With an eye on the BMC elections scheduled for the end of this year, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is looking to make social and cultural inroads into Shiv Sena-dominated areas of South Central Mumbai, by championing festive occasions such as Dandiya during Navratri, and earlier, the Ganesh festival and Dahi Handi.
The BJP has two aims in mind, according to party leadership and experts. One is the long-term goal of capturing the vote bank in Dadar, Parel, Lower Parel, and Worli areas, which are considered the Sena’s turf. And the second is to damage the Sena’s chances of winning the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) elections and thereby, putting an end to a 25-year-long dominance of the party over the country’s richest civic body.
In a first-of-its-kind event during the nine-day festival of Navratri starting Monday, the BJP has organised a Marathi Garbha at Abhyuday Nagar near Lower Parel in the heart of South Mumbai. The event will run through the second half of the Navratri festival, and the BJP has invited popular Marathi singers and musicians to woo the Maharashtrian crowd.
The Shiv Sena has dominated the vote bank in South Central Mumbai, which comprises mainly Marathi-speaking voters, for about two decades, and its residents are considered hard-lined loyalists of the party.
Sanjay Patil, who works at the University of Mumbai and has been chronicling the Shiv Sena’s journey for the last 10 years, said, “The Sena’s success in these areas is partly attributed to its grasp over the area’s social and cultural vibe. As long as the Sena and the BJP were in alliance, the party never allowed the BJP to enter these areas. This was expected, as with every alliance, there is an understanding, and pockets, where either party has a stronghold, are untouched by the alliance partner: much like the Sena did not make inroads into the Gujarati and Marwari-dominated area of Mulund.”
Now, with the rivalry between the BJP and the Thackerays at its peak, the party would want to capture the Sena’s vote bank, according to Patil.
On the occasion of Dahi Handi, the BJP had organised an event at the Jambori Maidan in Worli, where the Shiv Sena traditionally hosts a large gathering every year, until the coronavirus pandemic.
During his visit to Mumbai for the Ganesh festival at the beginning of September, Union Home Minister and BJP leader Amit Shah set a target of 150 seats for the BJP in the upcoming BMC elections. In 2017-2022, the BJP had won 82 seats in the BMC out of 227, while Sena had taken 84. A senior BJP leader said, “There are no specific areas that the BJP is eyeing for the BMC polls, it is the whole of Mumbai. But the BJP already has sure-shot seats in North Mumbai, and parts of South Mumbai even. The areas the party now hopes to capture are South Central Mumbai.”
However, BJP leaders have termed the initiative of organising Dandiya in South Central Mumbai as “non-political”, adding it was being held to unite the people. “Mumbai is a cosmopolitan city and earlier, Dandiya festivals were arranged in Marathi pockets of the city as well. However, they didn’t gain much prominence since they were arranged on a small scale. This is for the first time the BJP Mumbai is arranging such a large Dandiya festival in Central Mumbai and this has been done only to unite people. There’s no political intention behind it,” said Mihir Kotecha, the BJP legislator from Mulund who is spearheading this programme.
“We are calling it a ‘Marathi Dandiya’ since we want to highlight the local fervour. This is a theme that we are using to raise the popularity of the festival among the local citizens. From the next year, we may drop the ‘Marathi’ word from our campaign since we believe that the initiative will gain enough prominence by then through word-of-mouth,” said Vinod Mishra, a former corporator who is also a part of this campaign.
Meanwhile, members of the Uddhav Thackeray-led Sena faction criticised the Mumbai BJP over organising Marathi Dandiya and accused them of creating a divide amongst people.
“Till now we have seen Navratri as a unified festival and so is Ganpati. But dividing the festival on the basis of caste, religion and statehood is unfortunate. We are unified and Navratri is a symbol of Durga Puja and people celebrate it in their own way. This is how the BJP does politics as it is all about dividing people as per their statehood and economic standard,” said Priyanka Chaturvedi of the Shiv Sena.
Sachin Ahir, Shiv Sena leader from Worli and a former legislator, termed the BJP’s attempt as a political gimmick. “The BJP had tried to hold a similar campaign just before the 2017 civic elections when both Sena and BJP were in an alliance. Now that the parties are not together anymore they (the BJP) have just tweaked the name of the campaign and are arranging it with much more pomp and show,” said Ahir.