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The Thick of It: How the Sena won and lost Mumbai

Monday, 19 November 2012 - 9:00am IST | Place: Mumbai | Agency: dna

In 1995, riding the Hindutva wave of post-Babri riots, the Sena-BJP alliance swept almost all of Mumbai’s 36 assembly seats.

The huge crowds that accompanied Bal Thackeray’s funeral procession only fuelled the myth of the Sena founder’s hold over Mumbai. Perhaps this holds true when it comes to popular sentiment, at least among a section of the city.

But the recent electoral graph of the Sena tells a different story, of a party in systematic decline in the city of its birth. In 1995, riding the Hindutva wave of post-Babri riots, the Sena-BJP alliance swept almost all of Mumbai’s 36 assembly seats. Since then, in each assembly election, their numbers have dwindled from 20 in 1999, to 15 in 2004, to an all time low of 9 in 2009. Of this, the Sena won only 5 seats.

The loss of Mumbai is significant not just for symbolic reasons. In purely psephological terms, it has become the main reason why the Sena-BJP has lost three assembly elections in a row. In each of those elections, the saffron combine has gradually increased its seats and vote in Maharashtra’s Vidarbha, Khandesh (northern Maharashtra), Marathwada and Konkan regions, to the extent that they are virtually tied with the Congress-NCP in those regions.

This is no small feat, especially for the Sena, whose political horizons at one time seemed to end at Mumbai’s municipal limits. And yet, as the Sena-BJP drew even with the Congress-NCP in Maharashtra’s mainland, the loss in home ground Mumbai meant the loss of Maharashtra.

What explains this? It certainly can’t be the less than stellar track record of Congress-NCP rule, notable for chief ministers whose primary interest in Mumbai until recently appeared to be how best to corner luxury sea-facing apartments in Cuffe Parade. The most common analysis is that the Sena got on the wrong side of Mumbai’s shifting demographics by attacking North Indians. This is only partially true. North Indian voters have increased over the past decade, especially in Mumbai’s suburbs. And there has been a proportional reduction of Marathi voters. But a closer look at the results points to a more – for the Sena – worrying trend.

Their losses in Mumbai are not just in pockets of the city dominated by communities they have alienated, like North Indians and Muslims. Since the exit of Raj Thackeray, they have also lost their hallowed turf of central Mumbai, their Marathi heartland. Seats like Sion, Wadala, Mahim and Worli have gone to the MNS or the Congress-NCP.

The Sena will argue that since the Marathi heartland vote has simply shifted from one Thackeray to the other, it’s technically still in the family. But it begs the question why the Sena is no longer the platform of choice for the Marathi manoos, whose aspirations they have violently defended since the party’s inception.

The argument that the Sena was in power for only five years doesn’t cut any ice. They have controlled Mumbai’s municipality for 17 years at a stretch. And as Bal Thackeray was fond of reminding us at every opportunity, he wielded Mumbai’s remote control, whether in power or out of it. What did that remote control achieve over the past four decades? Did it ensure more low cost housing? More jobs to Marathi youth? Better roads, sanitation, water, municipal education? Nurture a renaissance of Marathi arts and culture? Or was it used for quick vigilante ‘justice’ that made for high political TRPs but produced no deeper results?

Perhaps the Sena’s disconnect with its base voter in Mumbai is best typified by the meteoric growth in the businesses of Manohar Joshi, the party’s veteran leader from its Dadar-Shivaji Park stronghold. Despite his defeat in the 2004 Lok Sabha elections,  Mr Joshi’s Kohinoor Group has gone from strength to strength, from hospitality to vocational institutions to real estate, in a neighborhood dominated by laid off mill workers and middle-class Maharashtrians.

Thackeray senior was not unaware of the looming crisis. Which is why in his final Dussehra rally he chided his followers for not doing enough. And for letting their bastion slip from their grasp. But the time for emotional rhetoric is over. His successors will need to signal a serious shift to a more meaningful politics of governance and inclusion to ensure their relevance in a changing city, and a changing India. So far all indications are to the contrary.

A few Sena leaders that I spoke to in Mumbai last week told me that Uddhav’s primary concern is not better governance, but to prevent the hemorrhaging of the party he has inherited from his father. Raj, on the other hand, seems to divide his time between his real estate business – his closest associates in the MNS are also partners in his realty firm, Matoshree Constructions – and signalling fresh attacks on North Indians. The political future of the Thackeray legatees seems uncertain.

But then Bal Thackeray would have argued – as he has – that he is above politics, more folk hero than ordinary neta. Which is why it should surprise no one if the vast crowds that accompanied his last journey mourn his loss, but resolutely refuse to vote his party back to power.

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