It was once perceived as an impenetrable bastion of the Maharashtra Navnirman Sena (MNS). Prior to 2014, anyone entering this pilgrim city would be greeted with the sight of a massive albeit illegally occupied office from which the operations of the party were being handled. The encroached office from where the MNS strategy to control Nashik was initially drafted has been demolished, paving the way for numerous road expansion and beautification projects, which Raj Thackeray’s MNS has taken up in the city with a population of 18 lakh. Since 2012, when the party emerged as the single largest party in urban body elections, the MNS has effectively been in control of the Nashik Municipal Corporation. Indeed, Thackeray who touted the need for “aesthetic infrastructure development” has ushered in many changes here. The city now boasts of a world-class botanical garden, a 100-foot water fountain that is a big draw and numerous beautified traffic islands.
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While all that is visible, what’s missing from the party fold now are the men who were instrumental in helping build this civic infrastructure. And what is unfolding in Nashik is a reflection of the huge challenges that the MNS is facing now. Of the 40 corporators elected in 2012 from the city, only 13 are still with the party. Those who have defected include senior party men such as former MLA Vasant Gite and first ever mayor in the state from the MNS, Yatin Wagh.
It is not just Nashik. Across the state, the story is no different. Of the initial 13 MLAs who were elected on MNS tickets in 2009 and were assigned the responsibility of expanding the party base, eight have quit so far. Of the 151 corporators, which the party had managed to get elected across the state in 2012, less than 60 remain with the party. “It was difficult to get our voices heard in the party. No matter how hard you screamed, the barrier that was created between the top leader and party workers by his intermediaries was impenetrable,” said Wagh, who has joined the Shiv Sena.
The failure to engage with the party’s rank and file has been a major shortcoming of Raj Thackeray’s leadership, according to many party workers. A large number of local-level leaders felt that he was unapproachable. Many also complained about his over reliance on an inner coterie of Mumbai-based advisers who they said were out of touch with the ground realities in the state. One of them is Vasant Gite, a former MNS MLA who was seen as Thackeray’s point person in Nashik and was instrumental in building the party’s base in the city. Gite quit the MNS in 2014 citing differences with the party leadership. “The problem was the leadership was that they were more interested in building meaningless structures than in building bonds with party workers who toiled day and night and still have police cases slapped against them for building and strengthening the party in the city,” said Gite, who had started off by repairing bicycles on the Nashik-Mumbai highway three decades ago.
Thackeray’s links to Gite and Nashik city go back to the mid-90s when he was involved in a game of oneupmanship with Uddhav Thackeray over control of the Shiv Sena. The Sena leadership headed by Bal Thackeray had then told Raj to concentrate on areas like Nashik to keep him away from Mumbai. Raj Thackeray had then built his contacts in the city, which helped him when he started his own political party.
Nashik had seen intense violence during Raj Thackeray’s anti-North Indian programme, which claimed two lives in the city. The latent support for the party was on display in 2009 when the party swept the assembly elections in the city that year, winning all three Legislative Assembly seats. The party replicated its success in 2012, winning 40 seats in the 122-seat Nashik Municipal Corporation. “He came in as a welcome change to the established political leadership in the state. The alternative that he offered and his personal charisma played a key role in attracting voters. Sadly, unlike Balasaheb Thackeray, he could not leverage his personal charisma to create a second rung of leadership in the city, which could project his work in Nashik,” said social activist Arun Thakur.
Raj Thackeray also appears to have chosen the wrong political enemies to target, particularly in cities such as Nashik. His 2012 electoral victory was based largely on his campaign against NCP’s Chhagan Bhujbal who was a big name in Nashik.
Thackeray had chosen to attack Bhujbal and blamed him for criminalising politics in the city. He then decided to join hands with the BJP to install his mayor in Nashik. According to the MNS, the then Congress-NCP government did all that it could to scuttle the effective functioning of the corporation.
Thackeray, however, decided to switch sides once again when the BJP came to power, and joined hands with the NCP to install his mayor in Nashik in 2014. The party then blamed the BJP for stalling the effective functioning of the NMC. “When you do politics of development and want to transform a city, you do need to make some political adjustments. However, we were also a victim of the government stalling our work. Most of our standing committee resolutions would be impugned under Section 451 by state governments. We had operated our corporation for close to 11 months without a commissioner. Despite being prey to such dirty politics, we have delivered on our promises to the city,” said MNS leader Avinash Abhyankar, who has been deputed to head the MNS campaign in Nashik.
While locals claim that the MNS administration was as good, or bad, as any other political entity, the party appears to have failed to project its success among the public. Party watchers have blamed the insular approach of Raj Thackeray for this, claiming that he failed to create an effective second-rung leadership. “He definitely had a vision of development. However, the failure to connect with local leaders including his own corporators ensured that his link with the public snapped. Many of us felt that we neither had access to the top boss nor was our voice being heard in the party,” said former MNS corporator Gulzar Kokni.
With successive state governments squeezing the party, many corporators felt the economic pinch of being associated with the MNS. The fact that they could not speak out openly accentuated their problem with many choosing to leave the party. “There were some corporators who had mortgaged their wives’ jewellery to fight elections. However, with the government stalling work and the local leadership not allowing any freedom, many of them in spite of being corporators for two to three years were not able to recover the money that they had spent in elections. That caused disenchantment and many decided to leave the party at the first instance,” said a former MNS corporator.
Interestingly, Thackeray’s response to this erosion of support was to supplant leaders from outside Nashik. He also sought to create an impression by bringing top industry names such as the Tatas and Ambanis to carry out projects in the city as part of their corporate social responsibility programmes. Thackeray recently played host to Ratan Tata in Nashik. The MNS has manged to ensure investments worth Rs 100 crore from noted industrialists for various activities such as building parks and promenades. His detractors, however, claim that Thackeray’s priorities are skewed. “Nashik was earlier known as Gulshanabad for the flowers and gardens that it had. If you are trying to impress Nashikites by building gardens, which are in abundance in the city, you are bound to fail. These activities point to the misplaced priorities of Rajsaheb who wants to impress people by building gardens and neglecting other important areas affecting residents’ lives,” said Vasant Gite.
The MNS has meanwhile termed the exodus of party members party as “fleeing of the opportunists”. “Those who are fleeing were opportunists. They are those who have chosen to defecate in the same plate in which they have eaten. The MNS will outlive these defectors,” said Abhyankar.
While many say the political wind may not favour the MNS, analysts point out that Thackeray’s fortunes are unlikely to improve until he changes himself. While his estranged cousin Uddhav Thackeray has over 30 campaign rallies across the state on his civic poll itinerary, Raj has only six. “On governance per se, Raj did bring in a new approach to administration and city planning. The problem was the MNS did not have people who would speak and propagate the impact of this performance. Raj Thackeray has always relied on his personal charisma to lead the MNS, but charisma can lead you only to a point. He failed in creating a capable second rung leadership which could pull him through. I don’t ever see that leadership emerging in the MNS,” said Arun Thakur.