January 23 marked the 94th birth anniversary of Shiv Sena founder Balasaheb Thackeray, but the one who took the spotlight was Raj Thackeray and not the newly-appointed Chief Minister of Maharashtra. Uddhav Thackeray, who formed the government in alliance with Congress and the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) — parties it had always opposed ideologically — has ceded the Hindutva ground in the bargain for power. Clearly, the Shiv Sena is not the force leading the cause that it once championed, at least in the state.
Raj Thackeray, who has been struggling for survival for some years now, sees this vacuum as an opportunity and looks bent on capitalising on it. So, when Raj Thackeray took the stage at a mega rally to commemorate Thackeray senior’s birth anniversary in Goregaon, it was abundantly clear that the Maharashtra Navnirman Sena had altered its approach.
Raj Thackeray used the opportunity to signal that the MNS was ready to mark a shift from its regional focus towards a much wider base of Hindutva. Thackeray unveiled the new party flag — saffron and emblazoned with a seal dating back to the reign of Chhatrapati Shivaji — and also induct his 27-year-old son Amit into the party. For the first time, a portrait of VD Savarkar also featured on stage beside BR Ambedkar, Savitribai Phule and Prabodhankar and the bust of Chhatrapati Shivaji.
Addressing the mega gathering, Thackeray not just lent support to the Citizenship Amendment Act but also declared that it will lead a campaign to drive out illegal immigrants from Pakistan and Bangladesh from not just the state, but the entire country. "We will take out a huge rally on February 9 to drive illegal infiltrators, from Pakistan and Bangladesh, out of India," Thackeray announced to the gathering of supporters. The MNS leader said stressed on the need to "be tough" with infiltrators and said that India was sitting "on a volcano which can erupt anytime".
- MNS Adhikrut (@mnsadhikrut) January 23, 2020
"We can keep working on CAA-NRC. We have to throw out Pakistani and Bangladeshi immigrants. I will support the government on this," he said.
Raj Thackeray’s recalibration may appear sudden but is driven by necessity. The MNS has failed to make its mark in subsequent elections and has been pushed to the sidelines, primarily due to the lack of clarity in its vision and ideology. Raj Thackeray supported Modi’s bid for Prime Minister in 2014, but turned against him ahead of the 2019 Lok Sabha elections. The MNS chief personally led a campaign against the Modi-Amit Shah duo and even went to the extent of calling for a "Modi-Shah mukt Bharat".
Yet, the Maharashtra elections delivered just one seat for the MNS in the 288-member Assembly. What added to the woes of the MNS was a clear refusal by the Congress and the NCP to ally with it. Faced with being pushed into oblivion, Raj Thackeray has now set sight on claiming the leadership of the Hindutva cause that his brother Uddhav has left empty by aligning with the Congress and NCP.
Signaling a clear shift from his earlier stance against the BJP, the MNS chief said that his criticism and praise for the Prime Minister are justified. "I have criticised Modi when he was wrong. I praised him when he abrogated Article 370. When Ram Mandir verdict came I said Balasaheb must be smiling. But why should we tolerate infiltrators? There are protests against CAA across the country. How many Muslims in these protests are from outside? Why should we stand for them?" Thackeray said.
Should Uddhav Thackeray be worried?
It is too soon to say whether the renewed MNS manages to sweep the ground beneath Uddhav’s feet. The Shiv Sena has a solid hold among masses in the state and it is unlikely that the electorate would see any good reason to shift loyalties in the immediate future.
However, the tables could turn against the Maharashtra Chief Minister if the recent maneuvres by the BJP are to go by. Having lost a prominent Hindutva proponent in the state in the form of Shiv Sena, the BJP will be looking to fill the gap and may find Raj Thackeray a good leader to bet on. There have been indications of the BJP trying to woo the MNS leader. Given that the MNS too would need a bigger party to ensure its survival, a BJP-MNS alliance could prove a win-win for both.
With the shifting equations in the state, the stage is set for a face-off between the two Thackeray brothers. "I don’t change colours to form government," Raj Thackeray said in his speech on Thursday, making it abundantly clear who his opponent in the coming days would be. With a fresh round of Thackeray vs Thackeray in store for Maharashtra, the politics in the state is sure to see many twists and turns in the coming days.