Mumbai: Maharashtra Navnirman Sena (MNS) chief Raj Thackeray has issued gag orders, preventing his party leaders from speaking on the Kangana Ranaut-Shiv Sena controversy, sparking discontent in the regional outfit.
The silence of Raj, a self-appointed custodian of Marathi pride, at a time when Ranaut’s tweets have hit hard at Mumbai, Maharashtra and the Mumbai Police, has shocked his party colleagues.
Disillusioned with the stand of their chief, some MNS activists have sent “feelers” to the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) seeking to cross over.
In a series of tweets, Ranaut had compared Mumbai with Pakistan-occupied Kashmir (PoK). She had also said that she feared the Mumbai Police more than the “movie mafia”, and chided the Mumbai Police commissioner Parambir Singh for liking a tweet that criticised her.
The only noticeable response from the MNS was party leader, Ameya Khopkar, cryptically alluding to her in a tweet on 4 September. Khopkar, the president of the MNS’ cinema wing, had tweeted in support of the Mumbai Police without naming Ranaut.
“Anyone who has a problem with the police can live in their respective states. You might call this a threat or a warning, but no true Mumbaikar is going to tolerate anything about the Mumbai Police,” he tweeted in Marathi.
— Ameya Khopkar (@MNSAmeyaKhopkar) September 4, 2020
MNS sources told ThePrint that Raj had reprimanded Khopkar for the tweet. But the chief’s stand is starting to hurt his party.
On 8 September, when the Kangana versus Maharashtra government feud had peaked, Omkar Hari Mali, the district co-ordinator of the MNS Cultural Cell handling Thane, Raigad and Palghar, joined the NCP. Others too are miffed.
“If Raj saheb cannot defend Marathi asmita (pride) when it is being abused by a migrant actor, there is no point in supporting him,” said a senior MNS leader.
“All these years we stood by Raj saheb because he stood for the Marathi people. Today, after a migrant abuses the Mumbai Police and says Mumbai is Pakistan, she still continues to live in Mumbai. Her Y security is an insult to Marathi asmita.”
‘Political compulsions behind silence’
Speaking to ThePrint, political analyst Parimal Maya Sudhakar of the MIT School of Governance feels that Raj Thackeray had lost the biggest opportunity to cash in on adverse statements by Ranaut.
“The Shiv Sena was on the defensive in the Sushant Singh Rajput case. The MNS could have taken on Kangana and created a political space. But since he (Raj) is looking for support of the BJP as an equal partner in Mumbai and a junior partner across Maharashtra, he is silent,” Sudhakar said.
“Raj Thackeray is looking for electoral gains via Hindutva as the Marathi pride and Marathi manoos issues have failed to deliver gains for him.”
Raj Thackeray’s silence is closely connected to the post-Assembly poll manoeuvres of November 2019, when NCP chief Sharad Pawar was stitching together the Maha Vikas Aghadi (MVA) coalition in Maharashtra.
The MNS chief was keen on lending support to this alliance; he had wanted to ally with the Congress and NCP even before Maharashtra Assembly polls on 21 October 2019.
Despite the Congress party’s thumbs down to his unofficial offer, Raj Thackeray had campaigned against the BJP-Shiv Sena alliance in Maharashtra. He had criticised the “anti-Maharashtra” policies of the saffron alliance and asked the people to vote for him so that his party could emerge as a strong opposition.
He was very disappointed when the MVA did not consider his support as the Congress had objected to any alliance with the MNS. His anti-migrant stand, which had seen violent attacks on migrants from North India, was the basis of the objections of the Congress party.
The Hindutva turn
Facing political isolation, especially as his cousin Uddhav Thackeray — who is also the Shiv Sena chief — took over as the chief minister in November 2019, Raj veered toward the BJP and Hindutva.
On 23 January, 2020 – the birthday of his uncle and the founder of the Shiv Sena Bal Thackeray – the MNS chief unveiled a new party flag. The flag, saffron in colour, bore the image of the royal seal used during the times of the Maratha warrior king Chhatrpati Shivaji Maharaj. It signalled the change of ideology for the MNS.
The earlier flag, which was unveiled on 6 March 2006, the foundation day of the MNS, had the colours blue, orange, white and green. On the day he had founded the MNS, Raj Thackeray had told the public gathered at Shivaji Park that the colours of his flag signalled an inclusive politics with Dalits and Muslims being an integral part of the MNS’ politics.
Now while he publicly denies he has turned Right, there is little doubt that his politics has changed.
“I am not veering towards Hindutva. Maharashtra dharma is my only dharma,” Raj told a mammoth gathering at Azad Maidan on 21 August, 2020. He had also felicitated Mumbai Police personnel who were on duty at his protest meeting.
Party leaders are now pointing to that. “Raj saheb had called them on stage and handed them red roses telling that non one who attacks the Mumbai Police and the Maharashtra Police will be spared. What happened to that Maharashtra dharma?” said an MNS leader, speaking on anonymity to ThePrint.
Shiv Sena chief spokesman and the party MP, Sanjay Raut, through his weekly column, Rokhtok, in the party mouthpiece, Saamana, has urged Raj Thackeray to come forward and take a stand on the ongoing controversy.
“Pawar and Thackeray are the two powerful brands of Marathi pride. Even if you have issues with the Shiv Sena, the Thackeray brand should command and control,” wrote Raut in his column.
Speaking to ThePrint, MNS spokesman Sandeep Deshpande refused to comment on the issue. “I would not like to comment on the issue. Raj saheb will let us know the future course of action of the party,” Deshpande said.
Why news media is in crisis & How you can fix it
India needs free, fair, non-hyphenated and questioning journalism even more as it faces multiple crises.
But the news media is in a crisis of its own. There have been brutal layoffs and pay-cuts. The best of journalism is shrinking, yielding to crude prime-time spectacle.
ThePrint has the finest young reporters, columnists and editors working for it. Sustaining journalism of this quality needs smart and thinking people like you to pay for it. Whether you live in India or overseas, you can do it here.