As it enters the ninth year of its existence, the MNS may be caught in a cleft.
Though party chief Raj Thackeray has managed to capture the attention of the youth, a weak party organisation, absence of a credible programme for cadre and inability to take issues to a logical end may prove to be a stumbling block for the MNS in an election year.
Despite the BJP's appeal to avoid splitting anti-Congress and NCP votes, Raj decided to jump into the fray. This may prevent the rival Shiv Sena from taking up its political space and affecting the MNS performance in the assembly polls where the two regional parties have a lot at stake. The support to the BJP's prime ministerial nominee Narendra Modi may prevent the erosion of some of its pro-BJP voters who sympathise with the Gujarat chief minister and prevent the MNS from losing these votes to the Shiv Sena and BJP.
In 2009, the MNS, which was formed by Raj on March 9, 2006, after splitting from the Sena, fought 12 seats and the vote split led to Shiv Sena and BJP nominees losing in nine constituencies.
However, MNS workers grudgingly admit that some of the sheen may be wearing off. Despite speculations, the MNS has not attracted a major chunk of Sena cadre and voters in the post-Bal Thackeray era despite Raj being projected as his uncle's natural heir. In fact, many Sena dissidents have chosen to join the NCP, which has the advantage of being in power and a strong second rung like the Sena of yore.
MNS functionaries admitted that lack of a concrete programme, confusion and infighting in the cadre, inability to take issues like the agitation over lack of transparency in toll contracts to their logical end, and lack of direct communication between Raj and his cadre, had led to a drift in the organisation and affected its credibility.
However, a Shiv Sainik admitted that Raj's aggression, demagoguery, anti-migrant agenda, and oratory had endeared him to a section of voters especially youth and women. Raj is seen as more of an archetypal Shiv Sainik than his soft-spoken, estranged cousin and Sena president Uddhav.
A MNS leader said they had rekindled the debate over Marathi language and pride and injustice to sons of the soil, and created a new consciousness among Maharashtrians, forcing other parties to follow suit.
"Everybody accepts the MNS as an independent force... we cannot be ignored," said MNS MLA Nitin Sardesai.
"Raj has the charisma but lacks a strong organisation," said Sandeep Pradhan, political editor, Maharashtra Times, adding that "an organisation and programme are necessary, just attention seeking and violence are unsustainable."
He pointed out that though late Shiv Sena chief Bal Thackeray had begun an anti-South Indian campaign during the Sena's initial days, it was complemented by a constructive programme to ensure that the sons of the soil secured jobs.
"Raj must be clear on who his main enemy is," stressed Pradhan, adding that the paradox in the MNS encashing the anti-establishment vote, but eventually helping the Congress-NCP by splitting this very natural catchment of the Sena-BJP, could prove fatal.
"People who join politics today want faster returns. Shiv Sainiks tasted power after around three decades after the party was formed. However, today's youth, a chunk of whom are with Raj, have no such patience," noted Pradhan.
He pointed out that the MNS agitation on toll had fizzled out due to lack of a cadre base and workers arrested in the anti-North Indian agitation not getting legal aid from the party, leading to them staying away.