It’s a poll season of change.
The Shiv Sena, traditionally known as a party for Maharashtrians has worn a cosmopolitan garb, giving space to Gujarati, north Indian and Muslim candidates, organising Chhat Pujas and projecting warm ties with Gujarat’s Patidar leader Hardik Patel.
The BJP, which has derived its strength from Gujaratis and the upper middle-class Maharashtrians, is aggressively wooing north Indians, also organising Baati-Chokhas, Kajari, Chhat Pujas and chaupals. The Congress, once popular with north Indian and minority communities, is looking to consolidate itself in Marathi wards. The MNS too, which until now played solely on the Marathi ethos, has at least four Muslim candidates, several Gujarati, north Indian and Tamilian candidates.
The February 21 civic polls, a multi-cornered contest with all parties contesting without an alliance or reliance on each other’s’ strength, has got them all waking up to the importance of appealing to a diverse demography and reaching out to people beyond their traditional voter base.
But, you the voter, is far from being spoilt for choice. Snapping of traditional ties and changes in predefined political agendas have left voters confused.
Few options for Maharashtrians
Their percentage may have reduced in the overall mix, but the Maharashtrian vote still comprises the largest chunk in Mumbai. This is reflected in how parties have fielded many Maharashtrians. The Sena has 201 across 227 seats, the BJP has 122 Maharashtrians of the 195 seats it is contesting, Congress has picked 111 in its list of 227. The Maharashtrian vote traditionally went to Sena-BJP alliance, with Sena considering areas like Girgaum, Dadar, Prabhadevi, Parel, Lalbaug, Vile Parle, Bandra (East), Jogeshwari, Bhandup as its bastions. This time too, the urban poor and aspirational middle-class vote may go to Sena, but there is also one section of Maharashtrians tired of incumbency and looking for options. It is, however, in need of credible alternatives, experts say.
“If you see the behaviour of the Sena, between two elections it doesn’t exhibit any pro-Maharashtrian activity. Most beneficiaries of BMC’s work are non-Maharashtrians, and when we say the Marathi population is moving out of the city, it is not just builders who are responsible. The civic administration is also accountable,” said Deepak Pawar, a faculty in department of politics in Mumbai University. “So is Sena really the party Maharashtrians feel will protect their aspirations and sentiments? The answer is that the BJP is not. The Congress is in a tough situation. So, Marathi people don’t have credible options.” Anti-incumbency may push Marathi votes to BJP, which carries interests of Gujaratis on its sleeves, and a section of Maharashtrians resents the community for its affluence, Pawar said.
For the aspirational lower middle-class Marathi voter, though their electoral franchise may end up in Sena’s favour, the lack of options that they can identify with is frustrating, said Datta Iswalkar, leader of Mumbai’s erstwhile mill workers. “On the development front, all parties have left us dejected. Within them all, Maharashtrians identify with the Sena better than others. It is not a perfect choice, but it seems like the only one,” Iswalkar said. The BJP has managed to catch the attention of a section of Maharashtrians, as CM Devendra Fadnavis is the face of party.
Gujarati voters may rally with BJP
The Sena has tried, but the BJP has been strongest in Mumbai’s Gujarati pockets—Ghatkopar, Malad, Kalbadevi, Borivli and Kandivli. Within the Sena-BJP alliance, all these wards were left for BJP candidates. But with the split in the saffron alliance, the Sena is aggressively trying to make inroads, having poached Gujarati cell heads of various parties, including Mangal Bhanushali, from BJP. The Sena has strongly opposed demonetisation, which hurt Gujarati businessmen. Leaders from the community say while Sena’s efforts may eat away a few votes in places where there are strong Gujarati candidates, overall, the vote will continue to go to BJP. The anti-Gujarati image Sena has developed over the years, and Sena chief Uddhav Thackeray’s recent criticism of PM Modi’s policies may mean fewer votes from the community.
Ghatkopar-based Lalitkumar Shah, trustee of Kathyawad Seva Samaj, said Gujarati voters will consider putting in a non-BJP vote only if the candidate is strong. “In my ward, Congress’ Pravin Chedda is a credible face. Gujaratis will not vote for the Sena unless the candidate is well known, like Bhanushali is. But the general feeling is the party has been against the community. Also, Gujaratis are soft. We don’t identify with Sena;s aggressive style.” Some Gujarati Jains also took to Twitter a few days ago, dissuading their community from voting for Sena, using a quote from the Sena’s mouthpiece Saamana from 2015.
Demonetisation has upset some Gujarati traders and businessmen, Shah said, and they may look for stronger candidates from other parties. Most feel while there may be scope for criticism, 70% of Modi’s work was good. Mulund-based Lalji Katira, associated with a bunch of Gujarati community organisations, said, the community has a lot of respect for Modi, and Sena’s constant criticism may turn several against the party. “It is human psychology. If we have a lot of respect for a person and he is unnecessarily criticised, it will not go down well.”
North Indian votes to candidates
While Mumbai’s North Indians were for years a loyal Congress vote-bank, a large number moved in favour of BJP last election, as part of the ‘Modi’ wave. The Congress’ presence weakened among the community owing to internal squabbles and dwindling political relevance of four of its senior faces that used to attract the north Indian votes — Kripashankar Singh, Rajhans Singh, Ramesh Thakur (who jumped to the BJP), and Naseem Khan.
North Indians, especially those in the urban poor and lower middle-class sections, have given significance to sentiments such as identity and respect for them in a cosmopolitan city while voting, leaders say. That is a reason Sena and Raj Thackeray-led MNS historically never captured the community’s imagination. But in this election, all parties, including Sena, have accepted North Indians are substantial. “My community is confused as they take part in ‘baati chokha’ and ‘chhat pujas’ organised by different political parties. They are likely to vote for candidates instead of the party, as no single party is completely advantageous. The Congress is mired in factionalism, Sena and BJP are incumbents,” said Dr Rajendra Singh, trustee at Jhunjhunwala College. He said the Sena may get a decent vote share from the community with its aggression towards North Indians nearly vanished.
Muslims to stick with secular forces
Mumbai’s Muslim votes have mostly been aligned with Congress, NCP and Samajwadi Party. All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen (AIMIM) got a foothold with the election of Waris Pathan from Byculla during the state legislative Assembly polls. Contesting 54 seats, AIMIM may now be a threat again. Interestingly, with AIMIM’s impending threat, Congress and NCP have fielded an unusually high number of Muslim candidates — NCP pitched 43, the Congress, 38. The ruling Sena and BJP have fielded five Muslim candidates each, the MNS, four.
Shahid Lateef, senior journalist and editor of Urdu daily Inquilab, said, “People may consider giving AIMIM an opportunity, as it is a new player. But it is also a fact that two legislators of the party in the state have failed to leave a good impression.”
Maulana Mehmood Dariyabadi, general secretary, All India Ulema Council, a body of Muslim scholars, said without naming a party that Muslims need to unite against fascist and non-secular forces. “We will try to keep such people at bay. We are with people who are in favour of the ‘Ganga-Jamuni tehzeeb’,” Dariyabadi said. The Ganga-Jamuni tehzeeb he is referring to is used to denote the culture of the central plains of northern India, regarded as a fusion of Hindu and Muslim culture.
Raw deal for Mumbai’s oldest?
For the Kolis, Agris, Bhandari, Kunbis and East Indians (native Christians), this election, like every election, is about the fight for their rights.
Of 227 wards, 20-25 have a strong presence from these communities spread across areas such as Versova, Juhu, Colaba, Madh, Worli, Khar Danda.
“Both Sena and BJP talk about Hindutva, sons of soil, rights of citizen, but none of them has anything in their manifesto that will improve the condition of Mumbai’s original inhabitants,” said Jagdish Bhikru, a fisherman from the Juhu koliwada. These communities fear all showpiece projects of Sena and BJP will do exactly the opposite of what they have been striving for— preservation of their culture, livelihoods. These projects include increasing construction rights in gaothans, a coastal road, a mid-sea Chhatrapati Shivaji memorial, among others.
“What is for us (Kolis) in all these projects? What they have is the potential to snatch our livelihoods. The coastal road is for merely 2% of the population, the monument will be a showpiece and the reclamation will disturb the environment. They (political parties) have created selfie points in areas meant for our fishing industries, how will that increase my catch (fish)?”asked the Ujjwala Patil, Machhimar Kruti Samiti, president (women).
According to the civic body, there are only 88 Gaothans remaining, but the numbers are rigorously debated by members, who claim there are still 224 gaothans that must be preserved. That the DP viewed these villages as slums has irked them. “The Sena and BJP have been in power for 20 years, but nothing was done for us, who they claim to protect in their slogans. We will support the party that comes up with a plan to preserve our culture,” said Alphi D’souza, spokesperson, Mumbai Gaothan Panchayat.