Dandiya, Garba, and Bondla. These dance forms popular during Navratri are the unlikely setting for a political battle raging in the heart of Mumbai.
The BJP, which is in power along with the Eknath Shinde faction of the Shiv Sena, is using the Navratri platform for voter outreach as the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) elections are likely to be held in the coming months. The party is holding celebrations in almost each of the 227 BMC wards, organising 300 Dandiya, Garba, and Bondla events across the city. The Shiv Sena, which was earlier almost synonymous with festival celebrations in the city where they have been in power for the last 25 years, has taken a backseat, weakened by the split caused by the Shinde group.
The BJP is not just hosting and sponsoring Navratri events. Its top state leaders and elected members have been instructed to join the celebrations. Almost all of the party’s elected MLAs and MPs representing Mumbai and its suburbs have been asked to organise Navratri and actively participate in the festival.
Over the years, the Navratri has not remained confined to just its ritualistic and religious aspects, and has evolved into a commercialised cultural extravaganza that lasts more than a week. Cutting across the barriers of caste, community, religion, and class, dance forms such as Dandiya are now equally popular in slums and gated housing societies. The 10 days of the festival provide political parties with a golden opportunity to reach out to voters.
The festival planners in the BJP said the party’s strategy was finalised after carefully considering everything. Of the dance events the party is hosting, at least 17 are being held on a huge scale, with professional musicians gracing the stage. One Dandiya event is being held in the Marathi-dominated locality of Abhyudaya Nagar. Well-known Marathi artist Avdoot Gupte has been roped in for a performance at the event. At other places, singers such as Falguni Pathak and the singing duo Preety-Pinky are among the performers.
“The BJP has always given great importance to festivals,” Mumbai BJP president Ashish Shelar said even as he underplayed the party’s political objective. “We are making every effort to get maximum people to participate in the 10 days of the festival. We have always provided the platform and participated with people celebrating the festival.”
A senior Cabinet minister from the BJP said, “Politics is about reaching out to people. If festivals can become a mode to strike a chord with the masses, why not? In the last two years, people were forced to stay indoors. They were weary following the Covid-19 pandemic. With the situation returning to normal, people want to come out and celebrate festivals and life.”
The BJP’s central and senior state leaders have already drawn a roadmap for the BMC polls, setting themselves a target of winning 150 wards. In 2017, the BJP and the Uddhav Thackeray-led Sena were in alliance but contested the civic body elections separately. The BJP ended up with 82 seats, just two short of the Sena’s 84 wards.
Where is Sena?
At one point in time, at the height of the Sena’s dominance, all most festivals and cultural events were identified with the party, whether it be the Ganesh festival, Dahi Handi, or Navratri. To counter the Sena’s Ganesh festivals, the BJP’s Kirit Somaiyya took the initial steps in the early 1990s to promote Dandiya, which is originally a Gujarati dance form, during Navratri.
Weakened by the Shinde rebellion, the Shiv Sena at present almost seems to be a shadow of its former self. The Navratri programmes and celebrations it has organised are on a much smaller scale compared to the BJP. But former minister Aaditya Thackeray, party chief Uddhav Thackeray’s son who has been hopping from one Navratri venue to another, is not concerned. “The Shiv Sena has always been celebrating festivals. We don’t have to prove anything to anyone,” he said.
Moreover, the Sena’s focus this year has been on the tussle to ensure it gets to hold its annual Dussehra rally at Mumbai’s Shivaji Park. Last week, the Bombay High Court allowed the Thackeray-led group to hold the rally on October 5 even as it pulled up the BMC for “abuse of power” in denying permission for the gathering.
Taking a dig at the Thackeray Sena, Shelar said, “Even after the Covid-19 pandemic norms were relaxed, the Thackeray government’s response to festivals and opening of temples was pretty negative. During the two-and-a-half years of rule of the Maha Vikas Aghadi (MVA), festivals had no place of pride.”
It is not just the BJP that is using the festival to send across a message to the Thackerays. The Shinde-led group, united with the saffron party in its goal of unseating the Sena from BMC, has also drawn up its Navratri plans. CM Eknath Shinde’s huge cutouts have been installed across Mumbai, especially in Thackeray strongholds such as Dadar, Worli, Lower Parel, Parel, Sewree, and Sion.