New Delhi: Maharashtra Navnirman Sena, or MNS, chief Raj Thackeray’s fresh warnings against Chhat puja, the most popular festival of Bihar, and the recent attacks on north Indians in Mumbai have together posed the Congress party a new political challenge ahead of key state elections, including in Delhi —home to thousands of people from Bihar.
The problem has compounded, with several allies in the ruling United Progressive Alliance (UPA) and Opposition parties accusing the Congress, which leads the coalition in Maharashtra, of not doing enough to reign in the MNS.
Addressing a press conference in Mumbai on Friday, Thackeray, whose MNS had unleashed a series of attacks on north Indians in recent months, warned he would oppose people belonging to Bihar from performing Chhat puja if “it is politicized”.
Against ‘tamasha’: A file photo of MNS chief Raj Thackeray in Mumbai. Shashank Parade / PTI
“I have never opposed Chhat puja but only spoke against political tamasha (stunt) associated with it,” he said, adding that he would not tolerate disregard of the Marathi-speaking people in the state.
Thackeray’s outbursts came a day after key ministers in the UPA government, including some from the Congress, had sought the Centre’s intervention to arrest the MNS chief under the National Security Act. The Congress allies—Bihar-based Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) and Lok Janshakti Party (LJP), and the Samajwadi Party (SP)—have been pressurizing it to advise the Maharashtra government for strong action against the violence against north Indians by the MNS.
According to finance minister P. Chidambaram, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has written a “strongly-worded letter” to the Maharashtra chief minister.
MNS general secretary Shishir Shinde said in a telephone interview that the demand to arrest Thackeray was part of “politics of revenge”.
“My leader has already asked whether Lalu Prasad was arrested when 1,200 murders took place during his chief ministership in Bihar. This is politics of revenge,” he said.
Raj Thackeray, nephew of Shiv Sena supremo Bal Thackeray, broke away from the Shiv Sena when the former made his son Uddhav Thackeray the president of his party in 2005. Raj Thackeray’s MNS had grabbed attention when party workers attacked the Hindi-speaking people in Maharashtra.
While some Congress leaders claim Thackeray’s emergence would create cracks in the support base of main opposition Shiv Sena in Maharashtra, other senior leaders say failure to protect Hindi-speaking people in the state would damage Congress’ prospects in the polls in Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Rajasthan and Delhi.
Bihar politicians expressed fear that there could be rise in attacks during Chhat puja—a ritual to worship the sun. It will be celebrated for three days beginning 2 November.
The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), main rival of the Congress in the elections due by the end of the year in six states, and which shared power with Shiv Sena in Maharashtra from 1995-1999, alleged MNS’ activities were a “ploy” created by the Congress to divide Shiv Sena’s vote bank.
“The Frankenstein created by the Congress out of Raj Thackeray to electoral benefit will boomerang,” said Prakash Javadekar, a BJP member of Parliament.
“The Congress is committed to secularism and will do everything possible to see that secular programmes and rituals of all religion are conducted without disruptions,” said Gurudas Kamat, Maharashtra state Congress committee president.
Taking exception to the LJP’s demand for the government’s dismissal, Kamat said, “Our allies, if they are genuine allies, should not make use of the opportunities to attack the party and the government.”
However, some Congress leaders privately admitted that the Raj Thackeray-led violence against north Indians would benefit the state’s ruling coalition.
Although there were efforts in the past to woo the around 15 million migrant population in Mumbai, the party also needs the Maratha support base. The community is a dominant political force.
In the 2004 assembly elections, the Congress won 21.06% of votes, the NCP 18.75%, the BJP 13.67% and the Shiv Sena 19.97%.
Sociologist Dipankar Gupta, a professor at the Jawaharlal Nehru University, said that Raj Thackeray turned from being a nobody to a hero, thanks to the Congress-NCP government.