Mumbai: It’s Shiv Sena founder Bal Thackeray’s 94th birth anniversary tomorrow. The circumstances surrounding the commemorations this year, however, will be a departure from the past.
For one, the Shiv Sena, under son Uddhav Thackeray, is no longer a vehement proponent of Hindutva, an ideology that the senior Thackeray championed. Having formed the government in alliance with the Congress and the NCP, the Shiv Sena has also set aside its shrill sons-of-the-soil rhetoric.
The opposition BJP, on the lookout for an alliance partner in the state, appears to now believe that the right person to perpetuate Bal Thackeray’s brand of politics is his nephew, the Maharashtra Navnirman Sena (MNS) chief, Raj Thackeray.
The MNS chief, struggling for political relevance after a disastrous assembly poll performance, is expected to spell out his party’s new agenda at a political rally in Mumbai on 23 January — his uncle’s birth anniversary.
But he has already been approached by the BJP, which is keen on him filling the Hindutva void in the state. Former chief minister and senior BJP leader Devendra Fadnavis met Raj Thackeray at his Shivaji Park residence two weeks ago, while Ashish Shelar, the party’s former Mumbai president, had called on the MNS chief in the last week of December.
Sources in the BJP told ThePrint that the party also hopes that Raj will revive his sons-of-the-soil plank as it will help with the implementation of the controversial National Register of Citizens (NRC).
All this despite the fact that Raj had been a vehement critic of the BJP in the run-up to the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, and had campaigned against the party in the assembly elections.
He had called for a “Modi-Shah-free India” ahead of the Parliamentary elections, declaring that the country needed to get rid of the duo. Though his party did not contest, his “Laav re toh video (Show the video)” campaign against the BJP became extremely popular as it sought to expose the failures of the Modi government.
Now, a friendless BJP in Maharashtra has knocked on his doors out of compulsions of regional politics, though the party has its conditions.
According to senior BJP leader and former Maharashtra minister Vinod Tawade, the party cannot ally with Raj unless he gives up his “anti-North Indian stand”.
“The anti-North Indian stand is not acceptable to the BJP. Unless he clears his stand, the BJP cannot go with him,” Tawade told ThePrint. Asked if Raj will be acceptable if he adopts the BJP’s Hindutva plank, Tawade said, “Let him clear his stand first.”
An alliance of the friendless
What works in the BJP’s favour is that Raj is still angry with the Congress and the NCP for refusing his support in the run-up to the assembly polls.
Though both parties refused, he did campaign against the BJP-Sena combine on his own. His high-profile campaign, however, did not pay any dividends for the Congress, NCP or his own party, the MNS, which managed to get just one seat in the 288-member assembly.
He has been struggling for political relevance since. Over the years, Raj has lost out on credibility due to his flip-flop politics. In 2014, he had praised Narendra Modi and endorsed his candidature for the PM’s job. By 2019, as the Lok Sabha polls neared, he did a volte-face.
Therefore, Shelar’s long-winding meeting with the MNS chief comes as a big surprise.
The meetings, however, appear to have benefited Raj — a number of MNS leaders who had moved away are now back in the party fold.
Prakash Mahajan, brother of the late BJP leader Pramod Mahajan, is a case in point. After staying away from Raj Thackeray for “having no vision”, he has now decided to support his former leader.
“I met Raj saheb and I feel that he should take accept Hindutva as the MNS ideology. There is a huge vacuum where the Hindutva ideology is concerned. If Raj saheb takes it up, he will get huge support from the people,” Mahajan told ThePrint. According to him, Raj Thackeray has a “magnetic personality” that attracts people. “The people should give Raj saheb a chance. He will be a fantastic leader.”
Harshavardhan Jadhav, former Shiv Sena MLA and son-in-law of BJP Union minister Raosaheb Danve, also met the MNS chief at his residence last week.
A second wind
The coming together of parties with opposite ideologies to form the government has changed the political scenario in Maharashtra. The exercise has shown that ideologies are porous and can be merged to gain power.
And unlike other political parties, the MNS’ ideology is not clear. In the years since its formation in 2006, the party has wavered on its stand numerous times. The BJP is hoping for Raj Thackeray to change the direction of his party yet again.
For Raj, who is facing an Enforcement Directorate (ED) probe, moving into the BJP den may prove advantageous to stop the investigation in its tracks. He had been grilled for over eight hours by the ED, a fortnight before the 2019 Assembly polls. After this, he had toned down the anti-BJP aggression in his poll campaigning by several notches.
Political analyst Pratap Asbe said the MNS needs to piggyback on a strong political party for its survival. “Both the BJP and the MNS are looking for a partner for their survival. It is a mutual need for both parties,” Asbe said. “The Shiv Sena has a very large base and Raj Thackeray will not be able to convert this base to the benefit of either the MNS or the BJP. Even if Raj Thackeray takes the Hindutva route, the Shiv Sena base will not move to him.”
According to Asbe, the MNS has lost credibility due to its oscillating stand of support. “The MNS has no ideology. It is a party which is deciding which way to flow,” surmised Asbe.
Given Raj Thackeray’s history of long periods of hibernation in between polls, inconsistent policies, lack of party programmes to keep the cadre motivated, desertions of his close aides and the inability to stem the dwindling numbers of his party, an alliance with the BJP in all likelihood will only prove advantageous to him.
“Raj saheb needs to plan long-term. The ideology must be planned for a long period,” Mahajan said. “It can be tweaked but not changed from election to election. The BJP can help the MNS emerge much stronger.”
Which is why all eyes are on the 23 January rally.
MNS sources said Raj’s son, Amit, is expected to be anointed into politics at the rally. With the Thackerays — Raj and his son on one side and Chief Minister Uddhav and his minister son Aaditya on the other — pitted against each other, Maharashtra politics is all set to catch fire again.