First the BJP pushed for Marathi movies to be screened during prime time in multiplexes; then the Shiv Sena held protests outside Shobhaa De’s South Mumbai home for opposing this. Soon, the Congress too joined the race, with Nitesh Rane announcing plans to allot vada pav handcarts to Maharashtrian women. And now, the RPI (Athawale), a constituent of the NDA, has threatened to agitate if hotels in Maharashtra do not include Marathi cuisine in their menus, besides demanding reservation for women self-help groups for jobs in malls.
Barely seven months after the assembly polls, identity politics is the flavour of Maharashtra politics. The Sena has traditionally pushed the Marathi manoos cause most aggressively but even national parties such as the BJP and the Congress are now doing the same. Author, columnist, and artist Prakash Bal Joshi feels these political parties are “blind to real aspirations of the Marathi speaking population”. Joshi says this population, especially the youth, is looking for financial stability. “Emotive issues won’t cut ice with them,” he says.
Each party has its own set of reasons for pushing this agenda.
For the BJP, the party in power, it is a question of capturing power in Mumbai, whose municipal corporation is the country’s richest. Although the Sena-BJP combine has ruled the BMC for two decades now, the former has always been the bigger partner and controls the finances. The BJP won one assembly seat more than the Sena in Mumbai last year, a feat it had never previously achieved, and party sources confide they have set out to upstage the Sena in the civic polls in 18 more months. The BJP’s regional push came almost immediately after it emerged victorious in the assembly polls. It invoked Marathi pride and Marathi culture at the swearing-in of Devendra Fadnavis last October. Since then, the government has renamed Mumbai film city as Dadasaheb Phalke Chitranagari.
“The BJP is quite clear that there is a fine line distinguishing proposals that seriously look at promoting the Marathi language, creating employment opportunities and seeking the welfare of the Marathi-speaking people (with proposals) merely seeking to earn political brownie points. There is a need to differentiate between Marathi issues and Marathi manoos issues,” says senior BJP leader Vinod Tawde, also the minister for promoting the Marathi language. Tawde has promised to ensure Marathi gets the status of a classical language. “The genuine sons-of-the-soil theory will require that we offer people jobs, and nobody is doing that,” he says.
Riding almost solely on the Marathi manoos agenda, the Sena had notched up its best performance in the 2014 assembly polls, winning 63 seats although it was overshadowed. Uddhav Thackeray has strategically raised the Gujarat vs Mumbai debate against the BJP’s pro-Marathi agenda. With relations between the allies strained, the Sena has effectively taken the opposition space despite being in government by opposing several government policies. “The sons of the soil know who has been raising genuine issues concerning them. They won’t fall prey to the dirty tricks played by other parties,” says Sena leader Subhash Desai, a minister in the Fadnavis government, also on the committee for coordination between the parties.
Annihilated in Maharashtra, the Congress has planned several efforts in the coming weeks to “connect more” with the Marathi voter, Mumbai Congress chief Sanjay Nirupam says. This comes close on the heels of the party’s five-day Marathi festival to mark Maharashtra Day with cultural and other events. “We need to counter the campaign by the Shiv Sena that they alone are the custodians of Marathi interests. The Shiv Sena has wilfully painted the Congress as being anti-Marathi, but the truth is that while the Sena has taken the vote of the Marathi voter by talking about Marathi asmita, even after 22 years in power in the BMC, they have not tackled the Marathi person’s most basic problems,” Nirupam says. State party chief Ashok Chavan adds, “The Congress has always been supportive of the cause of the bhoomiputra without creating a rift between the sons of the soil and the rest. It was our regime that reserved jobs for sons of the soil.”
Decimated in Mumbai, the NCP feels raising the Marathi manoos pitch will consolidate its base in western Maharashtra. “The migrant population often comes with a set political ideology. This is making parties eye the local population,” says Sachin Ahir, former NCP Mumbai chief.
For the RPI, which sees the emergence of the AIMIM in Dalit belts as a potential threat, the Marathi cause is a means of tapping non-Dalit voters.