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Identities That Matter

Language and religion dominate voter preferences in Mumbai’s municipal elections

Written by Jyoti Punwani |
February 28, 2017 12:14:37 am
mumbai civic polls, maharashtra municipal corporation, shiv sena, mns, bjp, raj thackeray, uddhav thackeray, aimim, india news, latest news Shiv Sena party workers celebrate their victory in BMC polls at Sena Bhavan in Shivaji Park. Express photo by Prashant Nadkar

For the fifth time, the Shiv Sena has got the maximum seats in Mumbai’s municipal corporation. If you add the BJP’s tally, along with that of the MNS, the Samajwadi party and the AIMIM, the picture that emerges is that parties based on identity and religion have won almost 80 per cent of seats in the body that rules the city, receiving almost 80 per cent of the vote. This is noteworthy because Mumbai, the financial capital of the country, would’ve been nowhere without the mix of communities that settled here generations ago.

Yet, for the last 20 years, the majority of Mumbaikars who take the trouble of voting, have ended up electing candidates with whom they identify on the basis of language or religion. This time a little more than half of Mumbaikars voted. The average Mumbaikar knows that conditions in the city have deteriorated since the last two decades when the Shiv Sena, along with its junior partner, the BJP, has controlled the municipal corporation. Walking, or commuting by train, both methods used by 50 per cent of Mumbaikars to go to work, are not devoid of risk. Access to clean drinking water, free/cheap healthcare and sanitation has reduced. Yet, what seems to matter most come elections are Marathi, Gujarati, North Indian, Muslim and Christian identities. After the Shiv Sena split from the BJP, its chief played the Marathi asmita card to the hilt. And be it slum dwellers or the upper-middle class, most Marathi-speaking Mumbaikars responded as “Marathi manus”. Gujaratis, on the other hand, stuck with the BJP, with one-third of the party’s corporators being from this community.

It’s not as if either the Marathi or the Gujarati identity in Mumbai is under threat, though when hardline vegetarians flex their muscles, politicians such as Raj Thackeray raise that bogey. But does Marathi identity lie only in the right to eat non-vegetarian food? Other communities are also affected by such flexing of vegetarian muscles. In fact, if there is any food-related identity under threat in Mumbai, it’s that of the beef-eating Muslims, Dalits and Christians.
Now that the number of Gujarati corporators has shot up, many Marathi-speaking Mumbaikars will see this as a threat, or be nudged into this view by the Shiv Sena mouthpiece Saamna, or by Raj Thackeray. Will these corporators succeed in making all Mumbaikars shun meat during the eight-day annual Jain Paryushan period, something they’ve been trying for years? Incidentally, a section of the Jains carried out a nasty SMS campaign with adverse comments about Muslims and meat-eaters. The BJP got its MP Yogi Adityanath from Gorakhpur to campaign on the last day. He was greeted with cries of, “Dekho dekho kaun aaya/Hinduon ka sher aaya/ Hindustan mein rehna hoga/Yogi Yogi kehna hoga.” Just the evening before the Yogi’s whirlwind tour, Akbaruddin Owaisi had the audience shouting “Nara e takbeer/Allah o Akbar.’’

No one, in Mumbai at least, can describe the Congress and the NCP as truly secular. But they, especially the Congress, do represent a mix of communities and faiths. This time, one-third of Congress winners are Muslim; in the NCP, the number is half. The Congress also had three Christian winners — 10 per cent of its winning candidates.

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One would not normally mourn the decline of these two parties, were it not for their representative nature, and also the lack of any party which ignores identity politics completely. Yet, there are a few glimmers of hope. The Sena gave tickets to five Muslims; two won, and Uddhav Thackeray thought this important enough to mention in his victory press conference. Some Muslims see this as a first step in breaking old barriers. Adityanath’s magic failed. Despite Owaisi’s well-attended rallies, Mumbai’s Muslims elected just two of his party’s 52 candidates.

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The writer is a senior Mumbai-based journalist

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