In public meetings of the Shiv Sena held throughout the 1980s and 90s, it was common to hear party leaders on the dais ask with gusto: Hee Mumbai Konachi (Whose Mumbai is this?) No brownie points for guessing the response that lakhs of assembled Shiv Sainiks roared in unison.
Having thus asserted the “right” of the Marathi manoos over the multi-lingual, multi-cultural and multi-ethnic city, they would head home with a rekindled sense of pride in their language, culture, and the party. A few hot-headed among them would taunt the visible non-Maharashtrians, bully street vendors, and threaten or mock-threaten others to flaunt their assertiveness.
This peaked in the 1990s. In the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation, which the party believed was its unquestionable territory, the Sena had the largest numbers and, therefore, its mayor. Though ceremonial, the mayor’s post allowed the party to project its control over all of Mumbai.
After the 2017 BMC election results, Uddhav Thackeray should take a hard look at whose Mumbai it is. While the Sena was busy with its declarations and agitations, swinging between strong-arm tactics and being the neighbourhood help centre, and endlessly re-asserting the “right” of the Marathi manoos over the city, Mumbai was changing.
Indeed, the Sena won 84 of the 227 seats in the BMC, its highest tally in a decade. But its ally-turned-rival, the BJP, won 82 seats. That’s too close for Thackeray’s comfort. Only 10 years ago, the BJP had 28 seats, barely a third of the Sena’s 84 then.
The percentage of votes in this election tells the same story. The Sena got 28.32% of the votes cast, the BJP 27.32%. Between the two saffron parties, they have 73% of the seats in the BMC and nearly 56% of the vote share. This saffron surge does not augur well for Mumbai given that their nearest opposition, the Congress, has barely 16% of the vote share. But this is about the Sena’s “right” over Mumbai. In the western suburbs between Bandra and Dahisar, and some eastern suburbs too previously known as Marathi strongholds, the BJP rode like a colossus.
This election allowed the BJP to consolidate its grip on Mumbai. In the October 2014 state Assembly election, the Sena and BJP had respectively won 14 and 15 of Mumbai’s 36 seats. Given the disquiet in the Sena’s ranks, Uddhav Thackeray would have to reflect on the shift within the saffron band.
Through its 51 years, the Sena focussed on the Marathi identity – and threats to it – to the near-exclusion of ideas, programmes, and a vision for Mumbai.
The newer suburbs are now populated by fewer Maharashtrians or Sena supporters. The younger generation does not necessarily enjoy a direct connect with the party or carry memories of the late Bal Thackeray that older family members do. Also, young Maharashtrians are no longer satiated by merely their linguistic identity; they demand more from their political leaders.
Add to this the disillusionment that has set in among a sizeable section of Sena’s supporters that the party’s dominance over Mumbai has meant little. As Mumbai redeveloped, Maharashtrians were displaced from areas such as Parel, Dadar, and Girgaum; there are fewer Marathi schools and theatres, and so on.
In contrast, the BJP’s leaders talk about the city, not an identity; they appear to work on eye-grabbing large projects for all Mumbai though it remains the favoured party of the non-Maharashtrian Mumbaikar. Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s charisma and endless promises perhaps override other factors for young Maharashtrians. Whatever it may be, the BJP is almost on par with the Sena in Mumbai.
On cue, the Sena’s leaders began the drum roll: Mumbai ruled by the “non-Marathi” BJP would be ruined and set on the path of separation from Maharashtra. Here lies the trouble. The Sena, after five long decades, is unable to grow meaningfully beyond the yoke of the linguistic identity, and more recently, Thackeray’s memory.
The Sena never understood that Mumbai did not belong only to the Marathi manoos.