Maharashtra Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis greets Shiv Sena Chief Uddhav Thackeray.(Kunal Patil/HT Photo)
Maharashtra Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis greets Shiv Sena Chief Uddhav Thackeray.(Kunal Patil/HT Photo)

How Shiv Sena is moving from urban to rural

The party also faces stiff competition in the region from its chief ally, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) which made significant gains in the 2014 Assembly Elections.
By Anisha Dutta and Swapnil Rawal | Hindustan Times, New Delhi
UPDATED ON SEP 28, 2019 07:30 PM IST

In a departure from its perceived urban leanings, the Shiv Sena is seeking to woo rural voters of Maharashtra --a traditional support base of the state’s opposition parties -- in the October 21 assembly elections. Apart from the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) and the Congress, the Sena also faces competition in the hinterland from its ally, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which notched up significant gains in rural Maharashtra in 2014.

The Sena, with its youth wing providing key inputs, has prepared a detailed strategy that shortlisted 111 assembly constituencies that are a priority for the party. Seventy-nine of the constituencies are rural, nine semi-urban and 23 urban, party functionaries said.

Yuva Sena leader Aaditya Thackeray, son of Shiv Sena chief Uddhav Thackeray and grandson of founder Bal Thackeray, covered nearly 5,500 kilometres travelling across the Mumbai and Konkan regions, the party’s traditional strongholds, and beyond them into rural Maharashtra, in Marathwada and Vidarbha in a Jan Ashirwad Yatra to help draw up the shortlist ahead of the assembly polls set for October 21.

“I have been touring the state for nine years formally, and much more earlier, be it reaching out to drought-hit areas, or supporting farmers or student activists and women self-help groups. This yatra was to seek blessings from the people to build a new Maharashtra,” Aaditya Thackery told Hindustan Times.

The yatra ‘s focus on rural constituencies was a conscious effort by the party to change its image as a party oriented towards urban issues. The yatra spurred speculation that Aaditya Thackeray may contest an election, becoming the first in his family to do so.

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Party leaders, requesting anonymity, said he is likely to contest the Worli assembly seat in Mumbai. The constituency is a mix of working, middle-class families, new and upcoming high-rises, old chawls awaiting redevelopment, and an area near the sea inhabited by the Koli community, the original inhabitants of Mumbai. It covers five Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation wards, all of which have Sena corporators. With former NCP leader and former Worli MLA Sachin Ahir joining the Sena, Worli is seen as a risk-free seat for which no prominent Opposition leader is in the running .

At the same time, in a bid to break into rural Maharashtra and change its pro-urban mould, the Sena leadership is contemplating fielding Aaditya Thackeray from a “safe” constituency in the countryside as well, the party leaders said. Shiv Sena is scouting such a seat in Marathwada.

According to the party leaders cited above, he is likely to file his nomination next week followed by a padyatra (road journey) to begin his campaign.

“The objective of the Jan Ashirwad Yatra was to thank the people for their belief in us to represent their aspirations for a new Maharashtra. In all the places where the Yatra travelled, we saw people enthusiastically participating and assuring us of their continued support and blessings. As a party, for Shiv Sena, the entire Maharashta is important...our leader Shri Aaditya Thackeray ji wanted to reach out to as many people as possible understanding their concerns, issues, feedback and seek blessings from them,” said Shiv Sena secretary Suraj Chavan.

The party traditionally draws its strength from the Maratha and Kunbi communities in the Konkan region of the state around whom the party’s strong hard line policy is centred. About 45% of the state’s population lives in urban areas and more than 100 out of 288 assembly constituencies are in urban or semi-urban areas.

“The main reason to focus on rural seats is of course to maximize the party’s vote base and {presence} where the dividends are. After the result of 2014 elections the party realised that we made a dent for the first time in western Maharashtra apart from Konkan and Mumbai areas... and we want to build on it,” one of the party leaders cited above said.

In 2009, out of a total of 44 seats the party was able to win, 26 seats were in rural, 15 in urban and three semi-urban areas. In 2014, the party’s seat count rose to 63 with 34 seats in rural, 23 in urban and six in semi-urban areas. The Shiv Sena made inroads into the interior parts of Maharashtra in 2014 which the party is seeking to build on.

Earlier this year, Shiv Sena roped in election strategist and Janata Dal (United) vice president Prashant Kishor to design its assembly election campaign. As part of its election strategy, farmers’ outreach campaigns were also planned across the state to seek rural support.

“ Party chief Uddhav Thackeray also began a campaign--Pik Vima -- aimed at raising issues of farmers who did not get their due from insurance companies. He led the protest against insurance companies at Bandra-Kurla Complex (BKC) after only 1 million farmers received compensation. Uddhav helped 9 million farmers receive Rs 2,000 crore as the compensation amount who were earlier categorized as ‘ineligible’ by insurance companies,” the party leader cited above said.

To be sure, the Shiv Sena is still engaged in seat-sharing talks with the BJP, which too would be looking to build on the rural gains it notched up in 2014 And both Congress and the NCP count on rural Maharashtra as one of their electoral citadels. Sena is hoping to cut into the rural base of the NCP, weakened by electoral reverses and defections.

“We aim to increase our relevance in these areas and also cut into NCP’s vote share, which was weakened over the last three months across its traditional bastion of western Maharashtra, with many of its tall leaders shifting to the BJP camp. The BJP had dented the party’s vote bank in 2014 also,” the NCP leader added.

The shift of several NCP leaders and legislators to the Shiv Sena as well as the BJP will help the former’s growth in rural Maharashtra, analysts said.

“Shiv Sena started as an urban party with focus on Mumbai and Thane but it started expanding its base to Marathwada,” said Mumbai-based political analyst Prakash Bal. “Now, with NCP leaders mainly from rural areas joining the Sena, it could help the party in the region. However, the situation is fluid; (NCP chief} Sharad Pawar is now getting a lot of support in rural areas again.”

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