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Mumbai puts its money on BJP's PM candidate Narendra Modi

Modi’s connect with Mumbai, party leaders claim, is very strong. It could not be any other way given the wide-eyed admiration and support that has poured in for him from the country’s financial and commercial capital.Is BJP losing the plot?

india Updated: Mar 21, 2014 16:40 IST
Smruti Koppikar
Smruti Koppikar
Hindustan Times

When Narendra Modi, Gujarat chief minister and Bharatiya Janata Party’s prime ministerial candidate, decided that he would take Mumbai by storm in late December last year, the city unit of the party selected the massive ground at the Bandra-Kurla Complex (BKC).

The last rally here, of the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), had turned out to be a damp squib, at least partly, because of the poor rail and bus connectivity to the ground. But it did not deter the BJP, flush as it was with logistical and financial resources.

The choice of BKC carried an underlying significance; with corporate and bank headquarters, consulates, diamond hub and five-star hotels, it represented the new business district of Mumbai.

BKC is the new Nariman Point and, by all reports, Modi made it his own space that evening. Modi’s connect with Mumbai, party leaders claim, is very strong. It could not be any other way given the wide-eyed admiration and unstinted support that has poured in for him from the country’s financial and commercial capital.

This was Modi’s second visit to BKC. The preceding one was barely two months before, when he addressed a specially-invited group of diamond traders in the Bharat Diamond Bourse.

The admiring audience cheered him throughout his speech, which, by then, was beginning to contain the staple ingredients: lamentable condition of India’s economy, policy paralysis, corruption and so on.

The general election was then a year-and-a-half away, but it did not matter to his audience.

“Businesses can remain healthy only if the economy is growing. We need hard measures, which Modi has shown the willingness to take. Diamond traders, especially a Kathiawaadi group, are ardent fans of Modi and his policies,” said Naresh Mehta, president of the Bharat Diamond Bourse.

Other trade and industry associations have followed suit with their own endorsements.

Gujarati, Kutchi and other related community associations have formed small support groups, willing to pull out all stops to have “aapno Modi” (our own Modi) in the prime minister’s chair.

Youngsters in the community, in particular, have created online campaigns, Facebook pages, Friends of Modi clubs to lend energy to the campaign – not as much the BJP campaign as Modi’s.

Delhi, via Mumbai
Modi’s march to 7 Race Course Road in Delhi had to pass via Mumbai, though BJP has been the second fiddle to its ally Shiv Sena here. Their best tally in the last four Lok Sabha elections was in 1999 when Atal Bihari Vajpayee sought a clear mandate after his short-lived 13-month government.

The alliance had won five of the six seats in Mumbai. Its vote share in the last election was only 29%. “This time, we want to win all six and add a couple more in the Mumbai Metropolitan Region,” said an excited Devendra Fadnavis, state president.

The chant of Modi-for-PM has largely energised the party cadre. Top leaders believe that “Modi’s candidature and connect with Mumbai” will translate into an additional 10 to 15% vote for alliance candidates.

The euphoria was punctured a wee bit when former party president Nitin Gadkari dallied with MNS’s Raj Thackeray, but every opinion poll that projects a massive majority for the party and the overwhelming preference for Modi raises the excitement level back to dizzying heights.

Sena chief Uddhav Thackeray, after a brief initial hesitation over his preference for Sushma Swaraj, quickly and whole-heartedly accepted Modi’s candidature. He did not have a choice. Modi could have been gracious in acknowledging the alliance partner and the Thackerays, at least late Bal Thackeray, in his BKC speech; he chose not to.

Instead, he wooed Mumbai a little more with grand assertions like, “For us Gujaratis, Mumbai is our second home”. In the carefully-selected audience, apart from the party cadres, were thousands of chaiwallas, retailers, traders and diamond merchants.

“There has been a political equation and equilibrium with the Sena all these 25 years, but Modi’s approach is different: he fixes a target and goes for it irrespective of everything else. That sense of purpose and determination is a bit new to us,” said a senior BJP leader.

The BJP has always enjoyed an admirable degree of financial and logistical support from the city. There’s an upsurge this time round, definitely in Mumbai even if it’s not as much outside, say leaders.

“You can’t win Delhi without winning Mumbai first, in a manner of speaking. Modi ‘won’ Mumbai – the financial nerve centre of the country – long before the party made him the prime ministerial candidate,” said Haresh Soni, chairman, All India Gems & Jewellery Trade Federation.

The gems and jewellery trade has an annual turnover of Rs4 lakh crore. It’s a pointer to the clout the association commands. Other trade associations fall in the same league. That’s why the endorsement matters to Team Modi.

The minority factor
However, there’s a section of Mumbaiites who nurse apprehension bordering on fear about what the Modi-mania will bring — Muslims spread across the inner south and south-central Mumbai. “The Gujaratis in Mumbai are mostly the moneyed and/or upper-caste business families. They might have business relations with Muslims, but never social one. They won’t share food or become neighbours. It’s a communal society and Modi’s rise could embolden it,” explained Nagindas Sanghavi, a well-known Gujarati author.

Modi has also not made a special effort to reach out to the minorities in the city yet. It would be erroneous to imagine a uniform and unanimous reaction from the community to the rise of the Hindutva hard-liner, but community leaders show some disquiet. “Of course, Modi has not expressed regret for the 2002 Gujarat riots, but see what he or his team have done…the Muzaffarnagar riot accused got tickets, which sends out important signals. Many see a rise in the threat level of the BJP if he becomes the PM,” said Sarfaraz Arzoo, editor of Urdu daily Hindustan and vice-chairman of All India Khilafat Committee.

A few kilometres away from the Khilafat House, the symbol of Hindu-Muslim unity, is Kalbadevi that houses, among other iconic structures, the Mulji Jetha and Mangaldas markets. These represented the city’s commercial and trade power when cloth was the currency that enriched the old Bombay.

In the heavily-guarded Mulji Jetha market, third-generation trader Harenbhai said, “We here didn’t want the AAP leader to canvass. Why waste our time when we know Modi is becoming the PM?”

From Mulji Jetha to the BKC, there’s a Modi chant going around, but not all of Mumbai is a market.

The silent supporters

Narendra Modi has the support of the BJP in Mumbai and the rest of the state. But the Modi-for-PM campaign has been choreographed by non-political forces too, mainly trades and industries where Gujaratis, Kutchis, Marwaris and Jains dominate. Trade and industry associations have either declared support for Modi and the BJP, or have covertly assured them of logistical support. While industry captains’ endorsement of Modi is commonly heard, these associations prefer silent support. Here are some of them.

Mulji Jetha and Mangaldas markets
These iconic wholesale cloth markets were the older version of the stock exchange when manufacture and trade in cloth and cloth-based products were the mainstay of the economy. The markets still command high respect and house the topmost traders and wholesalers today. They work in a close-knit fashion and have internally decided that they will support the BJP this time more than in the earlier years. As prime minister, Modi, they believe, will declare industry-friendly policies.

Dalal Street
Stock brokers, broking firms and market advisors are in a hurry to complete the election and have Modi as the prime minister. Brokers’ associations across the country appear united in the Modi-for-PM chant; representatives of the Uttar Pradesh brokers association have approached him already with a list of problems. It helps that Dalal Street has a preponderance of Gujaratis and Jains in different work functions. Among the subjects of their discussions this week was the level of the rupee vis-à-vis the US dollar, Rs40, ‘when’ Modi becomes prime minister.

All India Gems and Jewellery Trade Federation
The national federation of all gems and jewellery manufacturers, wholesalers, retailers and exporters, the association has lakhs of members across the country. It routinely argues for fair trade practices and lobbies with governments for industry-friendly policies. For the last two years, the federation and its officials have petitioned the Centre to relax its rules on gold imports, which they say have severely hurt the industry. Its chairman, Haresh Soni, has made his preference for Modi clear while other significant members too are enthusiastic supporters.

Mumbai Diamond Merchants’ Association
Within days of being announced as the BJP’s prime ministerial candidate, Modi was invited as the chief guest at the 100th anniversary celebration of the association last year. The association presented him with 80kg silver and Rs40 lakh, which he hastened to clarify was the industry’s contribution to the Statue of Unity, his grand project in memory of Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel. A sizeable section of the diamond polishing industry and trade has moved or expanded to Surat in the past few years, but the Mumbai association retains its glitter – and clout.

The Bombay Bullion Association
This is the apex association of all bullion and jewellery associations in India. Established in 1948 to consolidate the scattered small associations in a newly-independent India, the BBA now enjoys enormous power. It has open channels to the highest echelons of the Central government, with even Union finance ministers granting BBA delegations time and ears. Apart from lending support to Modi last year, the BBA’s president Mohit Kamboj formally joined the BJP in the presence of Rajnath Singh.

First Published: Mar 21, 2014 12:39 IST