Elections

Mumbai Showdown: Sena Vs Sena

The final phase of the Maharashtra elections is witnessing intense polarisation among Mumbai’s Marathi, Gujarati, and Muslim communities as candidates from BJP-allied Sena and Thackeray Sena vie for votes

Photo: Twitter@mieknathshinde
Shiv Sena supporters during a rally in Nashik Photo: Twitter@mieknathshinde
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Hours after Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s roadshow in Mumbai’s Ghatkopar suburb on May 15, cabbie Piyanand Bhatia inspected the damage to his kaali-peeli taxi, crushed by iron girders of the mammoth hoarding, which had collapsed two days ago.

The illegally erected 120-foot-tall billboard weighing 250 tonnes crashed, killing 17 people after a dust storm lashed across the city on May 13. An operation to retrieve dead bodies was still underway as Modi’s entourage cheerfully waved at supporters just a few metres away, ahead of the final phase of Lok Sabha election campaigning.

Staring at his mangled vehicle, Bhatia is grateful to have narrowly escaped death but he is also distraught at losing his job, which will keep him out of work for months. “Nothing is left; the taxi is worth scrap. I will not even get any compensation. Modi was campaigning just metres away, but he did not make any announcements about us or even think of visiting the site to check on us. People like us do not matter in elections,” he sighs.

Ahead of the PM’s roadshow, last-minute metro suspensions and roadblocks put in place due to security reasons, caused chaos and near stampedes. Videos of overcrowded metro stations and the hoarding collapse went viral. However, Ghatkopar’s tragedies found no mention in the PM’s public appearances, even during peak election season.

Supporters of Uddhav Thackeray (UBT) at Shivaji Park in Dadar
Supporters of Uddhav Thackeray (UBT) at Shivaji Park in Dadar Photo: Getty Images
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Raj Gaikwad, stuck in Jagruti Nagar metro station for over an hour, called it “insensitive of the PM,” not to acknowledge the hoarding accident victims or the hardships faced by commuters due to public service closures. “It was a dangerous situation and could have led to another accident. Modi only wants the BJP to win Mumbai but does not care about its people. He did not find it worth it to address the woes in the constituency he was visiting,” he said in anger.

Gaikwad claims Modi chose Ghatkopar for his roadshow due to its significant Gujarati population, which is believed to back the BJP. The party expects its candidate, Mihir Kotecha’s Gujarati origin, to attract around two lakh Gujarati and Mar­wari voters. His contest against Sanjay Dina Patil of Shiv Sena Uddhav Balasaheb Thackeray (Sena-UBT) has become a Gujarati vs. Marathi battle, with Patil’s supporters alleging they were stopped from campaigning in Gujarati-dominated areas.

Kotecha alleges that Patil and his goons from the “mini-Pakistan” area of the Mankhurd Shivaji Nagar slum have been pelting stones at his vehicle during campaigning. He pledged to close the two dumping grounds in Vikhroli and Mankhurd by 2025, blaming Sena for allowing “mini-Pakistans,” referring to the region’s slums.

His slanderous comments has antagonised Muslims and other slum dwellers in Mankhurd, which houses hundreds of shanties on a dumping ground in deplorable conditions. Activist Mohammad Arshad said Kotecha wanted to stir communal tensions by provoking Muslims. “If we are extremists and dangerous, then his BJP government should have taken action against us all these years. Why target us during elections?” he questioned.

The final phase of the Maharashtra elections is witnessing intense polarisation among Mumbai’s Marathi, Gujarati, and Muslim communities as BJP and opposition candidates vie for votes. The Mumbai Metropolitan Region, including ten constituencies—six in Mumbai and four in Thane, Kalyan, Bhiwandi, and Palghar—will go to the polls on Monday, May 20.

Of the 24,90,238 voters, Marathi votes constitute over 40 per cent and are crucial for the BJP to win the six seats in Mumbai, an international finance hub and Maharashtra’s capital. While the writ of the Thackeray family and the Shiv Sena, which has politically represented ‘Marathi Asmita’ and son-of-the-soil-oriented politics, has been writ large over the city, the BJP is known to garner support from Gujarati, Jains, Marwari and Hindi-speaking communities. This time around, the BJP aims to harvest the fruits of its efforts to fragment the Marathi vote due to Shiv Sena’s recent splintering into two factions.

In the Mumbai South constituency, there is a Sena vs Sena contest between sitting MP Arvind Sawant of the Sena UBT faction and Yamini Jadhav from Chief Minister Eknath Shinde-led Shiv Sena. This is expected to divide Marathi votes, as both candidates belong to the Marathi community.

According to veteran political observer Hemant Desai, the BJP aimed to break the Thackeray Sena’s monopoly on Marathi votes. However, the traditional vote bank has remained strong in Dadar, Parel, Sewree, Mazgaon and other areas in the Mumbai South constituency and suburbs, enthusiastically supporting Uddhav’s faction.

Once adversaries of Thackeray’s Shiv Sena, Muslims in Mumbai now appeared to have veered towards his son Uddhav’s outfit.

“Sena’s politics is based on emotions. Its supporters are peculiar; the more you attack the Sena, its supporters will get riled and show even more support for the party. Modi’s jibes of nakli (fake) Sena against Uddhav and causing the division of his party have hurt Marathi people and made them overwhelmingly support him,” he said.

Desai noted that, with Shinde Sena’s alliance, the BJP aims to position itself as the Marathi people’s protector. Shinde, as CM, endeavoured to secure grassroots backing by funding Ganpati, Dahihandi, and Navratri mandals. “But Shinde lacks the charisma of a mass leader, nor does his Sena have any credible face among senior leaders. He lacks the aggressiveness or fighting spirit of a typical Sena leader. Marathi voters in Mumbai still look up to Thackeray as the eligible leader,” he asserted.

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However, in Thane and Kalyan, where the CM is politically rooted, Shinde’s dominance is unparalleled. His rise from a rickshaw driver to CM has sparked enthusiasm among local Sena workers, especially in Thane, where his personal assistant, Naresh Mhaske, contests Rajan Vichare.

In Dombivali’s Nadivali neighbourhood, Shinde campaigned for his son, Dr Shrikant, urging supporters to ensure his victory with a record-breaking five lakh votes. “People have seen my work in the last ten years. PM Modi wrote me a letter appreciating my work in healthcare and infrastructure. He is like my guardian, as is my father, so I am very confident,” Dr Shrikant told Outlook.

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Dalit Marathi communities in Mumbai’s chawls and slums seem inclined to support the Sena UBT, Congress, and Sharad Pawar’s NCP. Thackeray vows to review Adani’s Dharavi redevelopment contract, offering in situ housing. Anil Desai, a Sena UBT candidate, has alleged irregularities in it, while opponent Rahul Shewale supports the project.

The MVA’s sole Bahujan candidate, Congress MLA Varsha Gaikwad from Dharavi, contests the North Central seat against BJP’s Ujjwal Nikam, both debutants. Gaikwad vows support for stalled redevelopment, potentially winning favour among Dalit voters in slums and Ambedkar vastis near airports.

Nikam, a special public prosecutor in the high profile 26/11 attacks case, is projected as the one who delivered justice by convicting the lone Pakistani terrorist Ajmal Kasab involved in the attack. Mumbai’s security is a key focus of the BJP’s manifesto. Modi, at Shivaji Park, urged voters to remember while stepping out to vote that the city was safe under the BJP’s 10-year rule. “There has been no terror attack. You don’t have to worry about returning home in the evening when you leave for work.”

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Thirty two-year-old Borivali resident Prathmesh Sawant agreed that Modi’s biggest achievement has been strengthening national security. “People in Mumbai can walk freely today without fear of bomb blasts. He has developed infrastructure too. These were the basic needs of Mumbaikars and he will strengthen them further when he comes back to power for the third time,” he said, expressing his inclination to vote for Union Minister Piyush Goyal from Mumbai North constituency based on the Modi government’s track record.

Vrushti Shah, 28, said Mumbai North needed a strong candidate to push forward infrastructure development and a candidate with Goyal’s experience as a cabinet minister, will bring more funds and projects.

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Jogeshwari activist Mansoor Darvesh, once a staunch critic of Sena, acknowledges the shift among Muslims due to Uddhav Thackeray’s inclusive leadership amid the pandemic. Thackeray’s stance against divisive rhetoric earned him support. Darvesh and 60 others have pledged to back Sena UBT’s Amol Kirtikar against Shine Sena’s Ravindra Waikar.

Interestingly, Kirtikar’s father, Gajanan, and Waikar, were both charged with instigating violence in the 1992-93 riots post Babri mosque’s demolition, but were acquitted due to a lack of evidence. Jogeshwari, populated by Marathi and Muslim communities, had witnessed violent clashes and arson then. “We are ready to forget past wounds and work with Amol Kirtikar. We have to find an alternative and trust someone.”

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The Dawoodi Bohri Muslim community, known for their amiable ties with PM Modi, remains apolitical under spiritual leader Syedna Mufaddal Saifuddin. An official from the Dawoodi Bohri Muslim community affirms Bohris’ freedom to vote for candidates promoting development and good governance.

Catholics in the city are mobilising to vote as a united block. At an inter-religious meeting at Sacred Hearts Church in Andheri, leaders highlighted ethnic strife and minority attacks under BJP rule. Dolphy D’Souza, Bombay Catholic Sabha President, urged Christians to vote en masse for Congress-Sena UBT parties. “We need to take sides. We cannot be neutral. If we decide and vote together, there is a chance we can get six candidates from the non-BJP parties to win. The voting percentage of the Christian community was one percent. We need to go out (en masse).”

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Whether Mumbai will brave the sweltering humidity and heed to the suggestions of civil society groups and political parties to go out and vote or stay in and lament in its political apathy, the voter turnout will tell.

Shweta Desai in Mumbai

(Additional reporting by Pritha Vashisth)

(This appeared in the print as 'Which Is The Real Sena?')

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