Why Raj Thackeray is Maharashtra’s most watched politician right now
Maharashtra Navnirman Sena (MNS) leader Raj Thackeray has postponed his Ayodhya tour indefinitely, citing a “political conspiracy” against him. He was due to visit the Ram Temple under construction in Ayodhya on June 5. “A plot has been hatched to arrest our (MNS) workers in Ayodhya in case of clashes,” Thackeray said at an MNS rally in Pune on May 22. “I’m not afraid of police cases, but if [our] leading leaders and workers withdraw from action during election season, it would hurt our poll prospects.
Thackeray did not name anyone, but his statement is seen as a veiled attack on the BJP for not reprimanding Brijbhushan Singh, the Lok Sabha party MP from Kaiserganj in Uttar Pradesh. Singh had threatened to oppose Thackeray’s tour if the MNS leader did not apologize for targeting migrants from northern India in Mumbai in 2008. Singh came on the scene after making the threat early may.
Thackeray’s decision to postpone the Ayodhya visit may have surprised many MNS workers, who had been looking forward to the tour. They are also confused since their boss went after the BJP, a potential future ally of the MNS in Maharashtra.
Thackeray called on MNS workers to continue the party’s stance against illegal loudspeakers at mosques across the state. He had warned that if the loudspeakers were not removed, MNS workers would chant Hanuman Chalisa outside mosques in protest. He also plans to write a letter, to be delivered to every household in Maharashtra, with a call for public support on the issue.
Political observers are not surprised by Thackeray’s decision to pull out of Ayodhya’s visit. They say this only establishes his inconsistent stance on the issues. Indeed, there have been several instances where Thackeray has made flip flops. In 2014, he backed Narendra Modi as prime minister, calling him “the country’s last hope”, while in 2019 he called Modi “the country’s greatest danger”. Now Thackeray has gone back to praising Modi for paying attention to states like Uttar Pradesh and Bihar that are lagging behind in development. Similarly, Thackeray’s party flag had four colors, but in 2020 he changed it to an all-saffron flag.
The BJP is also reportedly rethinking its collaboration with the MNS, especially as Thackeray’s “anti-North Indian” image has become a talking point among North Indian voters in Mumbai. According to a BJP leader, the party believes Congress will win in Mumbai if the BJP shares seats with the MNS in the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) elections likely to be held in October. “The well-educated and well-settled North Indians appreciated Raj Thackeray’s position on the loudspeakers of the mosques. However, the poor and illiterate members of the North Indian community do not want to believe that Thackeray wants cordial relations with them,” the BJP leader says.
Thackeray’s mosque speaker and Ayodhya’s visit are seen by several analysts as attempts to find relevance in Maharashtra politics in the face of the MNS’ declining electoral chart. Seen as a potentially powerful political force when it was established in 2006, the MNS has lost considerable public appeal over the past decade. Between 2009 and today, his membership in the Maharashtra assembly, which has 288 members, has fallen from 13 to one. He also lost power in the Nashik Municipal Corporation in 2017. In the Maharashtra state polls held in 2019, the MNS won one seat.
Thackeray, 54, remains a charismatic leader but it is clear his party is struggling to stay relevant in Maharashtra. In a sense, Thackeray is at a critical stage in his political career. Unless it regains some of the ground lost in the BMC polls and the 2024 elections in Maharashtra, the MNS faces a real threat of extinction.