Maharashtrian rivalry with the Gujarati community has become a prominent aspect of local politics, seen especially in debates around vegetarianism in Mumbai. Gujaratis, however, have also for decades been a trusted vote bank for the Bharatiya Janata Party. With the BJP and the Shiv Sena contesting the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation elections separately for the first time in two decades, senior Sena leaders are grappling with the question of whether the party will have to completely lose the Gujarati vote, roughly about 17 per cent of the city’s population. Even as the Sena chose to assuage the Gujarati community’s fears by inducting a senior Gujarati community leader from the BJP, Gujaratis in the city themselves seemed to think that while they continue to be staunch supporters of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, the upcoming Union budget will play a key role in deciding which way their vote swings for the local body polls.
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The trader community in particular has its eyes on the budget speech later this week. Viren Shah, president of the Federation of Retail Traders Welfare Association, said, “When there is so much corruption within the BMC, Shiv Sena won’t win votes only by putting up Gujarati candidates. But as far as BJP is concerned, demonetisation has slowed down business and people aren’t happy. If the budget doesn’t offer any relief, then other parties will benefit.” The budget would have the potential to affect public opinion ahead of the election, he said. Voicing similar concerns, Gujarati screenplay writer Uttam Gada said the Gujaratis’ support is currently more for Modi than for the BJP government. “I don’t think that Gujarati people would change their opinion and vote for the Shiv Sena when they already have a comfort level with the BJP. Before Modi came into the picture, Gujaratis were linking with individual leaders who were vocal about local issues. But since the Sena has not done anything for the Gujarati community, Modi will continue to play a big role in their vote in the BMC elections,” he said.
Across the Sena and BJP, there is agreement that the split has brought the Marathi vs Gujarati debate back to prominence. In September 2014, just ahead of Assembly elections, the then Gujarat CM Anandiben Patel had tried to play down Mumbai’s position as a financial hub while promoting Gujarat. Addressing an audience of well-known industrialists in the city, she, while taking potshots at Mumbai’s notorious traffic, described Gujarat as a growing business hub and added that investors and industrialists should think beyond Mumbai. Anandiben’s speech had angered the Sainiks, especially South Mumbai Sena MP Arvind Sawant, who accused BJP of conspiring to promote Gujarat and Gujaratis.
In March 2015, when the Shiv Sena called for a bandh in Girgaum to demand that the Mumbai Metro Rail Route 3 be realigned, Sena leaders accused the BJP of conspiring to displace the native Marathi residents of the area in order to make way for the “vegetarian lobby”. Citizen activist from Matunga Nikhil Desai said the Sena, with its deeper roots in the city, could benefit from the split, but the support of the Gujaratis is unlikely to move from the BJP, though some fence-sitters would be swayed by the implications of the budget, especially the trader class. “Neither of the two parties has enough to win a simple majority. However, for the BJP, the trader community comprises a significant portion of their vote bank and if the budget increases service tax for them then there could be a chance for the Shiv Sena to bag those votes,” he said.
Gujarati film director Sanjay Chhel said, “The Sena will have a very tough time wheeling in Gujarati votes. Even though they are fielding candidates from the community, it is too late for that to impact anything. After demonetisation, the budget will be the crucial factor for BJP in the civic elections.” Others like Anand Desai, an activist from Juhu, as well as film director Ashish Modi believe that the quality of candidates and the party manifestos would determine the community’s votes. “It is true that the Gujarati community has leaned towards BJP primarily because it is a business community. However, people in the city are not as excited about civic elections as they are about the Assembly elections. If candidates who are visible in the wards are picked, support of the people will be in their favour,” said Desai. Ashish Modi added that people’s votes will go out to the party that promises better amenities and more transparency.
BJP MP from Mumbai North-East constituency Kirit Somaiya, also a Gujarati, however said that the BJP would not lose an inch of its Gujarati support. “Looking at the trend of the 2014 Assembly elections, BJP contested from 32 assembly seats and won 15, while Shiv Sena contested from 36 seats and won 14. While the Marathi voters are divided between the Sena and MNS, Gujarati voters may remain firm in their support to BJP.”
BJP Gujarati Cell chief joins Sena
After several Gujarati leaders from the Congress and the NCP, it was now the turn of a Gujarati leader from the BJP to join the Shiv Sena. Senior leader Mangal Bhanushali, president of the BJP’s Gujarati Cell in Mumbai, joined the party Monday, along with a small group of supporters, in the presence of Sena president Uddhav Thackeray at the latter’s residence Matoshree. The move assumes significance with the Sena snapping ties with the BJP and deciding to contest the polls without any alliance. It was also being seen as Sena’s desperate attempt to reach out to all the communities, including Gujaratis, to retain power in the BMC.
“I want to work by taking the saffron flag on my shoulders. Also, the kind of development work that is being carried out under the leadership of Uddhavji is amazing. We want such development work for the city to continue,” said Bhanushali. When asked about the reason for joining the Sena, he said, “We are indebted to the Sena for saving the lives of thousands of Gujaratis during the Mumbai riots. It is the Sena that saves us. I am sure that the Gujarati community will vote for the Sena in the BMC polls.” He further said he wants to contest the BMC polls from Ghatkopar area. “I want to contest but the party will take a decision on it,” he added.