Can Raj Thackeray cause loss of Uddhav's ideological base and quotient?

Shekhar Iyer
02 May 2022
Can Raj Thackeray cause loss of Uddhav's ideological base and quotient?

Ever since Shiv Sena chief Uddhav Thackeray dumped the BJP after the Maharashtra assembly elections in 2019  to embrace Sharad Pawar's NCP and the Congress and become chief minister, he has faced a barrage of attacks from his former ally and Hindutva backers who have accused him of compromising his ideology.

With the three-party coalition "Maha Vikas Aghadi" under Uddhav entering the most challenging months before elections in 15 municipal corporations including Mumbai and 27 district councils, attacks on him and the Sena have got shriller because these polls are seen as a make or break barometer for his government.

Already reeling under investigation for corruption by central agencies, the coalition parties have had an uneasy arrangement thus far. The Congress has been sulking because its ministers feel they are getting a raw deal under Udhav as CM and Sharad Pawar ensuring NCP gets the cream for his team.

Given this scenario, his estranged cousin Raj Thackeray has made a fresh foray to damage Uddhav's ideological quotient by questioning his commitment to the "pro-Marathi and pro-Hindu" credentials of his late father and Sena founder Bal Thackeray who strode Maharashtra's political scene until his death in 2012.

As a strategy, Raj has dared the Uddhav government to bring down all loudspeakers by May 3 --- by announcing at a mega rally in Aurangabad on May 1 that he would “not listen to anybody” on the issue, threatening his men would go on the offensive.

He has chided Uddhav by citing the example of Uttar Pradesh CM Yogi Adityananth who ensured as many as 45,773 loudspeakers were removed from various places of worship including temples and mosques during a statewide drive recently.

Uddhav, Pawar and the Congress leaders naturally see the "big hand" of the BJP in Raj's latest move. They are convinced of a plot to unsettle the state government before the civic elections by posing a challenge on the law and order front, raking up issues that polarise voters as well as the Sena rank and file.

A livid Uddhav sees the best way to tackle Raj would be to enmesh him in a police case for his Aurangabad speech which apparently violated conditions put by local authorities for holding his rally. He has also declared that Hindutva is the core belief of his Shiv Sena even if it unsettles the NCP or the Congress. Obviously, Uddhav wishes to signal to the Sena cadres that he won't be cowed down by his cousin whose Maharashtra Navnirman Sena (NMS) had performed erratically in elections since it was formed 16 years ago.

MNS was founded after Raj Thackeray quit the Shiv Sena Bal Thackeray made it clear Uddhav would be his political heir. Nevertheless, Raj assumed that he held the mantle that once belonged to Bal Thackeray and took up the issue of the sons of the soil more aggressively. This meant targeting the North Indian population, particularly traders, workers, taxi and auto drivers who got scared by the MNS and embraced the Sena.

In 2007, in its first municipal polls, the MNS won seven seats. Later it won 27 in 2012, which was the highest tally so far for the party in Mumbai, one of its core base areas.

However, in the last civic elections in 2017, it won only seven seats. It has been a rapid downfall since then. In 2014, MNS contested 219 assembly seats and forfeited its deposit in 209. It won just one seat. In the 2014 Lok Sabha polls, Raj backed Narendra Modi for the prime minister's post and fielded candidates mostly against the Sena.

However, in the 2019 Lok Sabha polls, Raj severely criticised Modi but did not contest the polls because of an understanding with Sharad Pawar. In the assembly polls that followed, the MNS contested 101 seats and forfeited its deposit in 86 seats. It bagged only one seat in the state.

Raj has been upset with Sharad Pawar since the NCP installed Uddhav as CM in 2019. Hence, Raj saw a good opportunity to corner Uddhav on the issue of Hindutva because the Sena has been soft-peddling many controversial issues to keep the coalition with the Congress and the NCP intact. During his Aurangabad rally, Raj slammed Sharad Pawar particularly for introducing "venomous caste politics" in Maharashtra and for his "phony secularism."

But the big question is whether Raj's latest attempt to use the loudspeaker issue would work to his party's advantage and galvanise the Sena core supporters to come to him. Raj chose Aurangabad for his party's rejuvenation because it is a Sena stronghold, outside of Mumbai and Thane. Even Bal Thackeray had launched a major campaign way back in 1988 from that very city. MNS has had an old demand that the city, which is named after the Mughal emperor Aurangzeb, should be renamed Sambhajinagar, after Maratha king Shivaji’s oldest son.

Raj is also scheduled to visit Ayodhya on June 5. He recently praised Yogi for taking down loudspeakers in the state.

Raj's calculation is that by invoking the unity of the Hindus as well as Maharashtrians, he can overcome the handicaps caused by his previous approach of antagonising non-Maharashtrians for the sake of "Marathi manoos".

Of course, Raj does have the open support from the BJP which too has been targeting the Sena for dumping Hindutva (read the BJP itself) and for insulting Bal Thackeray’s "principles.” Last month, Union Minister Nitin Gadkari had met Raj at his residence. So did former chief minister Devendra Fadnavis and his wife Amrita Fadnavis also met him last November, sparking speculations of a joint strategy between the two parties. However, the Vishva Hindu Parishad (VHP) has dismissed as “fake and baseless” the reports that its activists and those of the Bajrang Dal will participate in an event to be organised by the MNS to play ‘Hanuman Chalisa’ on loudspeakers outside the mosques.

Uddhav's problem is not Raj necessarily but all the problems he has had to face in managing the coalition. But detractors like Raj can only add to his worries as his rein faces several ups and downs and governance is seen to have taken a beating because of bickering and lack of direction.

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