Gujarat’s new chief minister provided Maharashtra’s regional parties just the parochial edge they might have needed in poll season. Last week, when Anandiben Patel urged traders in Mumbai to leave the congested and filthy financial capital and move to ‘peaceful’ Gujarat, her intent might have been to appeal to her Gujarati brethren, but it triggered a tirade against the BJP and Prime Minister Narendra Modi. The Gujarati ‘asmita’ versus Marathi ‘manoos’ faceoff that the state had struggled to avoid for over 50 years since its creation in 1960 received a very public revival.
Every party in the five-cornered fight is eyeing the dividends it can reap from an electorate polarised along Gujarati versus Marathi lines, especially after the Lok Sabha verdict. Gujaratis make for a sizeable 17 per cent of Mumbai’s population alone. The BJP would hope that Gujaratis, traditionally supporters of the party, will vote for them en masse. That way, Marathi voters, who constitute 23 per cent of the voting population, end up being less of a threat, considering the Marathi vote is expected to get divided between the Shiv Sena and the MNS.
The stakes are high; so is the vitriol. Modi’s proposal for a bullet train linking the two states drew a sharp retort from MNS chief Raj Thackeray: “The PM wants to bring the bullet train to India. For this he chose the Mumbai-Ahmedabad route. Why will our people go there? Dhokla is available here also.” Together, the MNS and Sena have been accusing the BJP and Modi of harbouring a hidden agenda of separating Mumbai from Maharashtra. The stinging Saamna editorial invited a swift Modi rebuttal at a rally the next day.
Interestingly, the Thackeray cousins have found support from Congress’s Narayan Rane and his son Nitesh, in pushing this conspiracy theory to the masses. They allege that the ‘Modi Sarkar’ is shifting key RBI offices from Mumbai to Gujarat. With the PM comparing Gujarat’s development to Maharashtra’s in rally after rally, regional leaders see it as an insult. “Modiji should realise he is the PM of India and not the CM of Gujarat,” Raj Thackeray said. Worse, Modi is generously borrowing all Marathi icons to define his campaign.
Chauvinistic politics and nativist slogans may have over the years helped Maharashtra parties establish themselves. But in a state where the rivalry between the Gujaratis and the Marathas dates back to the 1950s, when the Samyukta Maharashtra movement and the Mahagujarat movement demanded the creation of separate states on linguistic grounds, the dynamics of regional politics may already be changing. For now it seems, a Gujarati votebank may well be a reality alongside a Marathi votebase.
By Prarthna Gahilote in Mumbai