Mumbai / Thane: It is widely credited with taking away enough votes from the Bharatiya Janata Party-Shiv Sena combine in this year’s Lok Sabha elections in Maharashtra, helping the Congress-Nationalist Congress Party alliance, but the Maharashtra Navnirman Sena (MNS) could hurt both sides in Tuesday’s elections in Maharashtra—the first for the party that was formed in 2006 as a splinter cell of the Shiv Sena.
“It is a myth that MNS dents only the Sena vote bank since it also affects the Congress, though of course, the damage it can cause the former is greater. Those voters who have been voting for the Congress but are now fed up of it will also vote for MNS,” said Kumar Ketkar, editor of Marathi daily Loksatta.
In March 2006, Raj Thackeray, Shiv Sena founder Bal Thackeray’s nephew broke away from the family enterprise and formed the MNS.
Analysts and politicians say the party’s influence will be felt strongly in the Mumbai-Thane region, which alone accounts for 60 of the 288 seats in the state assembly.
“The MNS factor is likely to play out more in Mumbai-Thane because they are predominantly urban areas and people here are more emotional. The Marathi issue does not resonate as emotionally with people in rural areas,” said Ketkar.
Interestingly, the increase in the number of seats in this region, a result of an exercise to give regions as much representation as their population warrants, has made Mumbai-Thane the key in deciding “who comes to power in the state”, according to a Congress party general secretary who asked not to be identified.
The two main rival combines in Maharashtra recognize MNS’ power to hurt them.
“It is not as if MNS eats into only the Sena vote share. It affects the Congress-NCP as well,” said Shiv Sena leader and member of Parliament Sanjay Raut.
That’s a view seconded by Milind Deora, a Congress member of Parliament. “It is incorrect to say the MNS damages only the Sena-BJP. It also affects the Congress-NCP, depending on the area in question.”
The party in question, however, sees itself as more than a mere spoiler.
“For the MNS, it is not a question of dividing anybody’s votes. We have been around for three years now and have considerable clout, especially in Mumbai, Thane, Nashik and some parts of Marathwada as well as Vidarbha,” said MNS leader Shirish Parkar. “Our main constituency is the youth, the new voters as well as women.”
Mission Maharashtra: (left) MNS chief Raj Thackeray brandishes a sword at an election rally in Mumbai on Friday (Santosh Hirlekar/PTI); MNS candidate from Sewri, Mumbai, Bala Nandgaonkar meets women from his constituency on 2 October. (Abhijit Bhatlekar/Mint)
Like the Shiv Sena, MNS has been running a campaign against “outsiders” and migrants in the state and has modelled itself as the champion of the Marathi cause.
The fact that the party has never been in power and the absence of any real issues in these elections could work to its advantage, say analysts.
“It is an issueless election and hence the artificial issue of Marathi pride has been created, which does not resonate across the state. People are completely disillusioned with the political leaders here and are looking for fresh faces, which is what Raj Thackeray provides,” said Ketkar. “It is not as if the voters agree with his ideology or like him much, but the first and second time voters and the youth, are likely to vote for him.”
That could explain the significant difference of opinion on the party, even within the same neigbourhood.
“We vote for the MNS because they fight for the Marathi cause. Why should people from outside take away our jobs?” said Pramod Bhide, a voter in Mahim constituency.
His neighbour differs.
“We do not support the lumpenism of Raj Thackeray. We vote for the candidate who works for us,” said another voter in the same constituency.
Irrespectrive of the outcome of the election, however, there is a question mark over the post-poll options of MNS. It cannot ally with the Shiv Sena. And the Congress has said it wants nothing to do with the party.