If the headlines of the past few days are anything to go by, Raj Thackeray is back on Maharashtra’s political scene. The Maharashtra Navnirman Sena (MNS) chief, once considered the political heir of his firebrand uncle Bal Thackeray, is hogging the limelight with his war against loudspeakers in Maharashtra, seeking a ban on the speaker system outside mosques.
In other words, political experts say, Raj Thackeray is trying to fill in the shoes of the Shiv Sena which has gone soft on its ‘Hindutva’ pitch after an alliance with the Nationalist Congress Party and the Congress which is ruling the state.
The leader’s recent crusade — which he launched by daring the Maha Vikas Aghadi government to bring down all loudspeakers by May 3 —- was amplified at a mega rally in Aurangabad on Sunday when he said starting May 4, he would “not listen to anybody”.
“It’s now or never…. All loudspeakers must be removed after May 3. After (Ramzan) Eid…. From May 4, I will not listen to anybody. All Hindus will blare out Hanuman Chalisa outside mosques at double volume,” he thundered at the rally in the tourist centre of Aurangabad.
Taking the demand on a bigger scale, he urged that loudspeakers must be taken off from all religious places all over the country, even from temples, but only after they are removed from the mosques.
Raj further warned that “if the government fails to heed his ultimatum by May 3″, then he would not be responsible for the consequences, adding that he was neither interested nor keen to have disturbances in the state.
Reiterating that loudspeakers were a “social” and not a “religious” matter, he made it clear that if Muslims try to make it a ‘religious’ issue, then Hindus would also reply to it with religion.
The true descendant?
Accusing Chief Minister Uddhav Thackeray — also Raj Thackeray’s cousin — of removing loudspeakers put up by Hindus, the MNS stepped up its attack and claimed its party chief was the “true heir” of late Bal Thackeray, often dubbed a “crusader” for Hindus.
The party put up a banner outside the Shiv Sena Bhavan in Dadar addressed to Bal Thackeray, which said: “See, your son CM Uddhav Thackeray, despite being a Hindu, is asking us to remove loudspeakers put up by Hindus. He is banning us from reciting Hanuman Chalisa.”
“If anyone is carrying forward your legacy and is your true heir, it is only Raj Thackeray,” it said.
The 54-year-old, once known to be the alter ego of his uncle, seems to be on a path to reinvent himself and his political career. Given that his ‘Marathi Manoos’ pitch failed to cut ice with voters, Raj Thackeray is looking for a more macro Hindutva appeal.
As his cousin helms the state as chief minister, Raj Thackeray is now aping his uncle in optics too. Wrapped in a saffron shawl, the leader now starts his speech with the familiar “Jamlelya majhya tamam Hindu Mata, bhagini ani bhadhu… (Greetings to my Hindu mothers, sisters and brothers),” just as Bal Thackeray did.
Looking to eat into Sena’s space?
Raj Thackeray’s political reinvention comes at a time when the BJP has accused the Shiv Sena of “abandoning” Hindutva and joining hands with the NCP and Congress.
The choice of venue for the May 1 rally too was significant: Aurangabad is a Sena stronghold, outside of Mumbai and Thane. The party has been demanding that the city, named after the Mughal emperor Aurangzeb, should be renamed Sambhajinagar, after Maratha king Shivaji’s oldest son.
Raj Thackeray is also scheduled to visit Ayodhya on June 5 — a classic move after his recent praise of UP Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath for taking down loudspeakers in the state.
What’s brewing with the BJP?
The MNS chief also seems to have softened his stand vis-à-vis the BJP, once an ally of the Shiv Sena. From a harsh critic of the saffron party, the MNS now seems to have reached a tacit understanding with the BJP.
The development also assumes significance since it comes months before elections in 15 municipal corporations and 27 district councils — seen as a litmus test for the 2024 general and assembly elections.
Raj Thackeray’s loudspeaker diatribe also saw support from the BJP as both skipped an all-party meeting called by Uddhav Thackeray to discuss the controversy and are now accusing the Sena of forgetting “Bal Thackeray’s principles”.
Union Minister and senior BJP leader Nitin Gadkari met Raj Thackeray at his residence in Shivaji Park last month. Maharashtra’s former chief minister Devendra Fadnavis and his wife Amrita Fadnavis also met him last November, sparking speculations of a possible alliance between the two parties.
However, despite speculation, both the BJP and the MNS have so far denied they were working together.