MUMBAI: At the age of 65, when most leaders work to establish their heirs in politics, former Maharashtra chief minister Narayan Rane is opening a new page in his political career, and getting ready for a tightrope walk with his new party in the state.
Within days of quitting the Congress, Rane yesterday floated his party called 'Maharashtra Swabhiman Paksh', and indicated it might align with the BJP.
Earlier, speculation was rife that the Maratha strongman would join the BJP, a plan which did not go down well with sections in the saffron party in the state.
"I have just launched the party. I am waiting for some people to join. Then I will decide the future course (of action)," Rane said yesterday, refusing to comment when reporters pressed him about his next move. He, however, hinted his front might veer towards the BJP.
Rane, who still has pockets of influence in the coastal Konkan region of the state, served as the chief minister in 1999 when he was in the Shiv Sena.
Ever since he joined the Congress, he has been a bitter critic of the Sena, especially its chief Uddhav Thackeray."Now Rane will have to prove his mettle. The general elections are one-and-a-half years away, while the Assembly polls are two years down the line," said a senior BJP leader, who did not wish to be identified.
The real issue, he said, was what role Rane could play for the BJP."It all depends on how he takes his next step and who benefits from it," he said.
Rane started his career as a supporter of the Sena, launched as a social outfit to voice regional aspirations in the late 70s, before it became a political party and a force to reckon with in Maharashtra.
Rane, who was in his 20s at the time, was spotted by the late Vamanrao Mahadik, a leader who had worked for the Shiv Sena since its inception.
Mahadik brought him into the party, and Rane got easily drawn into the party's aggressive style, inspired by the fiery rhetoric of Sena founder Balasaheb Thackeray. He scaled the political ladder and as a corporator in Mumbai, he was among the first to realise that ensuring and controlling the flow of funds for urban amenities would help empower any ambitious leader.
His influence was evident on the streets those days, but it was his efforts to master administrative procedures, understand legal issues and the ability to move crowds that ultimately catapulted him to the post of Maharashtra's chief minister when he was serving his second term as an MLA.
In 1999, when Manohar Joshi stepped down from the post of state chief minister, Rane succeeded him. He, however, held the post for less than a year as the five-year term of the then Shiv Sena-BJP government came to an end. In the election that followed, the saffron alliance conceded power to the Congress and the NCP.
An ambitious Rane faced his first major challenge from within the Sena with the rise of Balasaheb's son Uddhav. Uddhav was anointed executive president of the Shiv Sena, and Rane, who was the leader of opposition in the state Assembly, read the signs when the BJP-led NDA was routed in the 2004 general elections.
In July 2005, Rane was expelled from the Sena by Balasaheb Thackeray, which led to his joining the Congress. He won a hard-fought byelection from Sindhudurg district in his native Konkan and was appointed revenue minister under then Congress chief minister Vilasrao Deshmukh.
Rane continued to claim that Congress leaders had promised to make him the chief minister -- a pledge that was never met. In 2014, the Congress lost power and Rane himself failed to make it to the assembly. He also lost the byelection in 2015 from Bandra in Mumbai where no Congress leader came to campaign for him.
Though Rane was elected as an MLC on a Congress ticket, he was moving away from the Congress, and increasingly growing closer to the BJP.
Speculation that Rane may join the BJP was fuelled by reports suggesting that he had met party president Amit Shah in Ahmedabad a few months ago and later in New Delhi.
However, a section in the BJP was learnt to be not in favour of Rane's induction into the party. But Rane said yesterday that he had "friends there" and had "no issues" with the party.
"Let me first make new friends for my party, and then I will be able to announce my next move," Rane said. Asked if he aspired to become the chief minister, he said, "I still have an ambition... It never dies. I will wait for the right time to come". He said he or his new party would never oppose any development work, including Prime Minister Narendra Modi's ambitious bullet train project.
Significantly, no Congress leader or any sitting MLA has so far openly supported Rane. He also faces a challenge on his home turf in Sindhudurg, from where his younger son Nitesh is a Congress MLA.
Though the saffron party is not inclined to roll out the red carpet for him, political observers think that he would support the BJP and try to gain proximity to its leaders. But, they say, it is going to be a tightrope walk for the veteran leader in the coming days.