Nothing encapsulates the political climate in India’s financial capital better than the hesitancy shown by both the BJP and the Congress in announcing their respective candidates from Mumbai North East and Mumbai North respectively. The delay in announcing these nominations stems from political expediency as the BJP renews its alliance with the Shiv Sena. The need for ensuring his electoral and political survival has also meant that city Congress president Sanjay Nirupam is not very keen to stand from a constituency which he had once won in 2009.
Anticipating a hostile reaction from Shiv Sena’s traditional Marathi-speaking voter, the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has been in two minds over renominating its seniormost and most vocal sitting MP from the city, Kirit Somaiya. Still smarting over Somaiya’s ‘mafia’ remark against Thackeray in 2017, the local Shiv Sena unit in the Mumbai North-East parliamentary segment has refused to participate in the campaign if Somaiya is fielded.
Meanwhile, in the Congress camp, dissension has continued over Mumbai Congress president and former Mumbai North MP Sanjay Nirupam’s plan to hop over to the neighbouring constituency, Mumbai North West, fearing a second consecutive rout from Mumbai North, where he had lost in 2014 to BJP’s Gopal Shetty with the second highest vote margin in the country. This has forced the party’s central leadership to hold back announcements on candidatures for both Mumbai North and Mumbai North West. Click here for more election news
With the Congress’s election campaign in Mumbai riven by factionalism and infighting, poll pundits are of the opinion that the key factor to watch out for the six seats in the city will be the voting pattern in traditional Shiv Sena bastions within the city. How the Shiv Sena’s loyal voter votes this election might well determine the election mood in Mumbai which goes to polls on April 29.
It has become so owing to Thackeray’s sudden volte-face. After positioning itself as BJP’s most vocal opponent in the state over the last five years, and taking repeated acerbic swipes at Prime Minister Narendra Modi, the Shiv Sena is now back in the NDA fold.
In Mumbai, which has remained Shiv Sena’s citadel for four decades, even senior BJP leaders admit that it remained to be seen how well the Shiv Sena’s Marathi manoos — which has always been an emotive voter — accepts this volte-face. After both parties first broke up just before the state polls in 2014, and contested against one another, it was this very voter that had helped Thackeray’s party withstand the Modi factor and notch up its best performance so far in Assembly polls. The same voter has also helped the party keep the BJP at bay in the 2017 Mumbai civic poll where the two parties were locked in a bitter contest.
In the 2014 Lok Sabha poll, the saffron combine, then a cohesive combine, had swept the polls in the city, comfortably winning all the six seats. But ties between the allies soured thereafter.
The trouble for the Congress is that it has failed to make a “sustained effort” to tap into this voter segment. “There is no doubt that Thackeray has lost credibility following his U-turn. The Shiv Sena’s traditional vote is bound to feel betrayed and disenchanted. The trouble is we do not seem to have done much to capitalise on this sentiment,” admitted a senior Congress leader from Mumbai, requesting anonymity. In contrast, the 2017 municipality poll, where the BJP and the Shiv Sena were locked in a photo-finish, the former showed that it had forayed into this segment.
Congress MLA Varsha Gaikwad, however, struck an optimistic tone. “There is unrest against this government. The key lies in how well we capitalise on it. For this, all of us must hit the ground, and reach out to each and every voter. This has started. I’m sure we’ll do well.”
As per the latest census data, the Marathi-speaking population accounts for 28 per cent of the city’s population, and still continues to be the most influential voter segment, although the North Indian voter community has been fast catching up. With the SS espousing the ‘Marathi manoos’ cause, historically it has largely remained loyal to Thackeray’s party. But the Shiv Sainik is an emotive voter. In 2009, this voter segment had moved significantly in favour of Raj Thackeray’s Maharashtra Navnirman Sena (MNS), resulting in Shiv Sena-BJP’s defeat on all the six seats in Mumbai. But since then, the MNS’s clout has declined greatly. Neither the Congress nor the NCP has been able to capitalise on it though, admitted leaders from both parties. Much of it has gone back to the Shiv Sena.
While Somaiya may bag the party’s ticket in the end, BJP’s indecision, admitted party sources, is driven by concerns over “effective translation” of Shiv Sena’s vote to the BJP. Replicating the 2014 formula, the two parties have equally split the six seats. With the exception of Somaiya, the NDA has already renominated the remaining five sitting MPs.
On the other hand, the Congress’s election campaign has been hit by factionalism and infighting, hurting its prospects of “tapping into the unrest against the ruling combine.” Following differences over Nirupam’s move, the party has had to hold back nominations for two seats. Also, former Union Minister Milind Deora, who would be contesting the Mumbai South seat, has publicly admitted to there being “rift” in the Mumbai Congress unit, while making veiled statements targeting Nirupam’s style of functioning. He had even threatened to pull out of the contest at one point if his concerns weren’t addressed. Party’s other candidate, former MP Priya Dutt, renamed from Mumbai North Central, had previously announced she would not contest, before taking a U-turn. There was also opposition to the nomination of former MP Eknath Gaikwad from Mumbai South Central.
While contending that Mumbai will witness a repeat of 2014, BJP’s Mumbai president Ashish Shelar, a party MLA, also fired a barb at the Opposition. “The poll outcome is a foregone conclusion. We’ll sweep this poll. Their (Congress’s) Mumbai president does not wish to contest from his constituency. Dutt, too, had earlier said she wouldn’t run, Deora does not seem too keen either. What does this tell you? We’ve already won this election.”
Congress’s spokesperson Sachin Sawant hit back. “They are building castles in the air. There is unrest. We will win Mumbai,” he said, But a Congress insider admitted, “That we lack a second rung of leadership in Mumbai is shown from the move to re-field all of those who had lost the 2014 poll.” Infighting had even hurt the party during the 2017 civic poll. “Those elections were like a semi-final. We fared miserably. Our house was not in order,” said a former Congress minister.
With the BJP making significant inroads into the North India vote bank, which has traditionally favoured the Congress, the Congress would be chiefly banking on the Muslim vote bank and the backward class voter bank to improve its performance. But the presence of the Prakash Ambedkar and Asaduddin Owaisi-led Bahujan Vanchit Aghadi (BVA) — which has announced that it would contest all six seats — could impact this voter group. Failure to strike an alliance with the Bahujan Samaj Party and the Samajwadi Party might hurt the Congress in some pockets. The NCP, which has renominated former MP Sanjay Dina-Patil, is, meanwhile, looking to exploit the tension in the local ranks in the BJP and the Shiv Sena to improve his projects. Party chief Sharad Pawar has also been holding talks with MNS leader Raj Thackeray in this regard. The MNS has decided not to field candidates this time.
Neither combination has tinkered much with their line up with the effect that the key fights on most of the six seats will be the same as last time. In Mumbai South, it will be a rematch between Deora and Arvind Sawant (SS). Similarly, in Mumbai South Central, it’ll be Rahul Shewale (SS) vs Eknath Gaikwad (Cong); Dutt (Congress) vs Poonam Mahajan (BJP) in Mumbai North Central. In Mumbai North West, sitting MP Gajanan Kirtikar will face a new opponent; most likely Nirupam. He had defeated former Union minister (late) Gurudas Kamat in 2014. The BJP has refielded Gopal Shetty for Mumbai North, where the Congress has been struggling to nominate a candidate.
While the Shiv Sena’s strategy would be to convince its voter that it’s volte-face was in the broader interest of the party, the BJP would like to run an election campaign centred around national issues. The Congress, on the other hand, will have to resort to some identity politics to resurrect its campaign, said sources.