“People need to wake up early in the morning to run a party,” Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) chief Sharad Pawar had said after Raj Thackeray launched his own political outfit, Maharashtra Navnirman Sena (MNS), in 2006.
Eleven years later, none is very sure whether Raj wakes up in the morning. But what is known is the party of late Bal Thackeray’s nephew is floundering and is not even in the reckoning in the elections to the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation, the civic body with an annual budget more than Goa’s.
The elections are scheduled for next month, but few are giving the MNS any realistic chance of reaching a double-digit tally in the 227-member body. The contest, experts say, is between the Shiv Sena, BJP, and the Congress.
Political analysts say Raj wasted his political capital. “Raj Thackeray is viewed more as an entertainer than a politician,” remarked Prakash Bal, a political commentator. “The people appreciate his speeches but do not vote for him.”
Party insiders point out Raj never made an attempt to build the organisation. More crucially, it fell out of touch with people’s issues. A common complaint is he rarely interacts with party workers on the ground. “Raj saheb has no time for party activities, like opening our local offices or listening to our grievances. Getting access to him is a task,” said an MNS office-bearer unwilling to be identified. A former party legislator said, “People surrounding Raj saheb have absolutely no knowledge of ground realities. A clutch of people are running the party like their fiefdom.”
Issues that pricked the Marathi manoos five years ago are no longer relevant today. The party also faces a shortage of funds, which it blames on demonetisation. The average party worker is confused because of a lack of clear direction from the top.
- Strengths: Raj Thackeray’s charisma. He is still one of the most influential orators in Maharashtra politics. In addition, both the Congress and the BJP see MNS as a medium to tame the Shiv Sena.
- Weaknesses: MNS’s overdependence on Raj Thackeray, lack of organisational coherence and second-rung leaders, coterie culture and difficulty of access to the party leader.
- Opportunities: MNS still has some following among young Maharashtrians in cities like Mumbai, Pune and Nashik. It can use a potential setback to the Sena in Mumbai polls to claim a significant chunk of opposition space.
- Threats: MNS has not been able to go beyond the son-of-the-soil agenda and, therefore, fails to appeal to the other sections of voters. Prime Minister Narendra Modi has attracted a large section of young Maharashtrians, which further erodes Raj’s support base.
No longer interested in agendas, Raj is hoping to benefit from the multi-cornered contest for municipal seats. An MNS leader said, “The BJP will help us in many seats where the Sena is strong, as their focus is on damaging the Sena.” The party’s only hope is the BJP and Sena contest separately in Mumbai, so it can use the former’s help to win its voters back from the latter.
It has been a steep downhill journey for the leader. He started with a bang, winning 13 assembly seats in 2009 and thereafter expanded the party’s base beyond Mumbai. In the 2012 municipal polls, it won the majority in Nashik and a sizeable number of seats in Pune. At the peak of its power, the MNS forced every political player, including the Congress and NCP, to speak the language of localised anger.
However, the MNS soon started losing steam. In 2014, MNS could not retain any of the 13 seats it won in 2009. However, it won one assembly seat in Pune. Most of its big-time leaders have deserted it for greener pastures. Many of its Mumbai councillors have also defected ahead of the February 21 civic polls.
Raj’s declining political fortunes have opened him to derision: he is all smoke and no fire, say some. But he does make news and force the powerful to cower before him. Only last month, Shar Rukh Khan had to visit and mollify him as his latest release, Raees, features a Pakistani actress.
Raj, though, remains unfazed. “I am not bothered what the media says about me. The people are clever to judge,” he said recently. Mumbaikars have a month left to make the judgement.