Seven implications of Raj Thackeray’s Hindutva turn

Raj Thackeray has taken a political u-turn again, this time towards Hindutva politics. His party MNS held it’s first ever convention in 14 years of largely uneventful existence, in Mumbai on the 23rd of January. The new MNS flags were unveiled removing the blue and green colors from the flag. The first flag had the royal seal of Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj on a saffron background, while the second flag has the party symbol of the railway engine on a saffron background. The second flag would be used for election purposes as the party symbol (for campaigning and on the EVM).

MNS new flag
MNS’s new flag with seal of Chhatrapati Shivaji maharaj in a saffron background (Courtesy: Janasthan.com)

Raj Thackeray’s Hindutva turn has added a new variable to the already fluid political situation of the state. As I had pointed out in my earlier post, the Shiv Sena stands to lose the most if Raj succeeds in this gambit. All major players are busy analyzing the threats and opportunities that this brings. Here are seven implications of the hindutva turn taken by Raj Thackeray,

  • Subsuming regional pride into Hindutva:
    • Raj Thackeray’s MNS had been following subtle secular politics with main focus on the regional Marathi pride. The agitations against multiplex owners in the urban areas for alloting more prime time shows to Marathi movies, agitation to have name plates of shops in Marathi (along with other languages) and frequent protests against railway and other central government recruitment exams not being held in Marathi/ not being advertised much in Maharashtra have been seen in the last few years.
    • Before the Lok Sabha election of 2019, Raj added the spice of anti Narendra Modi and Amit Shah rants to his politics. This was obviously from the copybook of the wily old fox Sharad Pawar. Raj Thackeray or his party never quite empahsised on Hindu identity.
    • This changed in the party convention when Raj declared that he has not converted and is still a Hindu. He indicated that if you attack my language, I will fight back as a Marathi and if you attack my religion, I will fight back as a Hindu. Thus, Raj is looking to subsume the regional identity plank into the larger Hindutva platform
    • This also indirectly confirms that the MNS has given up attempts to garner a section of the Muslim community vote in the state, especially in the urban areas. This was evident when prominent muslim faces of his party defected to the Sena around the Lok Sabha 2019 election

  • Capturing space vacated by the Sena:
    • The Sena has been the claimant of the Hindutva vote in the state along with the BJP. In fact the Sena’s Hindutva was more militant and vehemant than the BJP. Uddhav Thackeray had carried that legacy of the late Balasaheb forward. The Sena was seen as the first line of resistance in case of communal riots by a large section of the Hindu community in the state (including non Marathi voters). The BJP was always a party of governance, with violence not part of its DNA. This dirty work was always done by the Sena
    • The Sena has vacated that space once it joined hands with the Congress and NCP. Even though the Sena claims to not having changed it’s position on Hindutva, the claim is untenable. The Congress and the NCP (though NCP are quite flexible on ideology) cannot work with the Sena of old that speaks aggressively on Hindutva.
    • There is a huge section of Hindutva minded Marathi speaking voters in urban and semi-urban areas of the state, who are anti-Congress and anti-BJP. They are in a quandry as supporting the Sena now means indirectly voting for the Congress. They cannot easily join the BJP bandwagon as for them the BJP is largely a Gujarati – Jain – Brahmin party. The MNS is trying to capture a huge chunk of such disgruntled voters.
    • The MNS having originated from the Sena shares a common pool of voters with a mindset for emotive issues and aggressive leadership. The BJP cannot match the aggressiveness of Raj Thackeray, as it’s politics is more governance and development based. Winning this group of voters helps the MNS get a jumpstart, after the electoral failures of the last eight years.

  • Window of opportunity for the BJP:
    • The BJP is still recovering from the betrayal of the Shiv Sena, who gained vote share on the basis of an alliance with the BJP and then ditched the BJP to form government with the Congress and NCP.
    • Raj Thackeray provides the BJP with an excellent option to get back at the Sena. The huge votebank of the Sena up for grabs won’t entirely come to the BJP for reasons discussed in the above points. The MNS can act as the vote katua and hurt the Sena. Currently an enemy’s enemy is a friend for the BJP
    • Such an arrangement could be mutually beneficial for both the parties. MNS eating approx 10-20% of the Sena vote would help the BJP in close contests. Similarly a sizeable number of votes taken by the BJP on seats like Mahim (which would have gone to the Sena in case of an alliance), could help the MNS romp home
    • A section of the Sena voters would not be happy at the prospect of being bandied together with the muslim voters, in voting for the Sena. Post the 1992-93 riots, a schism has been created in society especially in urban areas like Mumbai- Thane. This has not healed totally and the anti CAA/NRC riots may further widen it. Hence, this could help the MNS get an even larger amount of the Sena votes in it’s kitty
    • However, the BJP also runs a risk of losing it’s young voters in the age group of 18-25 years to the MNS. Many of these voters are politically immature and are swayed by the aggressiveness of a leader. The BJP needs to mitigate this problem.

  • Delegitimizing the anti CAA and NRC rhetoric:
    • The groups and political parties opposing the Citienship Amendment Act (CAA) have based their opposition on imaginary provision of the yet to be brought NRC act, stating that muslim citiens of India may have to prove their citizenship and ancestry in this country. They also oppose CAA on the basis that it talks of religion specific citizenship for migrants from Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan.
    • Such a position before the NRC act is brought in Parliament is speculation at best and propaganda at worst. Raj Thackeray questioned this in his speech, asking if the protestors are Indian citizens or illegal encroachers from Pakistan and Bangladesh. He further questioned the motives of Indian citizens for taking the side of illegal encroachers. Raj categorically demanded that the illegal muslim enchroachers from Pakistan and Bangladesh should be expelled from the country. He mocked the implementation of the CAA and NRC bills introduced by the BJP, though he added that he supported these bills/ law
    • Given the sensitivity of Bangladeshi encroachers issue in Mumbai and Thane, the Sena mouth piece Saamna was forced to come out with a statement saying that they support expulsion of illegal Pakistani and Bangladeshi encroachers. This could cause lot of consternation among the Congress, which is openly supporting the anti- CAA/ NRC protests
    • BJP would be happy that their position is being expressed by another leader, who till two months ago was being hailed by the Congress ecosystem and journalist brigade. Already a slanging match has started between the MNS and the MIM on this topic. The BJP would be gleefully watching such developments from the sidelines

  • Pawar senior losing influence over Raj:
    • The Marathi media and intellectuals who have been cheerleaders for Raj Thackeray since 2009, have largely ignored or have been critical of Raj after his Hindutva tilt and open support to CAA/ NRC. Raj has always been a leader who has given huge TRPs to these channels. The fact that they are not giving much coverage to MNS or opposing his views on CAA/ NRC, indicates that Sharad Pawar is not comfortable with the statements made by Raj
    • Though we cannot discount the possibility of Sharad Pawar’s involvement in proping up the MNS, to ensure that all the disgruntled Sena vote does not go to the BJP. But the fact that the Marathi media has been cold to Raj’s new position, could mean that Sharad Pawar is not comfortable with recent events
    • The MNS lower rung leadership and cadre feel that Pawar has used them and then ditched them, to form an alliance with the Sena. Pawar has been unsuccessful in getting MNS inducted in the MVA fold. The Uddhav led Sena is vehemently opposed to revive the flagging career of his cousin Raj.
    • The responses from MNS and NCP in the coming days will give more indications on the involvement of Sharad Pawar in the Hindutva tilt of Raj Thackeray

  • Headache for the Shiv Sena on cultural issues:
    • The Shiv Sena and the MNS originate from the same ideological family. The Sena cannot ditch Hindutva agenda overnight, as it would lead to displeasure among their vote base. Nor can the Sena flaunt their aggressive Hindutva unapologetically anymore.
    • The MNS will try to rattle the Sena by raising the issue of insults to Veer Savarkar or support to the CAA/ NRC. The Sena would be caught between the rock and a hard place on this point. Responding in either way would hurt either it’s core voters or it’s new alliance partner, the Congress
    • Even Sharad Pawar who is trying to resurrect his old M3 (Maratha- Muslim- Mahar) votebank, might not like the Shiv Sena speaking aggressively on Hindutva topics or CAA/ NRC.
    • The morcha announced by MNS in favour of CAA on 9th February would be another cause of concern for the Shiv Sena
    • Uddhav has a lot of delicate balancing to do especially as elections for the communally sensitive Aurangabad municipal corporation are due in the next two months

  • Counter to Bollywood activist brigade:
    • The Bollywood activist brigade comprising of people like Anurag Kashyap, Swara Bhaskar, Sonam Kapoor, Richa Chadda or Twinkle Khanna (Mrs. Canadian Kumar) have been quite vocal on the CAA/ NRC protests. They have been speaking about the atmosphere of intolerance being created by the BJP< in this country. The BJP does not have a goon culture and any retalisation would be in form of hashtags or response on the social media.
    • However, Raj Thackeray’s MNS is a different kettle of fish. Any disparaging comments against the MNS or it’s leader won’t go unheaded by a violence minded MNS. They could disrupt the shooting of such actors or turn up at promotional events. This possibility has prevented the Bollywood actors from openly speaking against Raj Thackeray in the last two-three days
    • This fear has historical grounds as the late Sena supremo Balasaheb Thackeray used to exercise such kind of pressure on the Mumbai film industry. It’s one thing to slam the BJP which would retaliate by trending a hashtag on social media, and quite other thing when the MNS cadre could ransack film sets or private property of these actors
    • Despite having a friendly state government, the actors cannot take personal security lightly. The Congress-NCP government in 2009 was quite lethargic in taking action on MNS or Raj Thackeray. Taking strict action could also raise the profile of the MNS and hurt these parties electorally. The poor Bollywood actors could be left to fend for themselves

In conclusion, the Hindutva move by Raj Thackeray affects all the established political players in the state. The BJP faces minimal risk among all the parties, while the Congress and the Shiv Sena stand to lose the most. Hence, the next few months will see some interesting moves from all major players, to adapt to the emerging political situation.

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