The verdict of 2014 will be remembered for, among other things, the Bharatiya Janata Party’s haul of 14 of the 36 seats in the city. It rivals the Shiv Sena’s tally of 15 but its import is beyond what the numbers show. With a rusty organisational network that has not been tested in more than two decades, the BJP took on the Sena in its citadel – and came good. In the process, the BJP did what the Sena would have never dreamt that its “natural ally” ever would: challenge the Sena’s most dearly held ideological position of the last nearly five decades that it alone is the natural arbiter of all things Maharashtrian and Marathi in this city.
The average winning margin of BJP candidates was more than twice that of Sena candidates. This means that the BJP candidates must have drawn the Marathi voter but the Sainiks were unable to attract the non-Marathi voter in same measure. The BJP was able to win a few seats in traditional Sena bastions such as Goregaon and Vile Parle. In terms of vote shares in the Mumbai Metropolitan Region, that includes the other Sena bastion Thane, the BJP is a shade ahead at around 29% and the Sena at 26%.
It could be that the Sena’s brand of identity politics, pitting Marathis versus Gujaratis in this election, has run its course and fewer younger people – including Maharashtrians – found it appealing or convincing. Or, it could be that the BJP’s language of development held out at least as much promise and relevance in their lives as the notion of linguistic identity. That the Sena’s variant, the Maharashtra Navnirman Sena, did not win a single seat in Mumbai or its stronghold Nashik, a rapidly urbanising place, is a telling comment on the politics of identity. This isn’t enough anymore to win elections; you have got to offer voters inclusive and constructive ideas.
The Sena president Uddhav Thackeray has two choices at this juncture: harden his party’s position on Marathi identity and hark back to the past, or revise his vision of what a truly Maharashtrian global city would be. The Sena sought to represent a community; the BJP reached out to more than one community and spoke a language not tied to one identity. The Congress, of course, floundered. Mumbai is rapidly developing into a global metropolis; its politics cannot be provincial.
Its self-appointed position allowed the Sena to set the agenda on the Marathi issue all these decades. Given that its expression of the Maharashtrian agenda was especially aggressive and violent, any other organisation or group of people who tried to address the language, culture or shrinking space of Maharashtrians in the rhythms of the city always drew unfair comparison with the party. There are genuine issues that face the community in a globalising metropolis but the Sena’s advocacy of these issues, indeed the community itself, gave them an unnecessary parochial edge.
Mumbai, and the larger Mumbai Metropolitan Region (MMR), can be Marathi and global at the same time. To be forced to select one would be a false choice. Maharashtrians and Marathi-speakers – the two categories overlap but are not the same – comprise less than 35% of the city’s population, according to state government and Census data. They have hardly been more than half of the population at any time in its contemporary history. The community’s real and perceived grievances were a rich mine for those who wanted to exploit it politically.
If anything, Mumbai is less Maharashtrian in its nature, especially in the erstwhile Marathi-dominated areas such as Girgaum and Parel, in the years that the Sena and more recently the MNS advocated its interests. A new generation of Sena voters must have discovered during the election campaign that the Gujaratis, their friends on the Hindutva bandwagon till the other day – were in fact old adversaries. The Sena’s adversarial position towards other communities has not changed in decades; it was against south Indians at one time, Gujaratis at another and Muslims later. But, I did not make Mumbai more Marathi.