Loyalties can rest this election, as voters in the Mumbai-Thane belt seem set on giving Raj Thackeray’s Maharashtra Navnirman Sena (MNS) “a chance.” This region, where the party is fielding 49 candidates, accounts for 60 of the 288 Assembly seats in the State.

Mumbai and Thane are traditional Sena strongholds, which the MNS wrecked in the Lok Sabha elections. The Shiv Sena-Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) lost all the six parliamentary seats in Mumbai, as well as the Thane seat.

Like the many Marathi households in the old fisher colony of Mahim, the Naiks have been staunch Sainiks. This time, however, it will be different.

“People backed the Sena and Congress, but no one has paid heed [to their problems],” says 29-year-old Manish Naik. “Their scope of work is restricted to laying a few tiles here and there. So, our family has decided to give a chance to the MNS. There is not much enthusiasm about the Sena’s candidate [Adesh Bandhekar, a popular TV anchor].”

Popular candidate

Much of the Sena’s sway here can be attributed to the huge popularity of its four-term MLA Suresh Gambhir. However, as residents declare support for the MNS, they have their reasons. “The MNS have got the drains cleaned; they have worked on the toilets. They have started paying attention,” says Rekha Mahimkar. MNS’ Nitin Sardesai is a strong contender in Mahim.

In several Sena bastions, people speak of a groundswell of support for the MNS. “Looks like Raj Thackeray can do something; bring about some change. People should vote for him,” says Chandrakant Kadam, an auto driver from Thane and a traditional-Sena-voter-turned-MNS-supporter.

In the Thane assembly seat, Sena’s Rajan Vichare is pitted against Rajan Raje of the MNS. In the Lok Sabha, Raje had edged ahead of the Nationalist Congress Party, while coming up dangerously close to the Sena.

The MNS’ aggressive act and Raj Thackeray’s virulent rhetoric have been able to mop up the Marathi vote across party lines.

Growing appeal

Meera Narkar, a middle-aged homemaker from Ghatkopar (East) says she had been voting for the Congress until this Lok Sabha elections. “I think at least one chance should be given to the MNS… to see what happens,” she asserts. “I am only hearing the MNS should come [to power]. Everyone has turned against the Congress. [Raj] Thackeray is a dynamic leader. The way he speaks is impressive. Some things may be wrong, but he will rectify himself. Expectation is riding on him.” Satish Narkar is the MNS candidate from Ghatkopar (East) while Virendra Bakshi is the Congress candidate.

In the Dindoshi constituency, in northern Mumbai, a Marathi government employee points to the growing appeal of the MNS. Here, MNS’ Shalini Thackeray had come a close third in the Lok Sabha elections. “Thackeray enjoys the support of women; many women are MNS workers here, he says. “The party is new, but it is shining. It says, ‘We will do.’ People will vote for them because they have taken up the issue of unemployment. Every house here has two to three jobless people.”

Evidently, there is as much support for the Sena’s Sunil Prabhu from the old timers. “Prabhu has worked here. Raj Thackeray is very unpredictable,” says Vasudha Nanjekar, a homemaker.

North Indian vote

Elsewhere, the north Indian vote might have been consolidated against the MNS. But here in Dindoshi, Shalini, a north Indian married to Raj Thackeray’s cousin, may earn the favour of the north Indians too. Ramkumar Soni a resident hailing from Uttar Pradesh, admits to supporting the MNS. He feels the party is not against north-Indians, but against new entrants.

Interestingly, there is a palpable pro-MNS sentiment in Dindoshi’s Muslim-dominated Pathanwadi. Hanif HR, a Congress supporter, did not vote for the MNS in the last general election. However, although she is new and has no work to her credit, Hanif is willing to give Shalini a chance. “I know many Muslims who voted for MNS here.”

A.J. Saudagar, a corporator in the area, attests to this trend among the Muslims. “People are upset that the Congress is fielding an outside candidate [Rajhans Singh]. Shalini has already contested here. Has any party given such a performance [like the MNS did] in its very first election, that people are left wondering where the votes came from? The Gujarati community here has had a meeting and they have, I am told, decided to vote for the MNS.”

Gujaratis’ grouse

The Gujaratis, meanwhile, are unhappy with the BJP for not putting up strong contenders from their community in some places. This could hurt the saffron party.

The slambang activities of the MNS have drawn the youths. Its leaders’ vociferous assertion of the asmita (pride) of the Marathi manoos has cornered a readymade vote bank. Is it a bubble or is it for good? This Assembly election won’t be able to throw light on that.

Observes Sena officeholder Pradeep Shinde: “People have realised that by voting for the MNS their own cause has been hurt.” However, Mumbai and Thane voters don’t appear to be nursing that hurt.