Raj Thackeray’s MNS could be both a boon and bane for the BJP

The MNS brings a Thackeray to the Mahayuti, but its previous violent campaigns against north Indians may boomerang against the BJP; despite his rhetoric, Mr. Raj Thackeray has lost the electorate’s trust due to frequent flip-flops

Updated - May 15, 2024 06:15 pm IST

Published - May 15, 2024 05:49 pm IST - PUNE

MNS chief Raj Thackeray addresses the ‘Gudi Padwa’ rally being held at Shivaji Park, in Mumbai. File

MNS chief Raj Thackeray addresses the ‘Gudi Padwa’ rally being held at Shivaji Park, in Mumbai. File | Photo Credit: ANI

As the fifth and final phase of the Lok Sabha election in Maharashtra moves to Mumbai city and its outlying areas, the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) faces a litmus test in its decision to take the Maharashtra Navnirman Sena (MNS) led by Raj Thackeray on board its crowded bandwagon, which already includes Chief Minister Eknath Shinde’s Shiv Sena and Ajit Pawar’s Nationalist Congress Party (NCP).

While the BJP has not given Mr. Raj Thackeray any Lok Sabha seat for his party to contest, the MNS chief, who announced his “unconditional support” for Prime Minister Narendra Modi, has begun vigorously campaigning for the ruling Mahayuti’s candidates, his distinctive oratorical skills in full display during public addresses lampooning his opponents, particularly Shiv Sena (UBT) chief Uddhav Thackeray and NCP (SP) chief Sharad Pawar.

While the BJP leadership feels that having a Thackeray clan member on their side is an undeniable “psychological boost” against Uddhav’s Sena (UBT), observers feel that the MNS could well hamstring the BJP in the six Lok Sabha seats in Mumbai city and those in the Thane area, which go to the polls on May 20.

Anti-north Indian campaigns

Mr. Raj Thackeray established the MNS as a nativist party in 2006 to aggressively champion the cause of the Marathi manoos (Marathi-speaking ‘sons of the soil’). He broke away from the Shiv Sena led by his firebrand uncle Bal Thackeray following strong leadership differences with his cousin Uddhav, who headed the party after Bal Thackeray’s death in 2012.

During the early years of the MNS, its workers ran violent campaigns against north Indians in Mumbai, Pune, and elsewhere. One notable incident saw MNS workers assault a number of north Indian aspirants across the State during the railway recruitment exams of 2008, demanding that local Maharashtrians be given jobs in their lieu.

According to analysts, the MNS’ dallying with the BJP, with its predominantly north Indian voter base in Mumbai, has created apprehensions both among Mr. Raj Thackeray’s cadre and among BJP workers, given that the MNS had run aggressive anti-north Indian campaigns in the past.

In fact, the MNS chief had been forced to cancel his proposed Ayodhya visit in June 2022 after Brij Bhushan Singh, the BJP leader from Uttar Pradesh, warned that he would not permit Mr. Raj Thackeray to enter the temple town unless he apologised for his mistreatment of north Indians.

Strong language

In his recent speeches in Pune and Kalyan while campaigning for the Mahayuti’s candidates, Mr. Raj Thackeray alleged that ‘fatwas’ were being issued by maulvis from mosques to vote for the Congress and for the Shiv Sena (UBT).

“Accordingly, I, too, am issuing a ‘fatwa’ that all my Hindu mothers, brothers and sisters should cast their vote in favour the BJP and its allies, the Eknath Shinde-led Shiv Sena and the Ajit Pawar-led NCP,” Mr. Raj Thackeray had said in Pune.

Last week, while campaigning for the CM’s son Shrikant Shinde in Kalyan, Mr. Raj Thackeray had spoken of Thane being “a hub of infiltrators and terrorist operatives”, while zoning in on Mumbra, the Assembly segment held by NCP (SP) leader Jitendra Awhad, a Sharad Pawar loyalist.

Constant flip-flops

According to political analyst Vivek Bhavsar, Mr. Raj Thackeray’s rhetoric against minorities could well boomerang on the BJP and the Mahayuti in Mumbai, given that the poll atmosphere is already polarised by the speeches of the PM and other BJP top brass like Home Minister Amit Shah.

“Raj Thackeray’s party no longer carries the promise shown in its early years nor kindles any trust among the electorate owing to his constant flip-flops. In 2014, he had announced support for PM Modi. But in the 2019 general election, he spiritedly campaigned for Sharad Pawar’s NCP against the BJP. Now, again, he has announced his unconditional support for PM Modi. His cadre, too, are confused,” said Mr. Bhavsar.   

The MNS’ twin debacles in the 2014 parliamentary and Assembly elections left the party in utter disarray, with the slide continuing through the 2017 civic election as well as the 2019 State and national elections.

Following its rout in the 2019 Maharashtra Assembly election, an atrophied MNS had changed its ideological direction from its nativist stance by veering towards Hindutva politics, signalled by Mr. Raj Thackeray’s 2020 adoption of a saffron flag incorporating Chhatrapati Shivaji’s royal seal or ‘Rajmudra’.      

‘Directionless MNS’

Despite the MNS not having a single MLA or MP across Maharashtra, the BJP hopes to make use of Mr. Raj Thackeray’s still extant Marathi-speaking votebank in Lok Sabha seats in Mumbai, Thane, and Nashik to challenge the Shiv Sena (UBT). Here, a problem for the BJP is that the Sena (UBT) still holds the loyalties of a section of Marathi speakers, while the Mahayuti’s sharp anti-minority rhetoric has also driven Muslim, Christian, and Dalit voters towards Uddhav Thackeray.

“Today, in Mumbai, several Ambedkarite voters view Uddhav Thackeray’s Sena (UBT) as an attractive option, even more than Prakash Ambedkar’s Vanchit Bahujan Aghadi,” an Ambedkarite leader said, requesting anonymity.

Mr. Bhavsar observed that the MNS today is viewed as a ‘directionless’ party, distrusted even by Marathi-speaking voters. “The MNS, which was once championing the rights of the Marathi-speaking people against the north Indians, is now seen hobnobbing with the BJP, whose prime voters are north Indians across the six Mumbai constituencies. It remains to be seen whether Raj Thackeray, for all his rhetoric, can make any impact,” the analyst said.

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