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Marathi votes split, Sena eyes north Indian support before BMC litmus test

Uddhav Thackeray on Tuesday met a group of north Indians. But most north Indians are BJP voters and the Shiv Sena does not have a prominent face to represent people from the region.

The Shiv Sena’s three-decade hold on the BMC now looks shaky as its core Marathi vote bank has split following the rebellion in the party and Thackeray’s “son of the soil” image has taken a hit. (File)

Most of his party’s legislators and leaders have deserted him and now Shiv Sena president Uddhav Thackeray is looking to reach out to people to salvage support. With the party set to face the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) elections sometime later this year (the dates have not been announced yet), the former Maharashtra Chief Minister on Tuesday met a group of north Indians who live in the city. This came on a day when 12 of the Shiv Sena’s MPs extended support to the Eknath Shinde camp.

“While our own elected members of state legislative and Parliament may have left Thackeray, we are now banking on public support to rebuild the organisation,” said an official in “Matoshree”, the residence of the Thackerays.

The Shiv Sena’s three-decade hold on the BMC now looks shaky as its core Marathi vote bank has split following the rebellion in the party and Thackeray’s “son of the soil” image has taken a hit. This, according to insiders, is why the party has redoubled its efforts to move beyond its core voter base and reach out to north Indians who, wary of the Sena’s anti-immigrant rhetoric in the past, have backed either the Congress or the BJP over the years.

Comprising 18 to 20 per cent of the electorate in BMC, north Indians — mostly hailing from Uttar Pradesh and Bihar — are in a majority in 50 of the civic body’s 227 wards and have a significant presence in 40-45 wards more. With north Indian support shifting to the BJP steadily as the Congress declined, the saffron party emerged second in the 2017 BMC elections. The Shiv Sena won 82 seats while the Thackeray-led party bagged 84. At the time, the two parties were in alliance.

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While other parties have prominent north Indian faces — the BJP has leaders such as Vidya Thakur, Ramesh Thakur, Raj Hans, and Kripashankar Singh; the Congress has Sanjay Nirupam, Baba Siddiqui, Aslam Sheikh, Naseem Khan in its ranks; and the Nationalist Congress party has Nawab Malik — the Sena is hamstrung by the lack of one such leader in its ranks.

“We are passing through a major political crisis,” said a senior Sena leader, requesting anonymity. “We have to keep the show going. We have to work to regain our lost ground to the extent possible. Retaining the BMC is going to a litmus test. We have to gain a foothold amongst all segments, especially north Indians.”

The president of the state BJP’s Uttar Bharatiya (North Indian) cell, Sanjay Pande, said, “North Indians have always reposed their faith in BJP. Its national character and inclusive agenda, with nationalism, have always struck a chord with north Indians across the country, including Mumbai. North Indians’ unflinching support for the BJP stems from its reverence towards the leadership of Narendra Modi at the Centre, Yogi Adityanath in UP, and Devendra Fadnavis in Maharashtra.”

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Pande said most north Indians also support the party because of its national agenda, including the Ayodhya Ram Temple issue.

Shift in tone

Anti-immigrant politics was part of the Sena’s core agenda since its formation on June 19, 1966. Initially, the party attacked south Indians who had settled down in Mumbai. Since the early 1980s, it started targeting north Indian migrants.

But realising that it will need to gain support beyond the Marathi vote base if it has to expand electorally, the party under Uddhav Thackeray’s leadership tempered its anti-immigrant rhetoric. Even before the party split following the rebellion led by current CM Shinde, the Sena had its eye on the north Indian vote. Uddhav’s son and former state minister Aaditya Thackeray visited Ayodhya on June 15. Aaditya is now being projected more prominently as he looks to go on a “Nishta Yatra” to reach out to people across the state. He will visit Thane, Nashik, and Aurangabad over three days starting Thursday.

First published on: 20-07-2022 at 07:08:14 pm
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