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Hindutva, Marathi pride — how Raj Thackeray plans to fuel MNS comeback in ‘mini state polls’

MNS has big plans for municipal polls scheduled in 2021 and 2022. It currently has just one corporator in Mumbai civic body, and one MLA in Maharashtra.

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Mumbai: ‘Hindutva’ and ‘Marathi pride’ will be the pivots as Maharashtra Navnirman Sena (MNS) president Raj Thackeray kicks off his party’s campaign for the upcoming municipal elections in various cities across the state, which are being seen as a ‘mini assembly election’. 

Having changed the MNS flag to saffron last year, Raj Thackeray now plans to visit Ayodhya in March, reiterating his party’s commitment to the Hindutva cause. 

The MNS has also planned a string of activities in Maharashtra to highlight its agenda of pride in the state and its language. 

Elections to the municipal corporations of Navi Mumbai, Vasai-Virar, Kalyan-Dombivli in the Mumbai Metropolitan Region, and Aurangabad and Kolgapur, are scheduled for 2021. 

Next year, 10 more civic bodies — the powerful Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC), Thane, Ulhasnagar, Pune, Pimpri-Chinchwad, Nashik, Solapur, Akola, Amravati and Nagpur — are due for polls. 

The details of the MNS’ campaign and Thackeray’s visit to Ayodhya, where the construction of the Ram Janmabhoomi temple is under way, were planned at a meeting of the party’s senior leaders in Mumbai last Friday. Thackeray’s son and daughter-in-law, Amit Thackeray and Mitali Thackeray, were also present at the meeting. Amit was inducted into the MNS last year.

“Sometime between 1 March and 9 March, Rajsaheb, along with senior party leaders, will visit Ayodhya for a darshan of Shri Ram,” senior MNS functionary Bala Nandgaonkar told reporters Friday. “After 9 March, Rajsaheb will tour Maharashtra for a month.”

Also Read: Mosques, migrants on Raj Thackeray’s radar as he eyes Hindutva mantle

MNS’ efforts to stop its nose-dive

The significance of 9 March for the MNS is that this was the day it was founded in 2006.

Raj Thackeray launched the MNS after quitting the Shiv Sena when his uncle Bal Thackeray anointed his son Uddhav as his successor, even though Raj was widely seen as the heir to the Shiv Sena founder’s legacy. 

The MNS tasted quick success by espousing the “sons of the soil” and “Marathi pride” ideologies more aggressively than the Shiv Sena, even wresting the latter’s bastions of Dadar and Mahim at one point. 

However, the party has been in a slump since 2014, and currently has just one MLA in the state legislature and one corporator in the Mumbai civic body.

Thackeray’s planned visit to Ayodhya will take place ahead of the MNS’ 15th foundation day, and exactly a year after Uddhav Thackeray visited the city on 7 March 2020 to mark 100 days of the Shiv Sena-Nationalist Congress Party-Congress coalition Maha Vikas Aghadi (MVA) in government. 

“Rajsaheb’s visit to Ayodhya is to basically take Lord Ram’s blessings before he kicks off his tour of Maharashtra from 9 March. The visit was in the works for a long time,” MNS spokesperson Sandeep Deshpande told ThePrint.  “Rajsaheb has been wanting to visit Ayodhya right since the time of the bhoomi pujan.” 

On the eve of the bhoomi pujan on 5 August 2020, Raj Thackeray had thanked the Narendra Modi-led government for its efforts during the court battle over the Ram Janmabhoomi issue. 

The MNS has been especially determined to embrace the Hindutva agenda since the formation of the MVA, which brought together the Shiv Sena, a party with roots in the Hindutva ideology, and the “secular” Congress and NCP. 

“The emphasis on Ayodhya and Hindutva is deliberate because we are now aggressively looking to capture the space vacated by the Shiv Sena after the party decided to ally with the Congress and the NCP,” said a senior MNS functionary who did not wish to be named. “A lot of the (Shiv Sena’s) core voters are disillusioned.”

Party sources say the MNS also wants to keep the option of working with the BJP, formally or informally, open. 

“The BJP will put all its might to especially wrest the Mumbai civic body from the Shiv Sena. We are best suited to tap the Shiv Sena’s vote bank and help the BJP,” an MNS leader said. “But there have been no formal discussions about this within the party so far.”

In January last year, Raj Thackeray had met former Maharashtra CM Devendra Fadnavis, raising speculation that the MNS might put its weight behind the BJP. However, Fadnavis publicly dismissed such rumours.

In his speech on 23 January 2020, Raj Thackeray made another overture to the BJP by espousing the Hindutva cause. For the first time, Right-wing ideologue Vinayak Damodar Savarkar’s portrait found space on an MNS stage, and the party also changed its flag from blue, white, orange and green, to a complete saffron.

Also Read: NCP aide, Modi backer, now Mumbai’s ‘Godfather’ — the political gymnastics of Raj Thackeray

Marathi signatures, ‘Maharashtra sainiks’

On 27 February, celebrated in Maharashtra as ‘Marathi Language Day’, the MNS plans to launch a Marathi signature programme — where the public will be approached and their signatures (in Marathi) collected. 

“Rajsaheb will himself visit several areas of Mumbai and Thane for the same,” Nandgaonkar said.

The party also has plans to felicitate teachers imparting education in the Marathi language in every ward, as well as recognise Marathi book publishers, writers, editors, sportspersons, journalists and theatre personalities. 

Apart from this, the MNS has planned a membership registration drive from 9 February to 12 April. Those enrolled during this period will be known as “Maharashtra sainiks (Maharashtra soldiers)”, a title that will be mentioned on their identity cards, Nandgaonkar said. 

Similarly, the division heads of the MNS will henceforth be called “Rajdoots (ambassadors of Raj)”, and be given an identity badge accordingly. 

Over the past few months, the MNS has been making a big push for its original agenda of Marathi pride with the intention of winning back its original voters and attracting the Shiv Sena’s committed “sons of the soil” and “anti-Congress” votes. 

In December, MNS workers vandalised offices of e-commerce retailer Amazon for failing to provide Marathi as a language option on its app. 

In October last year, a few party functionaries reportedly beat up a jeweller in South Mumbai’s Colaba for refusing to speak to author Shobha Deshpande in Marathi. 

The same month, the MNS also sent a letter to Disney Hotstar to make the Indian Premier League commentary available in Marathi. 

Also Read: ‘Where’s Maharashtra dharma?’ — Raj Thackeray silence on Kangana row sparks discontent in MNS


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