December 29, 2016 3:05:41 am
HOURS before Prime Minister Narendra Modi was to conduct a ‘jal-poojan’ for a gigantic Chhatrapati Shivaji statue and memorial off the Mumbai coast Saturday, 18 Shiv Sainiks gathered near Wilson College, just opposite Girgaum Chowpatty. The popular beach was decked out like a Bollywood set. The Marine Drive stretch was dotted with saffron flags. All morning, radio jingles were announcing the event.
The Shiv Sainiks say they felt it was their duty to be present, though they had no VIP passes to the event. After all, by their very name, these partymen are avowed followers of the Maratha warrior king. So it was more than ironic that about two hours into their wait, a police van rolled up and all 18 were bundled in and taken to the VP Road police station, where they were detained for about an hour. Among the detainees was a Shiv Sena corporator from South Mumbai, Ganesh Sanap.
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“Many BJP activists were also present there. Not a single BJP activist was detained by the police for law and order,” Sanap says angrily.
“Are there separate rules for Sena activists only? What was our crime? How can they detain me, an elected representative, just for standing near the Chowpatty to show as a common man my love and affection for Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj?”
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Krishna Powale, another Shiv Sainik and coordinator for the Colaba Assembly constituency, says the Sainiks were silently waiting for the programme to start, without making any noise. “BJP activists were there too, wearing their party flags. They were not touched by police,” he says.
Across South Mumbai, since the previous evening, Shiv Sena leaders were already bristling. A grand ‘rath-yatra’, chariot after chariot bearing decorative pots of water from Maharashtra’s rivers that would be poured into the sea at the spot where the Rs 3,600-crore memorial will come up, had already placed the Bharatiya Janata Party’s stamp on Saturday’s event. Though two Maharashtra ministers had visited Shiv Sena president Uddhav Thackeray to formally invite him to participate in the function, senior Sena functionaries were already nervous about their icon being thus appropriated.
At Chowpatty, senior Sena leader and vibhag pramukh for South Mumbai Pandurang Sakpal was present too. “We did not have passes. So we were standing near Chowpatty quietly. After detaining our activists, the police made an attempt to detain me too. I repeatedly asked them what our crime was, but no answer was forthcoming. I told them to be ready to face the consequences if they touch me,” says Sakpal. He was eventually not detained, but party workers were furious.
“We had a heated argument with the police about our detentions. I also questioned them asking on whose orders they were acting. We had come for the bhoomipoojan of the Shivaji memorial, and to see our party president. We admire Shivaji and have been following his path for five decades. The BJP has woken up to Shivaji just now,” says Sanap, asking why the event was advertised across the city if non-invitees were not to be allowed anywhere nearby.
Formed in 1966, the Shiv Sena’s name is inspired by Chhatrapati Shivaji, a name suggested by Bal Thackeray’s father Prabodhankar Thackeray. This ‘Army of Shivaji’ has, since then, been by far the most visible of various groups propounding the 17th Century Maratha king’s methods of governance. Apart from professing their admiration for Shivaji and loyalty to Uddhav Thackeray, party activists were also gathered to stay visible, an effort to guard their space as the true followers of Shivaji.
There is a short history to the Sena’s fears that the BJP, with who they have an uneasy alliance at the best of times, is attempting to hijack Shivaji’s legacy. In 2014, fresh from its thumping win in the Lok Sabha election, the BJP launched its state Assembly election campaign with the slogan ‘Chhatrapati Shivaji Ka Ashirvad, Chalo Chale Modi Ke Saath (With the blessings of Chatrapati Shivaji, let us walk along with Modi)’. The slogans were on posters and hoardings plastered across Mumbai in September 2014, long before it emerged that the two parties, having contested the general elections as an alliance, would go it solo for the state elections. The use of Shivaji’s name in the BJP’s launch campaign for Maharashtra was more than clever — it cornered the Congress-NCP, borrowed the Sena’s biggest icon, and beat the Sena to using the warrior king’s name for electoral gains.
Senior state BJP leaders concede that strategic planning went into that move ahead of the Assembly polls. “The entire Assembly elections was fought using Shivaji’s name. Following the sudden demise of senior BJP leader Gopinath Munde, the BJP did not have any strong face in Maharashtra. The BJP’s strongest two faces, Narendra Modi and Amit Shah, are both Gujarati. In order to appeal to the people of Maharashtra, it was decided to use Shivaji’s name in the state, to reach out to the Marathas also, until then the votebank of the Congress and NCP,” says a BJP leader.
Called a party of ‘Banias’ and ‘Bramhins’, playing the Shivaji card suddenly gave the BJP a foothold in rural Maharashtra, and in the Sena’s stronghold of Mumbai. Since then, the BJP has held several events feting Shivaji and honouring his legacy. “This makes sure that BJP gets a share of Marathi people’s votes, which was not the case in the past. Now, like the Shiv Sena and the MNS, the BJP too will get its Marathi votes at the BMC polls,” the leader adds.
The Shivaji statue is now de rigueur at BJP events. Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis regularly refers to Shivaji in his speeches. Earlier this year, Mumbai BJP president and Bandra (West) legislator Ashish Shelar celebrated Maharashtra Day on May 1 at the Shivaji statue near the Chhatrapati Shivaji International Airport in Andheri (East).
Earlier this month, the Maharashtra state cabinet modified the name of the airport, to add the word ‘Maharaj’. Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus will get the additional ‘Maharaj’ too, with the BJP-led state government going the extra mile to convey its respect for Shivaji.
At Saturday’s function, incidentally, conspicuous by his absence was Maharashtra Bhushan-awardee historian Babasaheb Purandare, apparently kept off the invitee list in order to avoid controversy. Earlier this year, when some Maratha outfits raised a furore over Purandare’s works contending that he had misrepresented some facts of Shivaji’s life, the Shiv Sena had supported Purandare wholeheartedly.
The other, more immediate, trigger for the Sainiks to gather at Chowpatty was an incident at the inauguration of the ‘Ram Mandir’ station on Western Railway two days before the PM’s visit.
At the inauguration of the station, planned earlier as Oshiwara railway station between Jogeshwari and Goregaon on WR’s suburban line, a sloganeering skirmish broke out between supporters of the Sena and the BJP, leading to chaos as both parties claimed credit for the station and its renaming as Ram Mandir. “I have been following the issue for the last 7-8 months. I had written a letter to Railway Minister Suresh Prabhu recommending the name for the station as Ram Mandir, which is the name of the area in the government’s revenue department and other official records. After I was told that the local civic body’s and the state government’s recommendation is required, I followed it up with them as well,” says Gajanan Kirtikar, Shiv Sena MP from Mumbai North West constituency who was present at the inauguration. “Due to Ram’s name, there was an attempt to politicise it and take credit for it. BJP ministers put up many hoardings taking credit for the station,” Kirtikar adds.
Other Sena leaders’ view of the incident at the station inauguration is equally nuanced — that they are not taking Ram or Mandir from the BJP, but that the naming of the proposed Oshiwara station after a local temple that’s almost two centuries old was a demand from the local community, one the Sena took forward.
In contrast, Kirtikar says, the BJP’s appropriation of Chhatrapati Shivaji is only for political gains. “Until now, the Congress used Shivaji Maharaj for political purposes. Now, the BJP is appropriating him for obvious political gains. The Sena doesn’t play politics on Shivaji. We have been working on his path five decades,” adds the Parliamentarian.
The sloganeering war between the allies spilled on to Modi’s rally at Bandra Kurla Complex later on Saturday. As Sena activists shouted slogans during BJP minister Chandrakant Patil’s speech, Fadnavis had to intervene to keep them calm. “We are all Shivaji’s soldiers,” he shushed the crowd. But when Uddhav Thackeray started his speech, BJP activists began to shout slogans. The mood was even darker by late evening when it emerged that Modi had left out all mention of the Sena and Bal Thackeray in his speech. In an editorial Tuesday, party mouthpiece Saamana was strident: “Don’t use Chhatrapati Shivaji for petty politics. He is a deity. People who try to own him will have to eat dirt.”
On its part, the BJP maintains that it is simply committed to working on a path laid out by Shivaji. “Nobody thought that a Shivaji memorial of international standards would be built. We (the BJP government) did this, something that has not gone down well with many,” says Ashish Shelar, city president of the BJP.
“This was our stand when we were in the Opposition too. The then Congress-NCP government failed to build the memorial. Even the civic body didn’t do it. The law allows the civic body to develop tourist places but they didn’t do it,” Shelar adds, in a pointed barb at the Shiv Sena-run BMC. “Our commitment has always been to develop a memorial of international standards,” Shelar says, adding that the renaming of the Mumbai airport happened under then Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee.
Amid indecision continuing on whether the BJP and the Sena will patch together a pre-poll alliance ahead of the BMC election, the BJP’s insistence that nobody owns Shivaji will rankle for the Shiv Sainiks.
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