Maharashtra Navnirman Sena (MNS)’s decision to shed their pretensions of inclusive politics and explicitly embrace Hindutva ideology is yet another desperate attempt to revive their presence in Maharashtra’s political landscape. After the north-Indian and Gujarati ‘outsiders,’ MNS has decided to focus on Bangladeshi and Pakistani Muslim outsiders for injecting life into their otherwise fragile political existence.
More importantly, MNS president Raj Thackeray extended his support to the CAA. Previously too, Raj Thackeray had argued in favour of deporting Bangladeshi and Pakistani immigrants. However, about two months ago he had opposed the introduction of CAA and NRC. Raj Thackeray argued in December that Amit Shah has introduced CAA-NRC to divert people’s attention from the economic slowdown. He further stated that our systems had failed to cater to the needs of our own people, and therefore there was no need to bring in more people and give them citizenship – irrespective of their religious affiliation.
However, the formation of Maha Vikas Aghadi (MVA) by the Shiv Sena, NCP, and the Congress has put both the MNS and the BJP in the state in crisis.
Since Bal Thackeray’s death in 2012, the Shiv Sena has been reduced to a helpless younger brother by the BJP. To avoid becoming even more powerless and vulnerable, the Shiv Sena took advantage of the post-poll scenario and formed the government in Maharashtra with the support of the Congress and the NCP.
Following Maharashtra, the Jharkhand state saw the return of Soren to power, and Delhi has given the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) a second chance. These developments provided the much-needed space for protests against the CAA and Modi-Shah’s plans to implement the NRC across the country. Like in West Bengal, Uttar Pradesh, Kerala, and Bihar, Maharashtra too witnessed protests against the CAA-NRC-NPR. Prakash Ambedkar has been at the forefront of these protests.
Prakash Ambedkar has consistently argued that the changes sought by the BJP via CAA-NRC-NPR will not only disenfranchise Muslims, but it will also affect Dalits, Adivasis, Nomadic Tribes and Other Backward Castes. The BJP in Maharashtra, with its predominantly Brahmin-Bania support, has failed to organise counter-protests. It is this factor that explains BJP’s coziness with the MNS as the latter has the capacity to organise demonstrations.
Secondly, Mumbai will go to civic polls in 2022. Both the BJP and the MNS need an alliance partner to contest these elections. Lastly, this arrangement with the BJP will give Raj Thackeray some relief in the money-laundering case linked to the Kohinoor textile mill land sale.
MNS’s desperation for revival
Since its formation in 2005, the MNS has been vocal about the Hindutva agenda. However, MNS’s explicit turn to Hindutva in the current context should be seen as yet another desperate attempt to revive the political outfit.
When MNS was launched, it projected itself to be an inclusive party and was successful electorally too. In the 2009 Vidhan Sabha elections, MNS managed to win 13 seats and in the Lok Sabha, elections conducted during the same year their candidates obtained more than 1.25 lakh votes in Mumbai, Pune, and Nashik region.
The MNS took over the reins of Nashik municipal corporation in 2012 and had a substantial presence in several municipalities. With this electoral success, MNS aspired to replace Shiv Sena and occupy both the nativist and the Hindutva space controlled by the latter. As such, Raj visited Gujarat when Narendra Modi was the CM and lauded the development that had taken place. Raj even shared public space with RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat.
After the death of Shiv Sena supremo Bal Thackeray in November 2012, MNS had hoped to replace the Shiv Sena and ally with the BJP. However, during the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, the BJP choose to go with the Shiv Sena. MNS had already extended their support to the Modi-led BJP and therefore did not field candidates in several constituencies. In fact, in 2014 Lok Sabha elections, MNS declared that their elected representatives will support Modi-led BJP in centre. While this arrangement in 2014 helped the Shiv Sena-BJP combine, MNS did not benefit from it and since then it has been on the decline.
MNS tried to revive itself by getting closer to the NCP. In February 2018, Raj conducted a public conversation titled Shodh Marathi Manacha (In Search of Marathi Mind) with NCP chief Sharad Pawar to discuss various challenges before contemporary Maharashtra. Raj Thackeray also became the most vocal critic of Modi-Shah duo and the BJP policies.
During the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, despite not contesting any seat, Raj organised rallies wherein he demonstrated flaws in the welfare policies carried out by the BJP government. These rallies were extremely popular, to the extent that Raj was adored by the progressive and Left organisations. Following Lok Sabha, Maharashtra assembly elections took place whereby MNS had hoped for an alliance with the NCP. That did not work and MNS failed miserably in these elections too.
To add to this damage, the Shiv Sena did the unthinkable and broke its long-time alliance with the BJP and formed the Maha Vikas Aghadi (MVA) with the NCP and the Congress. The MVA gave a major boost to the Shiv Sena and reinstated the power of the Marathas. It is in this context that Raj has sensed an opportunity to use Hindutva rhetoric for giving a new lease of life to his party.
The ‘new’ outsider
Nativist politics has thrived on the ‘outsiders.’ MNS became popular when it targeted the north-Indian ‘outsiders,’ who, they argued, ‘stole’ the job opportunities of the local Marathi speaking youths. North-Indian labourers in Mumbai are visibly present in nearly 55 low-level occupations from haircutting, milk-selling, laundry and fast-food items. It is in the presence of north-Indian labourers in Mumbai, MNS could strike a chord with the Marathi youths. Until very recently, MNS activists had carried out physical attacks on north Indian hawkers.
By embracing Hindutva and targeting the Bangladeshi and Pakistani outsiders, MNS might get closer to the BJP but it won’t help them in reviving their political presence. The only beneficiary of MNS’s Hindutva turn is the BJP and the Shiv Sena. In fact, whichever political party MNS has tried to ally with has benefited the most leaving nothing for the MNS.
When MNS supported BJP under Modi’s leadership in 2014, it helped BJP in winning several seats in Maharashtra. And, since BJP allied with the Shiv Sena, they too benefitted from the deal. MNS paid a heavy price for supporting the BJP as it continues to struggle for reviving its presence.
MNS got closer to the NCP and became the biggest critique of the Modi-Shah duo. Once again, the NCP revived itself in a major way and MNS was left with nothing for itself. Now, MNS has completed the circle by returning to the BJP. MNS decision to organise counter-protest in support of CAA and NRC is what the BJP desperately needed.
The fact that the BJP has opened its doors for the MNS also means that Shiv Sena’s alliance with the Congress and NCP is here to stay – at least for the next five years. It is also very likely that the Maha Vikas Aaghadi will continue its arrangement for the 2022 BMC elections. Both the MNS and the BJP need each other for 2022 BMC elections but they won’t be able to make a major dent in these elections.
MNS now is seen as a political party without a solid and stable political agenda. In a very short span of time, it has oscillated from supporting the BJP to becoming the biggest critic of Modi-Shah and now returning to the BJP again. Moreover, with this new decision, the MNS won’t be able to target the north-Indians and Gujaratis ‘outsiders.’ Even if the issue of Bangladeshi and Pakistani Muslims acquire significance, the Shiv Sena is still able to take over the Hindutva space. In fact, Shiv Sena’s support for the CAA and its opposition to the NRC has given them the edge, which MNS lacks.
(Sumeet Mhaskar is an Associate Professor at the O.P. Jindal Global University)
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