Elections 2024: Why Mumbai and Maharashtra verdict is crucial

The first poll after the Sena/NCP split will be a test case for competing claims over ideology, legacy of political parties

Prof Manisha Madhava | May 29, 2024

#Narendra Modi   #Uddhav Thackeray   #NCP   #Congress   #Shiv Sena   #BJP   #Maharashtra   #Mumbai   #General Elections   #Devendra Fadanvis  

In the ongoing Lok Sabha elections, Maharashtra with 48 Lok Sabha seats is of crucial importance for the final outcome. In the 2019 election, the Shiv Sena-BJP alliance won 42 seats including six seats in Mumbai, as well as one each in Thane, Kalyan, Bhiwandi, and Palghar, which fall in the Mumbai Metropolitan Region (MMR). This time around, after the Shiv Sena split, the Mumbai verdict will determine not only who the voters perceive as the real inheritor of the Sena legacy, but also the larger question of the leadership's role in reshaping the ideology of the party.

This is the first election in the region after the split within Shiv Sena. In June 2022 Eknath Shinde and his group of 38 MLAs rebelled against Uddhav Thackeray's leadership, bringing down the Maha VIkas Aghadi (MVA) government (of Sena-NCP-Congress). Since then the one question that everyone is trying to find an answer to is: Who are the inheritors of the Shiv Sena legacy? Two years later, the larger ramifications of the spilt have been opened for popular verdict. Shinde's rationale for the split has been that Sena and BJP shared a common commitment to the Hindutva ideology, making BJP and Sena natural allies. By breaking the coalition, and joining hands with NCP and Congress, which were ideological opposites and political adversaries, Uddhav violated the very ideology on which the party was founded.

The Original Split
The BJP-Sena alliance goes back three and half decades. They came together for the first time in 1984 and a formal alliance was formed for the 1989 Lok Sabha election, with a seat-sharing arrangement between the two parties. The Shiv Sena emerged as a party promoting the interest of Marathi-speaking people in 1966. By the 1980s, it was promoting the Hindutava cause. Hindutva was the glue that bound them together and presented them as one unit to the voters of Maharashtra, election after election. By 2014, the BJP had emerged as the larger partner and the two parties contested the assembly elections separately with the Shiv Sena finishing with 63 MLAs to BJP’s 122. It soon joined the Devendra Fadnavis government which now accommodated its junior ally with a dozen portfolios that many consider were insignificant ones. This led to a lot of dissatisfaction in the Shiv Sena ranks. The two parties buried their hatchets ahead of 2019. In the state assembly elections that year, BJP emerged as the single largest party, winning 105 of the 288 seats, while the Shiv Sena got 56 seats, and a coalition government looked like a foregone conclusion. The alliance then broke over the chief minister’s post.
Subsequently, Uddhav formed the MVA government in coalition with ideologically disparate political opponents, the Congress and NCP. This move seemed inconsistent with the Sena's core ideology and politics. Thackeray was accused of sacrificing the party's philosophy for personal ambitions. These claims found resonance on the ground as the tensions within Sena's cadre, especially at the constituency and booth levels, where opponents, NCP workers, became allies, leading to confusion among party workers loyal to Sena.

Shinde saw the benefits that an alliance with the BJP could bring to Sena in the long run. With the BJP in power at the centre and a partner in the new Mahayuti government in the state, Maharashtra could be assured of infrastructure projects and better resource allocation. It's not surprising, therefore, that in the time that it's been in power, the Sena-BJP alliance has showcased the infrastructural development in the city; be it the Atal Setu or the Costal Road.

Problems Galore
Despite Shinde's return to the original coalition in 2022, the problems within both factions of the Shiv Sena persist. For one, the split has unsettled a cadre-based party with questions of who owes loyalty to whom. Uddhav claims a natural right to the party's legacy as the son and heir of Babasaheb Thackeray, the founder of the party. He is also perceived as a victim of deceit by erstwhile loyalists (the Shinde faction) with the support of the erstwhile allies, the BJP. With the two factions now recognised by the Election Commission as separate political parties, the Shinde-led Sena, gained several ground workers associated with the MPs and MLAs who supported them. It also bagged the official tag of being the “real Shiv Sena” and the party’s symbol – the bow and arrow. This it hopes would help it garner votes due to its familiarity among the electorate.

Shiv Sena (UBT), on the other hand, has managed to retain a key part of the party’s administration, comprising senior and experienced functionaries with political acumen. It has also managed to maintain a sentiment of sympathy for the Thackeray clan, brewing in its strongholds like Mumbai, Thane and Konkan.

Question of Reshaping Ideology
All the while, Uddhav Thackrey rejects any claims of dilution of ideology. He reasons that the Shiv Sena’s alliance with the NCP and Congress was necessary for the party's survival as an independent political entity, amidst fears of being overshadowed by an expanding BJP led by Narendra Modi. He reminds us that the BJP was unwilling to cede the chief ministership to the Sena. The appointment of Ajit Pawar in the wee hours of the morning in 2019 affirmed the party's belief that the BJP is averse to power sharing with Sena. Perhaps Thackeray feared that the BJP may make the Sena invisible or politically irrelevant, taking over both its ideology and support base. The subsequent split engineered by Shinde within Sena and the split in NCP with Ajit Pawar walking out on Sharad Pawar, allying with the BJP and Shinde to become a part of the Mahayuti government, have created turmoil in the state’s political landscape. As it happens, the voters of the state have to choose between the Maha Vikas Aghadi, which consists of the Shiv Sena of Uddhav Thackery, the NCP of the Sharad Pawar and the Congress, and the Mahayuti of the BJP, the Shinde Sena, and the Ajit Pawar faction of the NCP.

However, central to this election is not merely the question of which one is the genuine Shiv Sena, which is the claimant of the ideological legacy of Balasaheb Thackeray, but also the question of the 'Marathi Manoos', which was central to Shiv Sena's identity originally. The party has historically championed the interests of the Marathi-speaking population in the city, against the Tamil-speaking migrants in the 1960s and the Hindi-speaking migrants in the 1990s. The working-class Marathi-speaking population is the core support base of the Sena’s politics. When the BJP and the undivided Shiv Sena were in an alliance, the BJP had cultivated a following in Mumbai’s Gujarati-speaking areas, while the undivided Shiv Sena continued to pull votes from the city’s Marathi bastions. Modi's leadership and the BJP's dominance altered the delicate balance. The question of linguistic identity was subserved within the larger umbrella of Hindutva and developmental politics.

With a large non-marathi population in the city, and the Gujarati capital dominance of the finance and trade sector, this strategy seemed suitable to both BJP and Shinde Sena, both of whom were unsure of whom the Mumbai voters would support. After the split, the Gujarati-Marathi divide has found a new life, with the Sena accusing the BJP of favouring Gujarat over Maharashtra. Uddahv Thackeray has sought to recreate the Shiv Sena (UBT) as the true representative of the Marathi Manoos. In many of his media interviews, Uddhav Thackrey has accused the PM of polarising Mumbai on the Marathi vs. Gujarati lines and of shifting projects that Maharashtra was eying to Gujarat. When the elections were around the corner, the BJP was not only actively wooing Mumbai’s Marathi population, but also taunting Thackeray for having done nothing for the Marathi people in Mumbai. Modi’s last road show in Mumbai was in the Ghatkopar area, a suburb with a significant Gujarati population. On Twitter, the PM posted a message about the Marathi character of the city and his resolve to promote Marathi Language. The Sena was quick to point out that the PM’s speech made no mention of the 15 workers who lost their lives in the hoarding collapse in the same area the day before his visit.

Uddhav’s electoral strategy has revolved around making a representative claim for Marathi identity. In most of the Shiv Sena (UBT) rallies, Worli MLA (and son of Uddhav Thackery) Aaditya Thackeray talked about the BJP’s “grudge” against Mumbai and Maharashtra. He accused the BJP-Sena (BST) of moving projects from Mumbai to Gujarat and alleged that the Modi government wanted to break Mumbai away from Maharashtra.

Devendra Fadnavis countered these claims and blamed Uddhav Thackeray, while claiming credit for the rehabilitation of mill workers and the Coastal Road project, ensuring that the state tops the charts in attracting investments. Deputy chief minister Fadnavis highlighted the benefits that alliances can bring to the state and the city. The state BJP leadership promised a slew of developmental projects, if it was voted to power.

The contest, therefore, is not just of legacy, but of two different representative claims being constructed based on different aspects of a larger ideological framework; one that focuses on relevance of middle class, linguistic identity in city politics and the other that relies on larger, though sub-national, religious identity and development paradigm. Ultimately, the fate of both the formations; the Aghadi and Mahayuti will be determined by the voters' perception of what central to the politics of the city.  

In the long run, the verdict will also throw light on whether leaders can reshape the ideology of parties that change their course. The verdict in Mumbai will be a test case.
Dr. Manisha Madhava is Professor and Head of Department of Political Science, In Charge, PhD Cell, Co-ordinator, SUUTI, SNDT Women's University.



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