In May 2009, addressing a rally in Pune, Maharashtra Navnirman Sena (MNS) chief Raj Thackeray had declared that there was no one more capable than Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi to lead India. It was a forceful declaration, making many who were seriously thinking of a partnership with the MNS cringe. One week ago, however, Raj’s fondness for Modi fell by several degrees. He was upset that the BJP’s mascot did not acknowledge the late Shiv Sena chief Bal Thackeray in his speech. Modi has addressed two political rallies in Mumbai, both at the Bandra Kurla Complex grounds located behind the Thackeray residence. Though the Shiv Sena has been an alliance partner of the BJP for more than two decades, the BJP did not invite the Sena to the rallies.
“When a person like Narendra Modi does not acknowledge Balasaheb, it is disrespect,” Raj thundered, addressing the audience at a programme he was invited to speak at. Claiming that it was Balasaheb who gave the BJP its strength in Mumbai by allowing an alliance, Raj berated Modi for ignoring such a ‘towering’ personality.
He also criticised the Gujarati community in Mumbai, and warned them that Mumbai is for Marathis and not Gujaratis. This is a deviation from his anti-North Indian stance, which involved issuing similar warnings to migrants from Bihar and UP especially. Raj declared that Gujaratis must respect Maharashtrians. “Gujaratis live in Mumbai but take away all that they earn back to Gujarat and make that state prosperous. So why live here? Go back to Gujarat,” he said.
Two years ago, Raj had gone on a nine-day visit to Gujarat to study Modi’s development model and visited the Surat Municipal Corporation. This had been prior to local elections of the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC). At the time, he had been all praise for Modi as he was keen on gathering Gujarat voters to his side in his battle against his cousin Uddhav Thackeray, president of the Shiv Sena.
In fact, Raj has been consistent in his endorsement of Modi’s leadership abilities over the past two years. But then, two years ago, Raj was trying to convert the strong resentment among BJP voters, a huge percentage of whom are Gujaratis, against the lack of leadership within the party to his advantage.
Now that a Lok Sabha election is around the corner, Raj has pulled off a complete U-turn. This time, it is Marathi manoos votes that he is keen on netting. During previous years when the MNS unleashed violence against migrants from north India, Modi had invited them all to Gujarat. “This state is open to all, anyone can come here”, was Modi’s reply to the MNS stand.
It is unlikely that Gujarati voters will forget Raj’s diatribe against them. The majority of businesses in Mumbai are run by the Gujaratis. Unlike north Indian migrants, local Gujaratis are a well-heeled population; their contribution to Mumbai has been dynamic. Raj is well aware of the fact that Gujaratis stand to lose substantially if a ‘Mumbai for Marathis’ agitation gets going. Raj’s main grouse against Gujaratis is that they employ Marathi speakers to do menial work and accord them no respect. This has to change, the MNS leader now says.
Raj is, in fact, following in the footsteps of his uncle Bal Thackeray, who launched an agitation against Gujaratis in the 60s and 70s, and gave it up for an agitation against South Indians.