Minutes after Chief Minister Uddhav Thackeray announced scrapping of the Metro carshed project at Aarey in October, his son and Maharashtra Environment Minister Aaditya had tweeted, “Aarey Saved!” Championing the cause of preservation of the green, Uddhav said, “Biodiversity in Aarey needs to be conserved and protected. Nowhere is there an 800-acre jungle in an urban setup.”
Shiv Sena has also been restrained in its reactions as personal accusations were hurled against the party’s first family in connection with the Sushant Singh Rajput’s death case and the Kangana Ranaut fiasco.
Ever since he forged an alliance with Congress and NCP, Thackeray has made a conscious effort of moving his party away from hardline Hindutva, focusing instead on environment and development issues to expand his party’s appeal among Mumbai’s cosmopolitan middle class.
The answer to this change in strategy perhaps lies in the mood on a February afternoon in 2017, a day that started with celebrations outside Thackerays’ residence Matoshree, but ended on a subdued note. It was the day of BMC poll results. The BJP had notched up its best performance in BMC polls that year, winning 82 seats to Sena’s 84. The 2019 state polls, which both contested jointly, further showed how BJP consolidated its hold among the non-Marathi Hindu voters in Mumbai. Outperforming Sena, it won 16 of the 17 seats it contested. Sena won 14 of the 19 it fought. Sena knows the 2022 BMC elections is likely to be more closely contested. While the party has consistently been in power in BMC since 1997, the BJP is eager to dislodge its former ally.
A battle of high stakes
At 33,441 crore, BMC’s budget is bigger than that of several smaller states. It can undertake big ticket development projects on its own. Control over the civic body allows a party to wield more control over economic activities. For the BJP, dislodging the Sena has also become a matter of prestige.
Although elections are still more than a year away, the BJP has sounded the bugle. Last week, former CM Devendra Fadnavis launched BJP’s Mission Mumbai, where he vowed: “Shiv Sena’s bhagwa (saffron flag) will not unfurl atop the BMC headquarters after the 2022 polls.” BJP is eyeing Sena’s hardline Hindu vote. “Thackeray’s decision to align with Congress and NCP has hurt sentiments of their traditional voters,” said MLA Atul Bhatkalkar, in charge of Mission Mumbai.
A day after Fadnavis’s declaration, a Saamana editorial invoked Marathi pride, likening Sena’s bhagwa to the bhagwa of Chhatrapati Shivaji, the Samyukta Maharashtra movement and Marathi manoos. But Sena knows that a campaign on “who’s more pro-Hindutva” might not work.
So the Thackerays appear to be working on a new Hindutva template — less confrontational and more cosmopolitan. From the topics Aaditya tweets on to the image Uddhav has tried to build through social media addresses, the aim is to reach out to a larger section of the middle class.
Aaditya, minister in-charge for Mumbai suburbs, has been pushing development activities in pockets where the Sena hopes to reap benefits. “We have evolved an action plan to push development works over the next year,” said former minister Ravindra Waikar.
Amid indications that BJP may inch closer to MNS in run-up to the polls, Sena is believed to be keen on stitching a broad pre-poll pact with NCP and Congress.