For a three-year-old party to diminish the aura surrounding a four-decade-old outfit that has been synonymous with Marathi pride so far, was a mammoth task but Raj Thackeray and his Maharashtra Navanirman Sena did just that. The MNS dashed the hopes of Raj's estranged cousin and Shiv Sena executive president Uddhav, who has to carry forward his father Bal Thackeray's legacy, by bagging 13 seats in their maiden assembly poll foray.
Sena citadels in Mumbai and Thane have crumbled under Raj's assault. The ruling combine beat incumbency blues, just one short of the magic figure of 145 in the 288-member House. In Mumbai alone, where the MNS scored around 24 per cent votes, leaving Sena (18 per cent) behind, Raj's outfit, in its maiden foray in the assembly polls, prevented the Shiv Sena-BJP alliance from winning 11 seats. The MNS marred Sena's prospects by not only splitting the "Marathi" vote but also emerging as the second largest party in Mumbai with six seats, ahead of Sena's tally of 4. Before the elections, Raj had announced that no government could be formed without his support. That did not happen but the MNS chief can take solace in the fact that the results of the assembly polls indicate the true inheritor of Bal Thackeray's legacy. With two seats behind Bharatiya Janata Party's tally of 46, the Sena may now have to concede the Opposition Leader's post to its saffron ally.
The MNS polled around 5.7 per cent of the state's vote, eating into Sena, and in some places, the Nationalist Congres Party vote share as well. The Sena was the worst hit, losing 3.7 per cent of its support since the Lok Sabha polls. The NCP also lost 2.4 per cent of its votes compared to the Lok Sabha elections. With 13 MLAs in the new House, the MNS, many believe, may become the rallying point of non-Congress forces in days ahead, replacing the slot hitherto held by Sena.
The MNS mauled Sena candidates in its traditional bastions in Lalbaug, Parel Dadar and Mahim. For over three decades, the Assembly constituencies of Parel, Dadar and Mahim were held by the Sena. After delimitation, the constituencies were merged and renamed Sewri and Mahim. In Mahim, MNS nominee Nitin Sardesai defeated Sena's Aadesh Bandekar and Congress candidate Sada Sarwankar, a Sena man who defected to Congress a day before nominations were filed.
In Sewri, MNS nominee Bala Nandgaonkar defeated sitting Sena MLA Dagdu Sakpal by over 6,000 votes. The MNS also ensured the defeat of Sena-BJP candidates in 11 of the 36 constituencies in Mumbai. But for the MNS, the Sena-BJP combine would have swept Mumbai, winning 26 of the 36 seats.
MNS also made inroads into traditional Sena areas like Dombivli, Thane and Ovala-Majiwada, where its candidates ended up as runners-up. Though Raj Thackeray did not emerge as a `kingmaker' as he had wished, he has successfully taken over the Sena's agenda of the sons-of-the-soil and has succeeded in projecting himself as an alternative to Sena executive president Uddhav Thackeray, who did not fit into his father's oversized shoes.
After Raj, the enfant terrible of Maharashtra politics, dashed the saffron combine's prospects in the Lok sabha polls, Sena-BJP leaders said it was a temporary phase and that the MNS would put up a flop show in the Assembly polls. Uddhav went to the extent of saying that voters had regretted siding with MNS as it meant victory of Congress. Now, after the debacle in Assembly polls, the Sena tiger's roar has turned into a whimper, if not a meek 'meow'.
BJP leader Gopinath Munde and Sena leader Manohar Joshi admitted that the MNS ate into the saffron vote bank. NCP leader Chhagan Bhujbal said by winning 13 seats, MNS has shown that Raj Thackeray has arrived in Maharashtra politics. Even NCP chief Sharad Pawar said, "The MNS has dented our win in Maharashtra." In the Assembly polls, Congress vote share remained almost intact, while BJP vote share went up by 0.3 per cent compared to Lok Sabha polls.
The Sena-BJP alliance had tasted power only once between 1995-99. The outcome has also put a question mark on Uddhav's leadership style, with critics blaming his 'coterie' for the poor performance. Ex-Sainik Narayan Rane, who joined Congress in 2005 and is now Industry minister, has said "Bal Thackeray built the Sena, Uddhav is now letting it go down the drain."
The improved tally of Congress (it won 82 this time against 69 seats in 2004 polls), compared to NCP's 62, hints that it may insist on a drastic revision of 'terms of trade' with the NCP and seek more portfolios and the key ones it ceded to NCP last time. The Congress, which has reasserted itself in Marathwada and Vidarbha regions, may want key portfolios like home, finance, irrigation and education that had gone to the NCP's kitty last time, a Congress leader said.