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Is hardline Hindutva is coming back to the arena of Marathi Politics?

Maharashtra Politics

Will hardline Hindutva politics make a comeback in Maharashtra?

In the run-up to the key urban local body polls in Maharashtra, Raj Thackeray-led Maharashtra Navnirman Sena (MNS) and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) are attempting to bring the hardline Hindutva agenda back on the table which might work to their advantage but at the same time could stir the political pot.

Swapnil Rawal | HT Online Mumbai | Mumbai | April 22, 2022:: In the run-up to the key urban local body polls in Maharashtra, Raj Thackeray-led Maharashtra Navnirman Sena (MNS) and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) are attempting to bring the hardline Hindutva agenda back on the table which might work to their advantage but at the same time could stir the political pot.

It was in the late 1980s that the state witnessed the emergence of Hindutva politics when Shiv Sena and BJP forged an alliance as the Ram Janmabhoomi issue took centre stage. There was polarisation on communal lines between the late 1980s and 1995-96. In a first, the Sena-BJP government came to power in the 1995 assembly elections.

Over three decades later, the state may see the resurgence of Hindutva.

In his desperate bid to stay relevant in the political arena following a series of electoral reverses, Raj Thackeray in his Gudhi Padwa rally on April 2 raked up the issue of loudspeakers atop mosques, which are used to give azan or a call for daily prayers. In a subsequent rally in Thane, he gave an ultimatum to the state government to pull down the loudspeakers by May 3, or else, the MNS would take matters into its own hands. BJP supported MNS’s stand with some of its leaders taking part in maha aarti programmes on Hanuman Jayanti earlier this week which were organised by MNS to protest the use of loudspeakers. Before MNS, the Mumbai BJP had already demanded removal of the loudspeakers in a letter to chief minister Uddhav Thackeray.

Analysts say there are two motives behind such attempts: First to revive the Hindutva agenda in the state which has not seen polarisation among voters on the lines of religion in the last three decades. Second, to corner Sena and the chief minister who heads the three-party Maharashtra Vikas Aghadi (MVA) government.

Test of Hindutva for Sena

Ever since Sena ditched it in 2019, BJP has targeted the former for abandoning the Hindutva ideology for the sake of power, which once brought the two parties together in 1989. Raj has now joined the chorus cornering Sena on two counts – Hindutva and Marathi manoos. Though MNS has adopted saffron ideology over the past two years, it is not clear yet if he has abandoned his party’s core identity – sons of the soil.

To counter BJP, Sena rebranded its Hindutva, and at the same time, slammed its former partner for using Hindutva to gain power. Time and again, Uddhav has said that Sena has cut ties with BJP and not Hindutva.

However, the incidents in the last three weeks have put Sena in a tight spot. Besides the steps taken by the Uddhav Thackeray government to formulate a policy on loudspeakers, the party announced Sena scion and minister Aaditya Thackeray’s visit to Ayodhya in the first week of May.

Political analyst Hemant Desai said Sena was on the backfoot. “Sena is merely reacting to the agenda set by MNS and BJP. They copied MNS by organising Hanuman Chalisa recitals and maha aartis in Mumbai and parts of the state. Hindutva might be their core agenda, but it is not seen as forcefully as it was before the MVA came into existence. The limitation could be as they are in power now,” he said.

On April 10, Uddhav, in a virtual rally to campaign for Congress candidate Jayshree Jadhav in the North Kolhapur assembly bypoll, spoke at length targeting BJP. He said BJP used Hindutva for political gains, while Sena had not changed its flag, colour, and not even its leader since its inception in 1966. In a veiled attack on Raj, he said BJP tried to create a ‘fake Hindu hriday samrat’, but failed.

However, Sena Lok Sabha MP Arvind Sawant dismissed that his party was on the backfoot on the issue. “MNS is working at the behest of BJP, while it [BJP] is attempting to divide people. Hindutva doesn’t mean spreading hatred among people. On the one hand, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh chief says the dream of Akhand Bharat will be realised in 15 years, but BJP is dividing people. How will it happen? If BJP feels strongly about loudspeakers, then it should come up with a national policy,” Sawant said.

MNS’s revival attempt

Raj’s MNS started with the Marathi manoos agenda but veered off to Hindutva on February 23, 2020 – his uncle and Sena founder Bal Thackeray’s birth anniversary. The current situation offers Raj the opportunity to revive his political party, which made an impressive debut but failed to grow. MNS, which had 13 MLAs in 2009, now has only one legislator.

Raj continues to be a crowd-puller but his party failed electorally in the 2019 assembly polls. With local body elections coming up in the state, the party leadership is ready to go to town with its new ideology. Raj is set to address a public rally at Aurangabad on May 1- his third since April 2. Political observers said the rallies could help Raj draw attention to his agenda and might even attract youth to his party.

While BJP can harp on Hindutva to polarise votes, it has limitations on divisive politics in Maharashtra. MNS, with its new saffron flag along with a seal of Chhatrapati Shivaji in the middle, will help BJP on two aspects – Hindutva and Marathi manoos. Using these, BJP could eat into Sena’s vote bank when the local bodies go to the polls in a few months. In return, Raj can manage to revive his party’s fortunes. However, the two have not entered into a formal alliance yet.

Desai said Raj could get electoral success this time as he was expected to get BJP voters’ support as well, which till now was with Sena. “Raj will eventually attempt to have an alliance with BJP, and he is gradually doing the groundwork for it. His aim in the upcoming elections is to eat into Sena votes on Marathi and Hindutva planks. He is likely to get the support of BJP voters as well since he has dropped his anti-Modi stance.”

BJP’s power plan

BJP, which is on the opposition benches in the assembly, wants to wrest control of key urban local bodies and dislodge Sena from the civic bodies in Mumbai, Thane, and Aurangabad, while retaining control of civic bodies in Nashik, Pune, and Pimpri-Chinchwad. In Mumbai, BJP has started a ‘pol-khol’ campaign against the alleged largescale corruption in the Sena-ruled Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC).

Political observers said BJP tested the Hindutva agenda in the North Kolhapur bypoll earlier this month. In the last leg of the campaign, BJP played the saffron card saying the constituency had always stood for Hindutva and would favour its candidate.

According to information from party leaders in the state, senior functionary Sunil Deodhar (who is in charge of Andhra Pradesh) visited Kolhapur on April 6 to gauage the response of voters to hardline Hindutva sentiments. It was taken up by leader of the opposition Devendra Fadnavis who, in his campaign rallies, stressed the Hindutva agenda. The motive was also to draw traditional Sena voters towards BJP.

BJP candidate Satyajeet Kadam, however, lost by over 18,000 votes to Congress’ Jayshree Jadhav but the party got sizeable votes (76,123) against Congress’ 94,717.

BJP targeted Sena for becoming “pseudo-secular” for the sake of power. Sena had won the seat twice before 2019 and its local leaders played an important role in clinching the win for the MVA candidate.

Maharashtra BJP chief spokesperson Keshav Upadhye said, “For BJP, Hindutva and development are two core issues and it would never compromise on them. Sena started with Hindutva but it abandoned it for the sake of power.”

On the raging issue of loudspeakers, Upadhye said, “Every political party has a right to raise an issue. Whatever is according to the law must be done.”

Analysts said BJP would get the electoral benefit from the polarisation of votes. “If communal tensions prevail in the state, the consolidation of Hindu votes will benefit BJP. MNS too will gain from that. As Sena projected itself as the saviour of Hindus in the 1992 riots, MNS can do so now, if a law-and-order situation arises. Besides, anti-incumbency is gradually coming in, due to the arrests of Anil Deshmukh, Nawab Malik, and the alleged corruption in the BMC,” Desai said.

[Writer Swapnil Rawal is Principal Correspondent with the Hindustan Times. He covers urban development and infrastructure. He had long stints with leading national dailies and has experience of over a decade in journalism]. *Views are personal.

Courtesy: Hindustan Times.

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