Change is an inevitable part of life, and the only constant, according to the Buddha. Failure to adopt to changing needs results in danger of becoming obsolete. But what if the change is merely a knee-jerk reaction to something, rather than a thorough conviction?
Addressing office bearers meet in Mumbai on January 23, Maharashtra Navnirman Sena chief Raj Thackeray signalled a major shift in his party’s overall ideology. The party symbol has changed. A new saffron flag with Shivaji Maharaj’s royal seal is in place. The lectern from which he spoke had turned from blue to saffron, and a Savarkar portrait was prominent on stage alongside those of Dr. Ambedkar, Savitribai Phule and Raj’s grandfather Prabodhankar Thackeray.
Raj Thackeray doubled down on this visual changes with verbal affirmation as he began his speech referring to the crowd as “Hindus” instead of customary “Marathis”.
Raj Thackeray’s overt makeover from the Marathi manoos to a patron of Hindutva seems to be a continuation of his erratically changing positions in the last few years. It reeks of confusion and desperation.
In 2014, Raj Thackeray had supported Modi as prime minister by not contesting in a majority of the seats. In 2018, he was conceding that it was a mistake. From 2015 until the run up to the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, he vehemently opposed what he called was the force of the “two Gujaratis”, referring to Modi and Shah, and called for their defeat. His speeches were laced with sarcasm and humour against the BJP leadership, drawing huge crowds and media attention.
In the meantime, MNS not only lost the assembly polls of 2019, but the party suffered heavy losses even in the municipal corporation elections of Mumbai, Pune, Thane and Nashik.
Subsequently, he cozied up to Sharad Pawar and the Congress. But that did not work either. In his attempt to find a success mantra, Raj Thackeray has now taken a visible right turn. But it could very well fail due to the following three reasons.
1. His refusal to analyse defeat
This is an era where political realignment is unthinkable. But MNS seems to be trying to sail into untested waters again. It appears that Raj Thackeray did not analyse why his party had been successful between 2009-2012.
MNS had won 13 assembly seats in 2009 and come second in two dozen more. Not only this, in 2012, MNS took control of Nashik municipal corporations and did spectacularly well in Pune, Thane and Mumbai region.
During this phase, a majority of MNS’s support came from Dalits and OBCs in and around Mumbai, Thane, Nashik and Pune districts. Many of its elected corporators were from Dalit or OBC communities. Unlike Shiv Sena, MNS rallies had photos of Savitribai Phule and Dr. Ambedkar. Tickets were given to Dalits and a genuine effort for outreach was made.
However, Raj Thackeray’s complete surrender to Modi and BJP during the 2014 polls, his opposition against the Indu Mill memorial for Dr. Ambedkar and his mockery of Dalit leaders for agitating for it, along with his constant attack on the reservation policy ensured that his Dalit OBC vote base shifted to either NCP or the newly formed Vanchit Bahujan Aghadi of Prakash Ambedkar.
In the next municipal corporation polls in 2017, the party lost 90% of its seats in these regions. Many of his MLAs and corporators deserted him but Raj neither made any attempts to stop or understand it. One hardly saw Raj Thackeray going to remote parts of the state, even if to inaugurate a party office.
Even in his last speech in Thane before the Assembly elections of 2019, he spoke of the need for removing the caste-based reservations in schools and colleges. It was a bad decision to make that statement hours before the elections.
Thus, not understanding his voter base has turned out to be his party’s Achilles heel. There is no guarantee that he will now be able to win back that support and tying up with the BJP is certainly not going to help.
2. Losing the Marathi card USP
Shiv Sena, in the last few years, had more or less abandoned its Marathi card, instead sticking with Hindutva. With the latest shift, Raj will be competing in the congested space of overt and covert “Hindutva” camps that has BJP and Shiv Sena already.
Shiv Sena had already realised that it could not trump BJP using the Hindutva card as the party in the Center was getting too dominant and had become the first option for people of that ideology.
This writer had argued last year that Shiv Sena may have to temporarily shelve its Hindutva agenda to get the chief minister’s chair. And it did so in the changed circumstances after assembly elections in 2019.
Raj Thackeray’s shift has come about after his cousin has already become the CM, though the former calls it a coincidence. But by abandoning the Marathi card, Raj Thackeray has relinquished his unique position in the state. Raj also issued a stern warning to party office bearers against public criticism of this stance in the beginning of the speech itself.
On January 23, he did not talk about ‘outsiders’ taking Marathi people’s jobs, Gujarati dominance in Mumbai or the imminent danger of Mumbai getting separated from Maharashtra, issues that he has been raising to lure unemployed Marathi youth.
Instead he focused only on how Muslim infiltrators are ‘threat’ to the country and how their ‘ghettos’ are a ‘problem’ for everyone else. This incitation could prove extremely perilous for the harmony of the state. Minister of State for Home Satej Patil has asked Raj Thackeray to furnish details on alleged ‘anti-national’ activity in the ‘mohallas’ rather than making vague political statements.
Essentially, reacting to Sena joining a “secular” alliance, Raj has amplified his anti-Muslim narrative, and put the Marathi agenda on the back-burner. This could spell doom for not only the peaceful state but also his party
3. Originality works
It is being said that Raj is only tapping into the vacuum created in the ‘Hindutva’ space. But this is not completely true. BJP has been a full player and Shiv Sena can amplify its position depending on the situation.
Thus, Raj is putting all his eggs in one basket — the vacuum created by Sena. But what if Shivsena breaks ties with Congress and NCP in a few months and join hands with BJP? Will Raj stand a chance?
CM Uddhav Thackeray has already responded to Raj at his rally on same day, asserting that Sena has not abandoned Hindutva, as it is its ‘soul.’
Raj’s one point agenda seems to be to put Shiv Sena in the spot — whether it is through introducing Savarkar’s portrait in the rallies (Rahul Gandhi had criticised Savarkar) or criticising anti-CAA protesters (Shiv Sena and the police have been very cooperative with the protests in Mumbai).
People do not generally like duplicates. If they believe in ‘Hindutva’, then they will stick to BJP. For them, Shiv Sena is an even better bet as it has better infrastructure across the state. Raj Thackeray’s crumbling organisation may not attract them.
MNS’s position on the amended citizenship law and National Register of Citizens may be music to BJP’s ears as it propagates the Hindu-Muslim narrative of BJP in the important state and hides the impact the new law will have on the Dalits, tribals and OBCs.
In the long run, however, intricacies of electoral understanding could land the potential alliance in trouble. BJP’s Gujarati vote base in Mumbai-Thane region is not going to forgive MNS for its past anti-Gujarati rhetoric. Even if BJP and MNS join hands, Raj Thackeray will not be able to stick with them given the dominant nature of BJP, and Raj’s inability to adapt to coalition pressure.
NCP’s Sharad Pawar was faced with similar problems ahead of the assembly elections. A section of his party wanted saffron as party’s flag color. However, he refused and instead went all out in campaigning across the state even in bad weather conditions and won people’s hearts.
He has believed in hard work rather than the principle of old wine in a new bottle.
Raj Thackeray is notably often criticised for waking up late and not meeting party functionaries — he appears remote and inaccessible. Pawar had reportedly advised him to wake up early in 2006, right after formation of MNS. Many journalists say it is advice that Raj is yet to follow.
Having a neta with such great charisma, media love and superlative oratory skills, MNS should have been one of the top three parties in the state, but its performance has gone from bad to worse.
At a time when people are angry with the central government on the tumbling economy, job loss and political unrest, Raj Thackeray’s decision to cozy up to Modi and Shah — only to checkmate his estranged cousin Uddhav — appears ill-timed.
One reason for this changed stance could be his attempt to taste electoral success along with BJP or it could very well have been triggered by the Enforcement Directorate’s grilling of him on a money laundering case last August.
Ravikiran Shinde is an independent writer on social and political issues.