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HomePoliticsLoudspeakers and political backflips: How ‘anti-migrant’ MNS became Hindutva’s latest advocate

Loudspeakers and political backflips: How ‘anti-migrant’ MNS became Hindutva’s latest advocate

MNS chief Raj Thackeray will address a Maharashtra Day rally in Shiv Sena’s stronghold Aurangabad. Analysts say MNS is trying to replace Sena as a champion of the Hindu cause.

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Mumbai: These days, booth workers of the Maharashtra Navnirman Sena are busy handing out invitations, booking tickets, arranging for buses and trains, and trying to mobilise the public. Their destination is Aurangabad, where their leader, Raj Thackeray, will address a public rally 1 May, celebrated as Maharashtra Day.

The public rally comes as Raj, once a vociferous anti-migrant advocate, dons a new saffron avatar: he’s been at the forefront of the ongoing campaign to ban loudspeakers outside mosques in Maharashtra.

He is, in other words, ostensibly trying to occupy the position that the Shiv Sena has vacated after its alliance with the Nationalist Congress Party and the Congress, political analysts say.

This change is reflected in his position toward the Bharatiya Janata Party as well: from being a strident BJP critic three years ago, he appears to have softened his stance.

Political analysts say the party now appears to have a tacit understanding with the BJP — once allies of the ruling Shiv Sena and its chief, Maharashtra chief Minister Uddhav Thackeray, Raj Thackeray’s cousin.

“In the beginning, he tried the development plank without any electoral success. They didn’t have a proper road map like Kejriwal, who spoke about health or education,” political commentator Pratap Asbe told ThePrint. “And Hindutva was Sena’s plank earlier but with Sena allying with NCP and Congress, their politics changed.”

Another factor that could have contributed to changing Raj’s views was the notice he got from the Enforcement Directorate in 2019, he said.

“Since Raj Thackeray also got a notice from ED, he might have decided to take this position that will please BJP as well as take the party ahead,” said Asbe.

The developments come months before elections in 15 municipal corporations and 27 district councils — seen as a litmus test for the 2024 general and assembly elections.

Also Read: Loudspeakers & ‘Maha Aartis’ — why temple-mosque politics keeps making a comeback in Maharashtra

Eyeing Sena’s space 

It was the public rally on Gudi Padwa that really turned the corner — in his public speech 2 April that Raj demanded loudspeakers should be removed from mosques by 3 May.

What’s even more significant is that, with his criticism of loudspeakers debate, he seems to have occupied the space that was once the dominion of his uncle Bal Thackeray.

Indeed, MNS implied as much: in its posters outside the Sena Bhawan — the Shiv Sena’s headquarters in Mumbai’s Dadar — on 6 April, the party called Raj the true heir of the Sena founder.

The choice of venue for the 1 May rally too is significant: Aurangabad is a Sena stronghold, outside of Mumbai and Thane. The party has been demanding that the city, named after the Mughal emperor Aurangzeb, should be renamed Sambhajinagar, after Maratha king Shivaji’s oldest son. Leaders of rivals MNS, a party that’s an offshoot of the Sena, also refer to the city as “Sambhajinagar” — a name first mooted in 1988 by Bal Thackeray.

Sandeep Deshpande, a leader from the MNS, said the party had permission for the Aurangabad rally and that more than a lakh invitations had been printed for it. “People would be coming from Pune, Nashik, Beed, Latur, Buldhana, and other cities to attend the rally.”

Raj is also scheduled to visit Ayodhya on June 5 — another significant gesture especially given his recent praise of Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath.

MNS’s preparations for the Ayodhya visit appear to be just as elaborate: the party has asked the Indian railways for 12 special trains for its workers, Deshpande said. “Or (they could) attach 2-3 extra coaches to regular trains so that our workers can go to Lucknow,” he said. “Talks are still on, and something will work out.”

Also Read: Uddhav govt puts ball in Centre’s court on mosque-loudspeaker issue after all-party meet

BJP joins in 

Since Raj first brought up the loudspeaker controversy, a delighted BJP has chimed in.

Both Raj and the BJP decided to skip a recent all-party meeting called by Maharashtra Chief Minister Uddhav Thackeray to discuss the controversy and are now accusing the Sena of forgetting “Bal Thackeray’s principles”.

Only last week, Amit Malviya, BJP’s IT cell in charge, took a swipe at the BJP.

 Malviya’s tweet came hours after Navneet Rana,  independent MP from Amravati, and her MLA husband Ravi Rana were arrested for having threatened to recite the Hanuman Chalisa in front of Matoshree, the family home of Uddhav Thackeray and the seat of Sena’s power.

A senior BJP functionary who did not want to be named admitted that joining the MNS cause did nothing to help the BJP but they decided to do it because “it makes the Shiv Sena uncomfortable”.

“We would rather that the staunch Hindutva vote base of the Shiv Sena goes to BJP than MNS,” he said.  “What will be helpful for the BJP is if the MNS sticks to an aggressive pro-Marathi agenda.”

Despite speculations, both the BJP and the MNS have so far denied they were working together.

Also Read: ‘Softened’ under Uddhav, why Shiv Sena is going back to its original aggressive roots

The MNS-BJP equation

Union Minister and senior BJP leader Nitin Gadkari met Raj at his residence in Shivaji Park last month. Maharashtra’s former chief minister Devendra Fadnavis and his wife Amrita Fadnavis also met him last November.

Both visits sparked speculations of a possible alliance between the two parties.

“Not at all,” Ram Kadam, BJP MLA told ThePrint when he was asked if the visits signalled a possible alliance. “Because BJP is a national party and we’re capable of fighting on our own. We don’t need anybody.”

Additionally, the MNS, Kadam said, did not have enough ground support.

“Delivering a good speech does not mean he has good strength on the ground,” he said.

Kadam was careful in his praise of Raj over the Hindutva issue, however.

“He has taken up Hindutva issue just a week ago but for the BJP, Hindutva is the main agenda and has been pushing it for ages,” he said. “But we appreciate whoever will talk about Hindutva.”

On his part, Raj has been effusive in his praise for Adityanath over the loudspeaker controversy. Just Thursday, Raj said in a tweet: “I wholeheartedly congratulate and stand grateful to the Yogi government for having removed the loudspeakers from religious places, specially the masjids”.

“Unfortunately in Maharashtra we don’t have any ‘yogis’; what we have are ‘bhogis‘ (hedonists). Here’s hoping and praying good sense prevails,” he said.

The development is a marked change from 2019, when the MNS leader, after campaigning for Narendra Modi in 2014, turned into a bitter critic and even chose to address rallies for the Congress and the NCP.

Going forward, the party will stick to Hindutva, Deshpande said.

“Positive change is always a development,” he said. “We have to adapt to changing situations. We will follow Hindutva but it doesn’t mean we have forgotten the ‘Marathi manoos’.”

(Edited by Uttara Ramaswamy)

Also Read: Navneet & Ravi Rana — Maharashtra’s notorious political gymnasts who found love at Ramdev camp

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