You may love him, you may hate him, but you can't ignore him. This is the political consensus on Raj Thackeray, president of the Maharashtra Navnirman Sena (MNS).
With its dramatic and violent ways, Thackeray’s eight-year-old political outfit--a breakaway faction of the Shiv Sena--has managed to entrench itself deeply into Maharashtra politics. But though it is a game-changer, it hasn’t been able to become a major political force.
The party is floundering, searching for an identity to separate itself from the shadow of the Sena. For instance, with the recent anti-toll campaign, the MNS tried to portray itself as anti-establishment, and an alternative similar to the AAP. But the campaign fizzled out, and the promises made by chief minister Prithviraj Chavan were never fulfilled.
A young party formed out of rebellion from the Sena, the MNS has always made national headlines.
The main attraction is its charismatic and aggressive leader Raj Thackeray, who is a spitting image of his uncle and mentor, late Sena chief Bal Thackeray.
One call by Thackeray and his boisterous brigade, most of them former Sainiks, thrashed north Indian cabbies, got shops to put up boards in Marathi, and vandalised toll nakas.
Thackeray also proved his mettle in the 2009 Lok Sabha elections where it dented the Shiv Sena-Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) prospects in all the Mumbai seats that the MNS contested.
In the same year's state elections, the three-year-old party managed to get 13 seats, leaving the Opposition huffing.
But today, the MNS, though able to trigger fear in the minds of others, finds itself testing the waters, unsure of how to progress.
Till now, Thackeray was riding on issues appealing to the sons of the soil — his uncle’s pet issue. But that doesn’t seem to be working anymore and the lack of a real agenda has left the party cadre struggling.
His recent decision to declare support to BJP’s prime ministerial candidate Narendra Modi, and then field candidates against the BJP’s ally, the Sena, has created even more confusion.
A one-man show
Thackeray has a battery of advisors, including friends, builders, lawyers, media persons and some of his party legislators who brainstorm with him. But the final decision is always his. Starting off, Thackeray had put a structure into place, quite similar to the Sena, running up to local area offices. But he never developed a strong second-rung leadership, which plays an important role in expanding the party and implementing its agenda.
In fact, the party is entirely dependent on the MNS chief for the smallest of decisions.
“The main reason he has not been able to establish himself is because of the way he conducted the party affairs. He lost a good chance after 2009. Now, unless he puts forth a fool-proof revival plan to his cadre, it is a lost case,” said political commentator Prakash Bal.
A senior Sena leader close to Thackeray said the MNS chief has the potential to lead a party, but he lost the plot in trying to ape his uncle.
“He has the charisma and the oratorical skills. But that alone can’t take you anywhere. You need to build an organisation, roam around the state, and address people’s issues to have a party base. Just giving inciting and aggressive speeches will not win elections,” the leader said.
Lack of clarity
Confusion is the one word that defines Thackeray's state of mind, which, in turn, reflects the mood inside the party.
His sporadic ways of suddenly creating noise and then remaining quiet for a long period are major reasons why the party hasn't been able to grow.
His recent explanation that he wants to have the last word didn’t convince his grass-root worker or the voters.
A small-time MNS worker from Thane said juniors in the party have no clarity about how to proceed.
“Rajsaheb told us there would be a blueprint on which we will work, but that never came. Now, he has asked us to back Modi and work against the local candidates from Sena-BJP. What does he mean? What do I tell the voters?” the 27-year-old said.
This is a question no one seems to have an answer to.
However, senior party leaders claimed all this was part of a bigger conspiracy. “Why are you assuming that we will damage the Opposition seats? We have several voters who are both against the Sena and the Congress-NCP, which we will score,” said senior legislator Bala Nandgaonkar, adding that this may even benefit the NDA.
Another legislator, who refused to be named, referred to this as ‘new beginnings’. “Right now the BJP is not in a position to leave the Sena alliance as they need the numbers. After the parliamentary elections, we will see a different front coming ahead,” he said.
While this may be true, for most, Thackeray’s actions seem nothing short of political trouble.