At least the Marathi manoos should not stand against Shiv Sena... In Dadar, where Shiv Sena was born (in 1966), where Shiv Sena Bhawan stands proudly, in that Dadar Shiv Sena had to bite dust. (By those who) split it in two. Why has this happened?
—Late Shiv Sena chief Bal Thackeray in his last speech in the 2012 Dussehra rally
Late Thackeray Sr's swansong, in which he lamented Sena's loss of influence in its former bastion, underlines the importance of a win for the party from the Mumbai South-Central constituency, which comprises Dadar.
The Sena stronghold, which was known as Mumbai North-Central before the delimitation exercise in 2009, was breached in 2004 when then Lok Sabha speaker Manohar Joshi faced a shock defeat from then minister of state Eknath Gaikwad (Congress). In 2009, Gaikwad, a Dalit, rubbed it in with yet another defeat for Sena despite the popularity of its candidate, legislator Suresh Gambhir, largely due to a vote split induced by MNS.
In the subsequent assembly polls, a vertical split in Sena saw MNS's Nitin Sardesai romp home and, in the 2012 BMC elections, MNS swept all seven seats in the segment.
The constituency has been represented in Parliament by stalwarts Pramila Dandavate (JP) and Ahilyatai Rangnekar (CPI-M) and, incidentally, by two journalists who have been Sena nominees — Vidyadhar Gokhale and Narayan Athavale.
"The situation favours us, there is a spontaneity in peoples' response," said former Sena MLA Sada Sarvankar, adding that taking Thackeray Sr's regret to heart, the people had decided to vote for Sena as a "tribute" to him.
"Presently, Shewale has the advantage, but much depends on voting patterns. Gaikwad has benefited from Dharavi and Sion Koliwada, which are his strongholds. Since Shewale hails from the eastern suburbs, he will have to ensure a better turnout from Chembur and Anushakti Nagar and, based on the Modi wave, also woo back Maharashtrian voters who have shifted to MNS in Dadar and Mahim," said a Sena source. Gaikwad may also have to contend with the discontent in his stronghold Dharavi over the state's redevelopment scheme for the area.
However, despite the bravado, Sainiks admit that the affable Gaikwad, who is known as one of the most accessible MPs in Mumbai, may not be a pushover. The presence of MNS's Aditya Shirodkar and AAP's Sunder Balakrishnan has added an element of unpredictability to the fight. That Shewale, who Sena leaders admit, is running one of the most well-oiled campaigns in the city, was chosen over Joshi, may have led to heartburn among Joshi's loyalists.
The constituency also covers a multitude of linguistic and ethnic identities, ranging from Maharashtrian-dominated Shivaji Park to Dalit pockets of Chembur and South Indian, Dalit and Muslim areas like Dharavi.
While Gaikwad is a Buddhist Dalit, Shewale, an engineer, belongs to the Charmakar community, which has a significant presence in certain pockets, such as Dharavi. Sena's ranks are further bolstered by the alliance with RPI (A) leader Ramdas Athavale. Also, the presence of Ganesh Aiyyar (BSP), Hussain Syed (Bahujan Mukti Party), Subhash Pawar (BRP-BMS), Noor Mohammed Khan (Rashtriya Ulama Council) and Abbas Shaikh (Samajwadi Party) may split Gaikwad's votes. The constituency covers six assembly segments of Mahim, Chembur, Anushaktinagar, Dharavi, Sion Koliwada and Wadala, five of which are represented by Congress legislators and one by MNS.
A Sena leader said apart from local issues, they were also campaigning on grounds that Gaikwad had not ventured much into saffron-dominated areas, choosing to focus on Congress strongholds. "The Marol-Ruparel tunnel has been able to alleviate some of the water problems, which may help us. The issue of residential areas Shivaji Park and Hindu colony being declared as heritage precincts, delay in redevelopment of the crumbling BDD chawls and internal wranglings in Congress may also work to our advantage," he added.
However, Gaikwad seems unfazed about the threat from Sena. "I am banking on work done by me and the central and state governments to see me through," he said, pointing to his 98% attendance in Parliament. Gaikwad listed social welfare schemes — the food security act, extension of the slum protection cut off to 2000 and approval to the long-pending Lokpal bill — as some issues which could work to his advantage.
"I do not talk much about the Modi factor," said Gaikwad, rubbishing claims about the development model of Gujarat, and adding that Congress had gained electorally in a decade, going up from just one MLA (Gaikwad) in 2004 to five now. "Sena is zero in this constituency," he claimed.
However, while Congress leaders say that Brahmins, who have significant numbers in Dadar, may be miffed at Joshi being slighted by Sena, there is said to be unease over Gaikwad promoting his family, including daughter and Dharavi MLA Varsha, a minister in the state government.
"Despite being the standing committee chairman for four years, Rahul Shewale has been unable to ensure better roads in Mumbai. What can he do as the MP?" questioned MNS corporator from Dadar Sandeep Deshpande, adding that Shirodkar "was young and did not face corruption charges".
Deshpande said the Centre's hawkers policy, poor railway infrastructure, women's security were among their campaign issues and added that they considered Congress, and not Sena, as their main adversary. "Sena is seeking votes in Narendra Modi's name, not in Balasaheb's name," he underlined.