contesting. Since Raj supported Narendra Modi at that time, Raj did not field candidates against the BJP. He did manage to garner some votes but the Sena candidates rode on the Modi wave and Sena got it’s historic tally of 18 MPs. In the ensuing assembly elections in the state, the MNS fought mainly in the urban seats but managed to win just one seat (the lone MLA was poached by the Sena around the 2019 assembly election).

Around the year 2016, Raj Thackeray made a major somersault on his ideology and started opposing the BJP and Prime Minister Modi, even more than his original party the Shiv Sena. Just before the Lok Sabha election, he started growing closer to the NCP supremo and wily fox Sharad Pawar. The MNS did not contest the Lok Sabha election of 2019 but Raj campaigned exclusively against the BJP and Sena candidates in various regions of the state. Raj started getting a lot of eyeballs from the Congress and NCP supporters and the Congress ecosystem nationally, as he criticized Narendra Modi directly. Though his campaign did not work against Modi’s charisma, the closeness with the NCP increased further.

While in the Lok Sabha election, the Congress had promptly shot down NCP’s proposal to leave 1-2 urban seats for the MNS, by the time the assembly election approached Congress along wth the NCP made a tactical alliance with the MNS. The Congress and NCP withdrew candidates from some constituencies in Thane and Pune in favour of the MNS. The MNS reciprocated in other areas. The MNS could only match it’s 2014 assembly election tally of one seat. The rest is history on how the Sena joined the Congress and NCP to form the MVA alliance. Raj was left out into the cold from such an arrangement.

Now let us assess the current situation of the MNS. Though Sharad Pawar still has a soft corner for Raj, the MNS cannot be part of the ruling MVA alliance. This is because the Chief Minister of the state and head of the Sena Uddhav Thackeray is not keen on reviving the sagging political career of his cousin Raj. In fact Raj was systematically thrown out of the Sena by Uddhav’s coterie which includes his wife Rashmi Thackeray, veteran Sena leader Subhash Desai, personal assistant Milind Narvekar and a few others. They made Raj’s position untenable in the Sena and forced hm to step out. In 2009, Raj caused major reverses to the Sena in national and assembly elections, but the rise of Modi in 2014 resurrected the sagging fortunes of the Sena as well. The BJP too cannot form an alliance with the MNS immediately. The MNS’s anti North Indian rhetoric in Mumbai-Thane and Nashik is still fresh in the mind of these voters, who are the mainstay of the BJP.

In such a scenario, there are two theories that explains the real reason behind the shift to proxy Hindutva politics by the MNS. First is to fill up the vaccum created by the Sena vacating this space, courtesy it’s joining hands with the secular minded (read minority appeasement favouring) Congress and the casteist NCP. There is a huge group of Marathi voters in Mumbai-Thane region (which has 60 assembly seats) who are virulently anti-Congress and sided with the Sena as it fought against the Congress from the late 1980s. This class of voters is anti-BJP as well and percieve the BJP as a Gujarati-Jain-Brahmin party. Hence, the MNS is trying to emerge as the only viable alternative for these voters. The BJP would be happy if the MNS is able to divide this group of Marathi voters, who are mainly lower income group people living in chawls and slums. BJP may covertly support the MNS and fund it’s electoral campaign in the upcoming muicipal and assembly elections (which can be held anywhere in the next 1-3 years).

The second is a bit far fetched theory but cannot be discounted. The brains behind this move by the MNS could be the wily fox Sharad Pawar himself. MNS is currently not in a position to attract the BJP leaning Marathi voters. This group of voters is the middle and high income individuals who had moved to the MNS in 2009 (including yours truly). However, they came back to the BJP after the emergence of Narendra Modi in 2013. Raj Thackeray has lost his credibility in the eyes of these voters, given his somersault from idiolizing Modi to criticizing him. Pawar wants Raj to emerge as an alternative to the Hindutva leaning Gujarati and Hindi speaking voters, especially the youth given that he would be a lot more aggressive than the BJP. Though this looks far fetched, but we must remember that Raj Thackeray had started meeting Hindi speaking groups in the last few months and had diluted his “Son of the soil” politics. If this gambit succeeds, this could be a serious blow to the BJP as these are core voters. Pawar specializes in playing politics by creating schisms between castes and various language groups.

Hence, the BJP would be very careful about Raj’s proxy Hindutva gambit. Till Raj spells out his detailed position on the 23rd of January, the BJP would (should) be in a wait and watch mode. BJP can use this move by the MNS to it’s advantage but they need to sure that Raj is not Sharad Pawar’s new trojan horse. So now it’s upon Raj to explain his parties new position. Post that there could be major changes in Maharashtra politics. So over to Raj Thackeray for the moment !!

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