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It’s a political cleft along community lines. Kinnari Gada, 35, is a jewellery designer, a Gujarati and a Dadar resident. In previous elections—Lok Sabha or assembly—she used to vote for the ‘most appropriate’ candidate. But dinnertime conversations with family members have now crystallised into joint support for Narendra Modi.
Kinnari is one of the many Gujarati citizens in Mumbai who are rallying behind Modi for the “development work he has done in Gujarat”. As Mumbai goes to polls on April 24, Gujaratis, largely a trading community (comprising of several communities like Jains, Kathiawadis and Marwadis), seem to be closing ranks behind “Narendrabhai’s” bid to be the PM. In contrast, the bigger population of Marathi voters—at a crossroads between a waning Shiv Sena led by Uddhav Thackeray and a directionless Maharashtra Navnirman Sena led by Raj Thackeray—are divided.
“I don’t think it is only because he is a Gujarati that the community is supporting him. In Gujarat, I’ve seen the drastic improvements.... We will support him,” says Kinnari, adding that she doesn’t have many Marathi friends, despite living in the heart of the Sena-MNS Marathi Manoos bastion.
Sukesh Kothari, 26, a CA from Mulund, echoes her. “We have WhatsApp groups where we share Modi’s achievements and encourage community members to vote.” Mulund is a bastion of Gujaratis and the candidates include BJP’s Kirit Somaiyya, NCP’s Sanjay Dina Patil and aap’s Medha Patkar.
“Naturally, Gujaratis are favouring the BJP because of Modi. Normally traders would vote for whoever provides the best business environment but this time it seems to be centred around one man,” says Hemraj Shah, the president of the Bruhad Mumbai Gujarati Samaj and an NCP supporter. He says old census figures put Gujaratis in Mumbai at 30 lakh, of which there could be 22 lakh voters. Some demographic reports say the Marathi population has fallen to 23 per cent of Mumbai’s total population. The rest—north Indians, Muslims and Christians—are votebanks for the Congress-NCP combine.
“It is not just about Gujaratis. Even non-resident Gujaratis in the US, Europe or Africa are mobilising for Modi,” says political analyst and journalist Kumar Ketkar. “Marathi voters were first split in 2007 because of Uddhav’s ‘we are Mumbaikars’ campaign designed to accommodate other communities who love the city. The MNS further polarised it.”
Arguments bolstered by such figures as a fall in the Marathi population in Mumbai are used by the Shiv Sena and MNS for their ‘sons of the soil’ movement. However, the equations are garbled now. After the war of words between Uddhav and Raj, the Sena and the MNS are in no mood to patch up, confusing the many votaries of the Manoos agenda. Marathis like them habitually dislike Gujaratis—it stems from the fight over keeping Mumbai for Maharashtra during the Samyukta Maharashtra Movement—though that is compounded by the recent tirade against north Indians.
“For us the Narendra Modi factor is a plus but Shiv Sena and Uddhav Thackeray are what we stand by. We are certain that Sena will win...because of work done by Uddhavji,” says Komal Parab from Dadar, who is angry about the Sena-MNS split. “Only the Sena can further the cause of Marathis,” she says.
“At a rally before the Sena came to power in Maharashtra, Bal Thackeray had invited Modi, who’d praised Maharashtrians. He had appealed to Gujaratis to vote for Sena, why should we not support Modi now?” asks Anil Sawant, an ardent Sena supporter. In parts of now MNS-stronghold Dombivli, the Sena has a campaign message: “Sena ko vote, matlab Modi ko vote”. Perhaps sensing a pro-Modi wave, Raj Thackeray declared his support to Modi as PM candidate, yet fielded candidates in nine seats, mostly against the Sena. Come what may, the war of the cousins rages on.
“The Marathi voter might have been confused earlier, but now that we have declared support for Narendra Modi, they can easily choose the MNS even if they want Modi at the Centre,” says Sachin Dhumal, an MNS party worker. “Now we will get those votes as well,” he adds confidently.
However, if one listens in on conversations at Shivaji Park, the disaffection is obvious. “See how Gujaratis come together. But Marathis, they will pull each other down. They will fight among themselves.... Maybe it is better to have a leader like Modi...,” says businessman Pankaj Athawle.
BJP state unit head Devendra Fadnavis says they are not worried about the Marathi-Gujarati factor because the “Modi attraction will ensure Marathi voters’ support to the grand alliance—BJP-Sena-RPI”. Agrees Sena spokesperson Neelam Gorhe: “This is about national issues and the people will support the NDA. The division of votes between the MNS and Sena will be a minor factor.”
At a time when the Congress-NCP combine is on the backfoot, Sena and MNS workers lament the acrimonious split between the two. “This was a good time to come on to the front foot and hit a six. But now one of the two parties would suffer,” says a man watching cricket practice at Shivaji Park.
Like Marathi voters, political analysts are divided on how the palpable ‘Modi effect’ will play on the cousins’ fortunes. “The BJP will do much better than the Sena and that will give the BJP the bargaining power to edge the Sena out and form an alliance with the MNS,” says Girish Kuber, managing editor, Loksatta. “I would say that even before the assembly elections in October, the Shiv Sena would be reduced to a bare minimum.”
Contrastingly, Kumar Ketkar thinks that the Lok Sabha polls will signal the end of Raj Thackeray’s political career. “Raj stepped into the space created when Uddhav split from absolute Marathi chauvinism with his Mumbaikar campaign. By declaring support for Modi, he has moved from Marathi chauvinism to Hindu chauvinism, already endorsed by the Sena by being a long-term BJP ally,” he says.
That is exactly what worries Kirti Shah, a Gujarati farsan maker and trader from Mulund. A citizen who is doing his bit to ensure maximum voting by offering a 50 per cent discount on farsan for those who have exercised their franchise on April 24, he deplores the divide on language and community lines. “What you find is very worrying. I feel that one should vote on the basis of candidates’ work. Do you know we have a remarkable person like Medha Patkar here? Instead of talking about her, the talks are about the wave.” Kirti’s wishes would probably fall on deaf ears in his community, which seems to have made up its mind. But will the more numerous Marathi manoos oblige?