The Maharashtra Navnirman Sena seeks to project itself as a political force suited to the new era.
FAR from being a knee-jerk response, the formation of the Maharashtra Navnirman Sena (MNS) is a carefully thought-out move from Raj Thackeray. The 38-year-old nephew of Shiv Sena supremo Bal Thackeray could easily have formed a party when he quit the Shiv Sena in December last year. He could have taken full advantage of the byelections in the Konkan in January.
Victory in a single seat in that Sena-dominated region would have added considerably to his following. But he says he chose to wait and think what he exactly wanted his new party to be. These are early days, yet for the one and a half lakh supporters who turned up at the launch on March 19, the MNS may live up to its name of being a party of the new era.
Predictions have been flowing thick and fast ever since Raj announced his resignation from the Shiv Sena. Initially dismissive of his nephew, Bal Thackeray later realised the seriousness of the situation and tried to soft-pedal the fragmentation of his family by saying that it was an internal matter and would not damage the party.
Later, finding his nephew unyielding, Thackeray turned to his favourite form of criticism. He mocked his nephew by saying that his popularity and fortunes were inextricably linked to the Sena. Finding him still resolute, Bal Thackeray resorted to bullying, by forbidding the use of his image.
The Sena supremo failed on all counts. Raj did manage to pull off the launch of his party in an impressive manner. A large crowd that assembled at Mumbai's Shivaji Park was treated to a show that can only be described as modern.
From the bar on bowing low and touching the leader's feet to the relatively brief speeches, the clean graphic lines of the stage and the podium, the choice of traditional but not raucous music, and the efficient use of video technology, the public meeting was very un-Sena-like.
If the numbers and the type of people at the MNS launch were anything to go by, then Bal Thackeray may repent being dismissive about his nephew's abilities to pull crowds. It would be a misreading of the situation not to say that the MNS succeeded in provoking the curiosity, if nothing else, of the urban educated youth.
Pre-launch fanfare had ensured that there was a visible presence of Dalits and Muslims. While the former had tenuous ties with the Sena, the latter have always harboured a deep and understandable suspicion of the party that has usually referred to them in derogatory terms. For Raj to have broken the ice with the Muslim "contingent" (as one party worker referred to them) is something that should worry not only the Sena but also other political parties.
Raj himself tried to project the MNS as being disinterested in vote bank politics though the message of the speeches made by his righthand men was the opposite. The MNS flag took centre stage literally with every speaker explaining the significance of its design; the blue strip being representative of Dalits and the green being a welcome sign for Muslims. Not surprisingly, the saffron band is the broadest.
While Raj claims to eschew the Sena's brand of Hindutva, his views on his own brand are somewhat unformed. Inclusive politics and a wider, secular philosophy - that is how Raj is projecting his new party and his own new avatar.
The image is probably a shock to Raj himself; he takes great pains to explain the change. "You may wonder how I say everyone is welcome in Maharashtra when just a while ago I was involved with the Railway Board incident (the Sena had attacked north Indians who were travelling to Mumbai for the Railway Board exam). Those exams are held in different parts of the country to provide jobs, in various regions. If north Indians travel to Mumbai for those jobs, what happens to the unemployed here?"
He sums up his new image, saying: "Change is the key to progress".
The adage about the apple not falling far from the apple tree may well be applicable to Raj and his new promises but the fact is that Raj does have many supporting elements that can lead his party to success. These can maximise the advantages of being the youngest political leader in the State and minimise the disadvantages of no longer having the platform of the Shiv Sena.
The initial doubts about Raj being able to attract Sena loyalists were quickly put to rest. Although they were not present on the dais, those who have linked themselves with the MNS are the sons of three prominent Sena leaders - Atul Sarpotdar, son of Madhukar Sarpotdar, Arafat Sheikh, son of Shabbir Sheikh, and Rajan Shirodkar, son of Adhik Shirodkar, a criminal lawyer who represented the Sena in the Srikrishna Commission inquiry.
Furthermore, Raj's business partner is Unmesh Joshi, son of former Chief Minister and Lok Sabha Speaker Manohar Joshi. It is ironical that Joshi senior and Raj have been at loggerheads with Joshi promoting Bal Thakeray's son Uddhav Thackeray as a potential leader instead of Raj.
Raj is also banking greatly on Muslim support. Despite his seeming lack of interest in vote bank politics, Raj is astute enough to realise the importance of Muslim votes. Hence the green element in his party's flag.
Despite projecting the MNS as a State-wide party, there is no doubt that Raj is concentrating on Mumbai where he will take on the Sena in next year's civic elections. He plans to contest about 100 of the 227 seats in the Mumbai municipal corporation.
The launch of the MNS also has implications for the State's politics. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), for one, will be praying for Raj's success. It has always been a sore point with the BJP that despite being the party with a national presence, it is the lesser partner in the saffron alliance in Maharasthra. If Raj's party does indeed splinter the Sena, then the BJP will once again nurture hopes of being the senior partner.
Incidentally, the BJP had the same hopes when Narayan Rane quit the Sena and began poaching on Sena legislators. The Sena survived that and it is quite possible that it will survive any onslaught Raj may have planned.
It should be remembered that Rane was bent on exacting some form of revenge on the Sena, while Raj is more intent on proving himself as a leader in his own right. To this extent he has been projecting a brand of politics that he hopes will be seen as refreshing. His speech is peppered with farmer's rights to electricity and irrigation, of providing employment and "filling empty bellies", of the safety of women, of Dalit rights and citizens' rights. He even broke his own idols by questioning the Sena's obsession with renaming everything after Shivaji.
For Raj, the party does not just mean stepping out of the urban Sena mould, but it is also a way for him to project himself as a thinking, people's politician.
For the Sena it is yet another reminder that autocracy will not prevent dissent. For Maharashtra politics the formation of the MNS is something of a tribute as well as a reminder that all is not well in the State. A tribute because the State's liberal atmosphere has accommodated one more party and a warning because clearly there is unrest among voters about the abilities of existing parties.