By Smita Deshmukh
It was exactly 10 years ago today, Raj Thackeray launched his own political party - Maharashtra Navnirman Sena (MNS) at a big show of strength in Shivaji Park. As someone who attended the launch, I still recall the enthusiasm and excitement amongst thousands of his cadre. A new star had arrived on the state political scene. Raj Thackeray was hailed as a game changer in Maharashtra politics.
Circa 2016 - MNS is almost reduced to an inconsequential political party. Top cadre has deserted Thackeray and a party is just reduced to one MLA in the Maharashtra state assembly. So what went wrong with the superstar? The 47-year-old-leader who would command over one lakh crowd for any public gathering on his own, is now fighting a lonely battle for survival.
Here are 10 things which Raj Thackeray did wrong:
Attacked his mentor, followed the same style: I remember that famous speech outside his Dadar residence Krishna Kunj, when he announced that he is finally leaving Shiv Sena in November 2005. Blaming the lack of democracy in his party, Raj publicly castigated the coterie around Balasaheb Thackeray, saying: "My fight is not with my Vithal (a diety) but with the badwes (priests) surrounding him," he announced. In the background, a group of young leaders cheered lustily.
In less than a decade later, a majority of this cheering squad voices an almost similar angst against Raj. The biggest anger of the cadre was leaders surrounding Raj and the leader's inaccessibility. The success of 2009 insulated him further and he only relied on the advice of an inner coterie and a few journalists whom he is close to.
Unable to control political downfall: From the high in 2009 state assembly elections, when the then three-year-old party won 13 seats in the 288-member state's legislative assembly, the party was reduced to just one seat in 2014 state polls. All sitting MLAs lost their seats and the party was decimated, managing just 3.1 per cent of the total votes polled.
While fluctuation in votes may be a reality in the organic growth of all political entities, what has exacerbated Thackeray's problems is the large-scale desertion by his one-time associates, many of whom were instrumental in helping the party to grow. Of the 13 MNS MLA's elected in 2009, five have switched over to the BJP while the majority of the rest are in political hibernation. The biggest loss was desertion of top leaders like Pravin Darekar, Vasant Geete and Ram Kadam.
Victim of his own larger-than-life image: Raj Thackeray succeeded in drawing a crowd in his rallies but failed to convert it into votes. Moreover, the MNS chief is solely responsible for party's disastrous performance, as he is the only known face of the party. A fledgling party needed a strong and dedicated second rung of leaders who have ears to the ground to ensure its growth. That never happened. The party was him and he was the party. The big image turned out to be a trap.
Lack of concrete agenda: MNS's campaign against North Indians backfired badly. Though Raj insisted that he was against the divisive politics of the UP, Bihar politicians, the MNS cadre's hooliganism against ordinary North Indians in the city created stir. Raj earned brownie points of symbolic jail arrest, but the agitation was bound to die. Similar case was with the campaign against toll booths, where Raj is accused of raising up an issue and then allegedly "negotiating" and stepping down from the cause.
Flip Flop on Narendra Modi: After becoming the first state leader to support Modi, Raj did a much-publicised tour of Gujarat. With the death of Balasaheb Thackeray, the Sena was limping into a leadership crisis. Stating that he won't contest 2014 LS polls to ensure the saffron vote doesn't divide; Raj suddenly turned bitter anti-Modi in state polls and in this, failed to benefit from the changing dynamics of the country and the state thanks to anti-incumbency against Congress-NCP. His strategy of creating Gujarat vs Maharashtra in the campaign did not work and further alienated the non-Marathi vote. In the three corner contest, MNS was decimated in 2014 polls.
The chicken soup that angered the sainik soul: Raj's claim that during his last days no one took care Balasaheb Thackeray, who he claimed survived thanks to the chicken soup sent from his house, was the last blow to many faithful Marathi people. Even die-hard Raj fans felt this public statement was nothing but a personal attack on his cousin and Sena President Uddhav Thackeray. The public sentiment went against him completely.
Failure to convince voters on governance: The MNS leader failed to understand that the Marathi platform is not appealing the youth any longer. Prior to the state elections, MNS had published its 'blueprint', claiming it as a roadmap for the development of the state, which offered good governance. But the people of Maharashtra were not convinced. When asked about what the party had done in city of Nasik, where he was in power, Raj asked people to wait for results. But the patience has waned, the crowds have thinned and media coverage reduced.
A party of consultants: Top leaders deserting, cadre unhappy with inner coterie and failure on governance front...Raj Thackeray's problems are multi-fold. His obsession with consultants preparing various projects for MNS to pursue is one strategy which his party men dislike. Fancy ideas by these suited booted people, who have no inkling of ground realities on all issues affecting the state, is the story so far.
A man of ego: Raj emulates the Balasaheb Thackeray's style of politics, his mannerisms, but one aspect where he went horribly wrong was the way to deal with cadre. Balasaheb cultivated a strong line of second rung leaders, he was accessible to sainiks. Those leaving the party were spoken too and efforts were made to get them back. All MNS leaders leaving the party were allowed to go without a chance of discussion. The hurt is too deep for anyone to return. The ego is perhaps the single biggest reason why the MNS does not have any organisational structure today.
Misjudged Uddhav Thackeray: Raj always projected Uddhav as inexperienced, soft leader who does not fit into the Sena style of politics. From a situation when sainiks were worried about the future of their party post Balasaheb's death, to the resounding success on his own in 2014 state polls, winning 63 seats, Uddhav Thackeray proved everyone wrong. He chose to stay away from Raj and build a party bringing son Aditya in forefront. Besides being part of the government, Sena is all confident in face of 2017 civic polls in Mumbai.
So can Raj Thackeray and his party survive the new political equations in Maharashtra? Looks like a herculean task. The coming civic poll in Mumbai and satellite cities is his last chance. Can he consolidate the party in areas where it had influence and where there is potential, is to be seen. Or else he would remain a leader who promised but failed to deliver