Maharashtra Navnirman Sena (MNS) is a 12-year-old political party which has failed to move beyond Mumbai, Thane, Kalyan-Dombivali, Pune, Nashik and a handful of other big cities in the state. It's party president Raj Thackeray, however, still enjoys mass popularity. Like his uncle, Shiv Sena founder Bal Thackeray, the 50-year-old is a gifted orator and draws crowds with his evocative speeches.
Over the years, Thackeray has routinely managed to grasp the mood of the people, and reached out to them by addressing them in a language they can understand. Like he did on Thursday, when he addressed over 15,000 people in Mumbai. A notable feature of his Thursday rally was the manner in which he got the support of people across different communities, unlike the Raj Thackeray of old who had little to offer beyond the 'Marathi manoos' plank.
His march from Metro theatre in South Mumbai to the Western Railway headquarters in Churchgate was a show of anger against the city's crumbling civic infrastructure, which he blamed for the stampede that took place at Elphistone Road station on 29 September. Twenty-three people were killed in the stampede, and Raj Thackeray pinned the blame squarely on the railways.
Accompanied by wife Sharmila, son Amit and daughter Urvashi, Thackeray highlighted issues he said were hindering the railways — hawkers encroaching the foot-over bridges and platforms, entrances and approaches to the station, and the peripheral areas adjoining the station.
And these words seem to have had an impact. The Central Railway issued a press note on Friday, one day after Thackeray's rally, and said it will clamp down on unauthorised hawkers and beggars at all stations.
"All station masters to please note that unauthorised hawkers/vendors, beggars or those indulging in any unlawful activity within station premises, or obstructing free movement of passengers at stations or within the circulating area, should be immediately brought to the notice of RPF/GRP/ticket checking staff. The station master should take photographs of such activities and forward them to RPF/GRP controls. They will maintain date-wise records of these messages in a register kept at the station," the release said.
Rail commuters said by highlighting real issues impacting them, Thackeray ensured their support. Hitherto, his sons-of-the-soil and 'Marathi manoos' planks used to have little appeal beyond the Maharashtrian community, but by focussing on civic infrastructure, he managed to cut across communal lines and unite everyday commuters.
Pratik Gala, a businessman from Kandivali who travels to Marine Lines everyday, said, "The business community has thrown its weight behind Raj Thackeray. Things were so crowded, there was no space to walk on most railway platforms. Hawkers were everywhere on the railway premises," Gala alleged.
He said Raj Thackeray's deadline to the railways, of having all foot-over bridges cleared of hawkers within 15 days has met with wide approval.
Hitesh Jain, a 65-year-old commuter who travelled from Andheri to Masjid Bunder on the Harbour line, said, "We need basic railway infrastructure first. Bullet Train can wait."
The success of this march would come as much-needed salvation for Thackeray, who has suffered a series of electoral defeats in recent years, and saw cousin Uddhav overtake him on the popularity stakes.
In the 2014 Lok Sabha and Assembly election, MNS fared poorly. In the Assembly election, especially, it could garner only 3.10 percent of voteshare, down from 11.88 percent in 2009. It had won 13 seats in 2009, which went down to just the one solitary seat five years later. Earlier this year, in elections to Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC), the MNS' voteshare went down from 20.10 percent to 7.74 percent, while the number of elected corporators the party sent went from 28 in 2012 to seven in 2017. It was clear that the party was on a downward spiral.
MLAs, including Ram Kadam, Pravin Darekar, and dozens of other corporators have also left the party since 2014. The party is clearly hoping that the improved morale among its cadre following the successful rally will mean it could bounce back from those dark days. A senior MNS leader, on condition of anonymity, said the party will continue focussing on issues that impact the common man, like hawkers, traffic jams, potholes, and transportation woes.
"Raj saheb has made several changes to the party structure, and is positioning it on public issues over the last six months. To be seen on social media, we launched a Facebook page to reach out to lakhs of our supporters. We are connected to Mumbaikars, as was evident by the outpouring of support. And we're not doing this for votebank politics, but rather anger against inadequate facilities for Mumbaikars," said Avinash Abhyankar, MNS spokesperson.
"What wrong did those 23 people do? Why did they lose their lives in the stampede? We want better infrastructure for a city like Mumbai. Following our morcha, the ministry is also looking at these issues more seriously. We gave them a 15-day ultimatum; we can hope they can fix things by then," Abhyankar claimed.
Updated Date: Oct 06, 2017 20:22 PM