DNE does not exist. That is what is written against the Maharashtra Navnirman Senas (MNS) name in the Election Commissions data on Maharashtra Assembly elections in 2004. Five years later the MNS won 13 Assembly seats, a major achievement for a fledgling party.
Led by Raj Thackeray, nephew of Shiv Sena supremo Bal Thackeray, the MNS was expected to cause a dent in the Shiv Sena-Bharatiya Janata Party vote in the just-concluded elections. And it did more than that. To begin with, it played spoiler by splitting the vote in some of the saffron combines bastions and thus contributing to the success of the Congress-Nationalist Congress Party alliance. The icing on the cake was the 13 seats the party won after contesting from 148 constituencies not an insignificant number for a three-year-old party.
In the run-up to the elections, some even thought that Raj Thackeray would be a king-maker. This may have been a bit far-fetched but the possibility could not be ruled out, judging from the clout and potentiality of regional parties. The MNS did even better than the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), which is older and has been working longer in the State. The BSP contested 281 seats but won none.
Whether it was his Marathi manus campaign or the right choice of candidates that saw him through, Raj Thackeray certainly had the winning formula. For someone whom political observers and detractors had dismissed as an upstart and a shallow imitation of his uncle, Raj has come a long way. He has found his footing in State politics . According to a party official, since neither the Congress-led Democratic Front nor the Sena-BJP combine had delivered on their promises, the MNS came in as a welcome option for voters who wanted a change.
The MNS contested 11 seats in the recent Lok Sabha elections but came a cropper. The general elections were only a rehearsal for the State elections, and the party strategically planned for the latter. The Lok Sabha seats that the MNS contested were in urban areas: Mumbai, Thane, Pune and Nashik. The Assembly constituencies it won from also fell within the same areas.
According to Sunil Hershe, a party spokesperson, MNS candidates won over one lakh votes in each of the parliamentary constituencies they contested. Hershe points out that in the five seats in Mumbai the Sena-BJP and the MNS had polled more votes than the Congress-NCP. The MNS therefore planned to play spoiler during the Assembly elections too.
The MNS targeted the urban voter. Eleven of its victories were in city constituencies. The party won all three Assembly seats in Nashik, two in Thane district, six in Mumbai and one in Pune. It also won Mahim, another traditional Sena stronghold.
In the past few years, MNS workers have been active in these areas strengthening their cadre and also working for the people. We need to see if they will continue to perform, said Roopa Deshmukh, a social worker in Mahim.
Shalini Gupte, a resident of Ghatkopar (West), which went to the MNS, said: The other parties seemed old and jaded, and the MNS looked like it will do something. I only hope it does not use communal politics to achieve its goals.
Maybe it was because the other candidates lacked energy that Raj Thackeray appeared very dynamic, said Murali Reddy of South Mumbai. I am not sure whether one can agree with his type of politics, but let us see what he eventually brings to the table.
His problem, similar to that of his uncles, is that he tends to get abusive. Making fun of Sonia Gandhis accent is not politics. If you fight, fight fair, said Jayashree Kumar from Colaba. The MNS does not have an ideology other than what it took from the Sena, which itself does not have any fundamentals.
Raj Thackeray launched his party in March 2006. Three months earlier, he had quit the Shiv Sena owing to differences with his cousin Uddhav Thackeray, son of Bal Thackeray. Uddhavs appointment as party chief had not gone down well with Raj, who at that time seemed more qualified to take on the mantle.
Raj brought to the MNS the same brand of politics that the Shiv Sena propagated. He based his party on Hindutva ideologies. He also borrowed the belligerence and virulent rhetoric of the parent party. In fact, while he was in the Sena, he was responsible for recruiting and training cadre as well as orchestrating some of the violence Sainiks unleashed from time to time.
Upon launching the party, Raj picked on sensitive issues such as unemployment and housing.
However, the attack on North Indians, particularly those from Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, did not augur well for the young Thackeray. He was arrested in 2008 for his anti-North-Indian tirade and alleged involvement in some of the attacks.
Like the Sena, the MNS established its identity by contesting municipal elections. Hershe notes that the MNS has about 80 corporators in the civic bodies of Nashik, Pune and Mumbai.
The Shiv Sena appears lost after the election debacle. Uddhav says he is not scared of Raj, but it is becoming apparent that the latter is a force to reckon with.
The new Maharashtra Chief Minister Ashok Chavan has warned Raj Thackeray that he cannot use muscle power and violence on people, and if he does, the state will not take it lightly. It can only be hoped that the cub is growing up and will bare his teeth only for constructive causes.