Mumbai: What started as a breakaway from the Thackeray clan and the Shiv Sena eight years ago, Raj Thackeray's Maharashtra Navnirman Sena (MNS) is now eyeing a position where it could make or break the state government.
The ongoing 2014 Lok Sabha and ensuing assembly elections could well be the turning point for the MNS to credibly achieve this aim - and also kill several birds with one stone.
"We are counting on at least two and maximum four seats out of 10 we are contesting in the Lok Sabha elections. The MNS will be a top contender for the Maharashtra assembly elections later this year," a top office-bearer, requesting anonymity, told IANS.
Way back in 2006, as Raj Thackeray left the family in a huff following personal and political differences with his cousin Uddhav Thackeray, now the Shiv Sena president, few took his plans to float a party seriously. Even when he founded the MNS later that year, most parties sniggered, saying it would "add to the crowd" of many wee bit parties in the state.
Acknowledging the late Shiv Sena patriarch Bal Thackeray as its "mentor", MNS took off, obviously attracting many powerful but disgruntled elements from the former party.
Initially, even the established, 40-year-old Shiv Sena dismissed it as being built up with deadwood, but the late Thackeray and senior advisors continued unsuccessful backdoor rapprochement efforts.
Raj Thackeray aggressively went ahead espousing various headline-grabbing causes - attacking north Indian migrants right up to Samajwadi Party state chief Abu Asim Azmi and mega-star Amitabh Bachchan and speaking up for Marathis who were laid off by various companies - but carefully maintaining its secular credentials.
But it was in the 2009 Maharashtra assembly elections that MNS' true potential came to the fore - it bagged 13 seats in the 272-member house, becoming the fifth largest entity after the Congress, the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP), the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the Shiv Sena.
Earlier that year, it managed to damage the prospects of at least a dozen BJP-Shiv Sena alliance candidates in the Lok Sabha elections - sounding alarm bells.
In the 2012 civic elections, the MNS captured 28 seats in the BrihanMumbai Municipal Corporation, 29 in Pune, 27 in Kalyan-Dombivli and rules the Nashik civic body as the head of a coalition. By then, it had already become the fifth important factor in state politics after the Congress, NCP, BJP and Shiv Sena.
With the 2014 Lok Sabha elections looming on the horizon, the BJP started taking note of the MNS - beginning with Raj Thackeray's high-profile trip to view the "development in Gujarat" under Chief Minister Narendra Modi in 2010.
Not only did Modi get a new fan with full-throated admiration, Raj Thackeray also sowed the first seeds that Modi was "prime ministerial" material - while BJP ally Shiv Sena watched everything in quiet consternation.
Raj Thackeray even took up the developmental agenda - but, with the aggressive image acquired earlier, it lacked credibility or takers.
With Bal Thackeray's death in 2012, the ambitious BJP explored newer pastures and started overtly and covertly courting the MNS.
It ended in near-disaster for both sides as the Shiv Sena threatened to quit its 25-year-old alliance with the BJP.
Surprisingly, the MNS continues to swear by Modi, though it is yet to join the six-party saffron Grand Alliance in Maharashtra - the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance - has vowed to adhere to secularism and will not use Ayodhya as a political plank.
Despite these seeming paradoxes, the BJP secretly banks on MNS support "just in case" - although BJP chief Rajnath Singh pompously dismissed "unsolicited support" from any quarters, including the MNS.
"The MNS is convinced that Modi is the man India needs for rapid progress and all-round development. Whether we join any of the BJP-led alliances or not, our support is only for Modi," explained MNS vice president Vagheesh Saraswat.
However, the party has not closed the doors on other viable options, especially the Congress-Nationalist Congress Party alliance, which some say has propped up the MNS to batter the Shiv Sena.
"In case the numbers game does not permit Modi to become the PM, it will support any other candidate committed to Maharashtra's development, or a Marathi PM," Saraswat laughed, dropping broad hints at the NCP.
He pointed out that the MNS is not working towards short-term gains but long-term consolidation of its base in the state and acquiring a distinct presence at the national level - or the tail that can wag the dog.
Carefully avoiding any mention of the Shiv Sena, most MNS leaders claim that they are working in the interest of Maharashtra and Marathis without using the religious or minority planks.
This makes it musical melody for some and a cacophony for others.
(Quaid Najmi can be contacted at email@example.com)