Poll pyramid,party to people

Jitendra Awhad,NCP MLA in Thane,has offered Rs 1.1 crore to the winners of his event,the biggest jackpot this year.

Written by Sharvari Patwa | Mumbai | Published: August 29, 2013 3:55 am

The financial markets may be hitting a new low every day,but Mumbai’s politicians have upped the stakes for the Dahi Handi celebrations this year. Prizes on offer Thursday have crossed Rs 1 crore for events that,with their glamour,will help politicians connect better with their voters ahead of the elections.

Jitendra Awhad,NCP MLA in Thane,has offered Rs 1.1 crore to the winners of his event,the biggest jackpot this year. Several others have offered Rs 1 crore. Among them are Shiv Sena MLA Pratap Sarnaik at Vartaknagar,Thane,NCP MLA Sachin Ahir’s NGO Sankalp at Worli,and MNS MLA Ram Kadam at Ghatkopar.

The festival involves Govindas standing on one another’s shoulders in a pyramid and trying to break suspended clay pots of butter or dahi,defying crowds who splash them with water. Preparations to form the tallest pyramid begin months in advance. This year,30,000 Govindas have been given insurance covers of Rs 1.5 lakh each.

The city will have some 500 contests this year. And most groups in Mumbai,Navi Mumbai and Thane are affiliated to political parties today,a trend over the last few years. The festival is typically celebrated among mill and industrial workers,where many of the votes lie. “These celebrations were a few occasions for recreation for the working class,especially in chawls in Girgaum,Parel and Wadala,” says Prakash Bal,a veteran political analyst in Mumbai.

“Local festivals are ideal to hunt for young talent. These youngsters are already well-networked and once they are associated with a politician,they are of huge help in garnering votes. They mostly go with the politician to each home and seek votes,” Bal says.

“The cultural flavour of such festivals has been totally lost now with the event being commercialised and glamourised for political mileage,” says Surendra Jondhale,professor of political science at Mumbai University.

A celebrity presence and wide publicity mark such events. Awhad’s Sangharsh Sangathana will have a team of 80-90 Spanish castellers competing against local Govindas. Ahir’s event at Worli’s Jamboree Maidan,where more than 2,000 Govindas will form pyramids of eight to 10 decks,will feature Shah Rukh Khan,besides Usha Uthup and Esha Deol. Last year,he had Hrithik Roshan.

The event allows Bollywood celebrities an opportunity to promote upcoming films. Three-time Congress MP Sanjay Nirupam,who hopes to contest again,has invited Arjun Rampal,doubled his prize money and planned a nine-hour celebration with 26 singers and a live DJ performance in Borivali.

The total funding for Dahi Handi and the upcoming Ganeshotsav celebrations will touch an estimated Rs 50 crore this year. “Everyone loves celebrations,especially if someone else is footing the cost. Such events help politicians connect to their voters and identify strongholds,” says Ashish Shelar,a BJP leader whose events in Bandra have over 200 Govindas. The prize here is Rs 25 lakh,up from around Rs 2 lakh 11 years earlier.

Most politicians claim they pay from their own pockets for the contests,celebrity arrivals,live performances and donations to public causes,but some concede that part of the funds is sought from corporate sponsors through advertisements. Sarnaik says his event has been funded entirely by the Vihaang Group of Companies,which he owns.

“Dahi Handi gives the voter a chance to enjoy the day and is also a good political investment,” says Sarnaik,whose event has more than 450 mandals contesting and expects over 60,000 visitors apart from film stars. He has been organising celebrations for 15 years since he was elected a corporator.

“All this might not necessarily translate into votes but there are other advantages,” says Ahir,whose events are telecast live in 46 countries. The crowds were around 5,000 in 2005,when his political career began,and are now over 60,000 each year. The prize of Rs 1 crore is up from Rs 60 lakh last year.

The MNS’s Kadam,a Bollywood fan,used to be a party worker when he began organising celebrations in the late 2000s. “This year,the celebrations will see more than a dozen film stars. This is purely an entertainment event,not politically motivated,” says the MNS leader,adding he too has invited Shah Rukh to break the tallest handi.

Political analyst Bal attributes the Shiv Sena’s rise in the 1960s to the festival. “It has come up on the back of Shiv Sena shakhas,fostered by local party workers.” He compares the party structure to the Dahi Handi pyramid; the bottom level connects with locals and the topmost is the corporator or MLA.

The MNS’s Bala Nandgaonkar,who began Dahi Handi celebrations as a Shiv Sena worker,still mingles with locals during celebrations and helps them break the handi,says Bal. When he left the Shiv Sena,he took along all his workers to the MNS.

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