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Ahead of BMC Polls, Shiv Sena Hoping to Butter up Gujarati Voters with Jalebi-Fafda Strategy

File photo of Maharashtra CM Uddhav Thackeray. (PTI)

File photo of Maharashtra CM Uddhav Thackeray. (PTI)

The Gujaratis love their food, and on Sunday the Shiv Sena will roll out a version of its culinary diplomacy with a tagline ‘Mumbai ma jalebi ne fafda, Uddhav Thackeray aapda’.

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Dhaval Kulkarni

Between 2014-19, the Shiv Sena and Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) were in an uneasy alliance in Maharashtra. The Shiv Sena, despite sharing power with the BJP, would often criticise it on issues ranging from demonetisation to the Narendra Modi regime’s policy on Kashmir.

However, a former BJP minister states that despite the fireworks in public, the Shiv Sena’s corps in the state cabinet would often take conciliatory positions.

Once, recalled the former minister, when the spread was laid out during the state cabinet meeting, a Shiv Sena minister was eating dhokla when he was ribbed about it by some of his BJP counterparts. Our discordant noises today are meant to ensure that we do not eat dhokla for another term, averred the Shiv Sena minister. While alluding to the popularity of the snack in Modi’s home state of Gujarat, the message was clear—the Shiv Sena’s aggression was an attempt to hold its own in the partnership with the BJP.

Today, the Shiv Sena is working at using two popular savouries identified with Gujarati cuisine to make inroads among these voters who form sizeable numbers in Mumbai and to keep the BJP at bay in the crucial Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) elections due early next year.

The Gujaratis love their food, and on Sunday the Shiv Sena will roll out a version of its culinary diplomacy with a tagline ‘Mumbai ma jalebi ne fafda, Uddhav Thackeray aapda’ (let’s have jalebi and fafda in Mumbai, Maharashtra chief minister and Shiv Sena president Uddhav Thackeray is our man).

The political gathering at Jogeshwari in north Mumbai, where these snacks will be served, is being helmed by octogenarian Hemraj Shah, who has formerly been with the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP), and is one of the sanghataks (organisers) of the Shiv Sena. This campaign to drum up support for the party among Gujarati-speakers indicates a shift in the Shiv Sena’s nativist politics, and its gradual coming to terms with the fast-changing demography of Mumbai.

The BMC is the nucleus of the Shiv Sena’s politics, helping keep its reward economy model in fine fettle and ensuring that its formidable organisational apparatus is well-lubricated due to the trickle-down effect of controlling India’s richest civic body.

Born as a nativist party claiming to represent the sons-of-the-soil, the Shiv Sena gradually adapted to the fast-changing demography of Mumbai and the larger metropolitan region. It shifted towards aggressive Hindutva in the tumultuous decade of the 1980s, with party supremo Bal Thackeray emerging as a Hindutva mascot. This was aimed at reaching out to a wider, non-Maharashtrian Hindu constituency.

However, the BMC elections held in 2017 saw the Shiv Sena, which had snapped its alliance with the BJP, retain power by the skin of its teeth. It secured 84 seats as against the BJP’s 82. This highlighted how the changing demography of the city, decline in the numbers of the Marathi-speaking voters, who are counted as the Sena’s core supporters, and the migration of upper-class Maharashtrians to the BJP meant that the Shiv Sena would have a tough fight on its hands five years later. Now, the BJP is girding its loins to wrest the BMC from the Sena.

The need to reach out to an auxiliary constituency and cosmopolitan voters led to the projection of Shiv Sena president and Yuva Sena chief Aaditya Thackeray as the party’s genteel face. One of the campaign posters for Aaditya in his run for the state assembly from Worli in Mumbai last year featured a tagline in Gujarati: Kem Cho Worli (How are you, Worli?). Incidentally, the Shiv Sena had nominated a few Gujaratis in the 2017 BMC polls.

However, the outreach to a fresh constituency while trying to retain its core vote base is not easy as is evident by the Shiv Sena’s unsuccessful attempts in the past to woo another major voting bloc in Mumbai—the North Indians.

In 2003, with just a year to go for the state assembly polls, Uddhav who had just taken over as the working president of the Shiv Sena, beating cousin Raj, launched the ‘Mee Mumbaikar’ campaign to woo voters across linguistic denominations. Coming on the back of events like the ‘Chhat Puja’ to cultivate North Indians, ‘Mee Mumbaikar’ saw Hindi-speakers being promoted in the party apparatus, and struck a chord with them. However, a section of the rank-and-file was upset at the party’s core agenda being diluted.

This anger spilt into the open in November 2003.

Activists of the Bharatiya Vidyarthi Sena (BVS), which was then led by Raj, who was Uddhav’s prime challenger for the Shiv Sena’s leadership, attacked North Indian youth, who had come to Kalyan near Mumbai to appear for the Railway recruitment board exams, causing a furore.

Parties like the Shiv Sena charge that the recruitment processes in the Railways and central government undertakings are tweaked in favour of candidates from Hindi-speaking states. The resultant backlash over the attacks saw North Indians consolidate in favour of the ruling Congress-NCP in the 2004 Lok Sabha and assembly polls, denying the Shiv Sena-BJP a shot at power. The Shiv Sena had to wind up the ‘Mee Mumbaikar’ campaign.

In 2006, Uddhav, who was smarting under rebellions by then leader of opposition Narayan Rane and Raj, who had quit the Sena the previous year, launched Bhojpuri sammelans and Lai Chana programs to reach out to Hindi-speakers. The strategy paid dividends in the Mumbai and Thane civic polls held the next year. Uddhav also attended events to commemorate the foundation of the state of Uttar Pradesh.

However, the Shiv Sena was forced to wind this up after the rival Maharashtra Navnirman Sena (MNS) led by Raj launched its campaign (2008) against Hindi-speaking migrants, which led to the working-class Maharashtrians shifting loyalties to the new Sena on the bloc.

In the 2009 assembly elections, the MNS won 13 seats in the Maharashtra assembly, of which six were from Mumbai, creating a major crisis before the Shiv Sena.

Now, the Shiv Sena’s outreach to the Gujarati speakers is also riddled with a minefield.

The Shiv Sena had its genesis in the Samyukta Maharashtra movement that sought the creation of the Marathi-speaking state of Maharashtra with Mumbai as its capital. This agitation, of which the late Sena chief’s father, the social reformer, anti-caste activist and journalist ‘Prabodhankar’ Keshav Sitaram Thackeray was a leading light, had to contend with the competing demands of the Gujarati speakers over the metropolis.

In 2014, after polling for the Lok Sabha polls concluded, the Shiv Sena mouthpiece Saamna attacked the Gujaratis in an editorial, accusing the mercantile class of “exploiting” Mumbai to earn their wealth. The embarrassed Shiv Sena leadership distanced itself from the editorial, which was seen as the handiwork of party hawk Sanjay Raut, who is Saamna’s executive editor. Shiv Sena leaders have also objected to the demand of Jain community leaders to ban animal slaughter during the paryushan festival.

But, in its chequered trajectory, the Shiv Sena has always targeted poorer economic migrants like those from Hindi-speaking states, and Muslims, rather than those who were well-off. Indeed, as political scientist Gerard Heuze notes, the Shiv Sena never questioned seriously the right of the Gujarati sheth to be a citizen of Mumbai. This set it apart from similar nativist movements like that of the tribals of Jharkhand.

The decline of the manufacturing sector in Mumbai and the use of these lands for housing led to a change in the city’s demography, economy and culture. Gated communities and housing projects meant only for vegetarians have sprung up on lands once occupied by textile mills in the working class quarters of the city, leading to costs of living rising, and breeding simmering anger against this among the Maharashtrians, who form bulk of the Shiv Sena’s voters. These developments have also sharpened the Marathi versus non-Marathi cleavage in the city.

However, it must also be noted that no community or linguistic group, including Marathi speakers, votes as a monolith. Due to its presence in slums and lower-income group housing like chawls, the Shiv Sena commands pockets of support among Hindi and Gujarati speakers and also some Muslims. The Sena has also clashed with Marathi-speaking Buddhist Dalits in its heydays.

Hence, as Uddhav launches the first such major initiative to tap a new constituency, he will have to contend with players like the MNS, which will seek to highlight the inconsistencies and paradoxes in these positions and wrest support of the Sena’s core vote base.

Already, the Shiv Sena’s alliance with the Congress and NCP to form the Maha Vikas Aghadi (MVA) government under Uddhav has led to estranged ally BJP going hammer and tongs at it over dilution of the Hindutva agenda. For instance, copies of a calendar in Urdu printed by Shiv Sena functionaries have been circulated ad nauseum on social media as an example of the Sena’s political opportunism.

So, can Uddhav, the man who is seen as someone who can liberalise the Shiv Sena, take his agenda to the logical end? The Shiv Sena’s previous attempts to create a wider, pan-lingual political constituency have come a cropper, but can it emerge third time lucky? Or will history repeat itself? Only time will tell.

Disclaimer:The author is a Mumbai-based journalist and author of ‘The Cousins Thackeray: Uddhav, Raj and the Shadow of their Senas’. Views are personal.


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