It was the second year in a row when Mumbai experienced not just one but two Dussehra rallies on Tuesday. Holding a large rally at Dadar close to the Shiv Sena headquarters every year on Vijayadashami day or Dussehra was a tradition started by Shiv Sena founder Balasaheb Thackeray. For the hardcore Shiv Sena followers attending the Dussehra rally was always a matter of pride and an occasion to ensure bonding with the leadership and the Sena brotherhood. Tens of thousands of people walked to Shivaji Park, the venue for these rallies, year after year and attendance would be close to 2,00,000 people sometimes.
The significance of these rallies was that the occasion was used by Balasaheb Thackeray to generally spell out his political direction to his followers and also gauge what kind of response he generated among the crowds when he said particular things. These rallies always evoked huge response not just from Mumbai city and suburbs but also from various parts of Maharashtra from where crowds came to Mumbai just to listen to Balasaheb Thackeray. Last year, when Eknath Shinde decided to walk away with about 40 MLAs, everybody was curious about whether he would hold a separate rally on Dussehra and just a few days in advance he made the announcement that he would hold his own gathering.
It is very significant to understand how the split in the Shiv Sena is going to affect the Marathi-speaking voters in Mumbai city, Thane, Navi Mumbai and surrounding areas which has always been the core base of the Sena. From that perspective it is interesting to see how the two Shiv Sena railies generated support and what kind of comparison can be made between the two organisations holding their own gatherings in their political bastions. Though the Sena took the HIndutva path since the early 1990s and got into an alliance with the BJP since 1989 itself, a large part or majority of the party cadre still believes in Shiv Sena's original agenda of protecting the interests of the Marathi-speaking community (known in Sena parlance as “Marathi Manoos”) of Mumbai, Navi Mumbai and Thane region, now known as Mumbai Metropolitan Region or MMR. This has always been the Shiv Sena's core political bastion and source of its economic and demographic strength.
How will the vertical split in the Shiv Sena which happened just over 16 months ago now affect this Marathi Manoos base of the Shiv Sena? This is the question that many are now asking. Eknath Shinde led a group of 40 MLAs to walk away from Uddhav Thackeray in June 2022 and for over a year now his focus has been to take away as many small leaders of the Uddhav Thackeray group as possible — leaders from Thane Municipal Corporation, Navi Mumbai Municipal Corporation and Mumbai city and suburbs. Backed by the BJP, which holds the home ministry in Maharashtra, many of Uddhav Thackeray's men and women in Mumbai, Thane and Navi Mumbai have been subjected to various inquiries and legal notices. Leaders like Ravindra Waikar and former Mayor Kishori Pednekar now face various cases and are being called repeatedly for questioning. This has created a lot of pressure on various junior leaders of the Uddhav group, and many have crossed over to Eknath Shinde's Sena.
It is obvious that the main political force representing the so called Marathi Manoos of Mumbai has clearly split into two factions and is vehemently competing against each other. To add to it the other force that split from the Shiv Sena over 16 years ago, Raj Thackeray's Maharashtra Navanirman Sena or MNS, has now decided not to take up its original agenda of the Marathi Manoos openly and is instead seen focusing on issues like road toll tax increase. This will surely be a setback for the “Marathi Manoos” vote bank, the original backbone of Balasaheb Thackeray's Shiv Sena.
Recently in Mumbai's Ghatkopar area a case was registered by the city police over a Maharashtrian woman being denied accommodation on rent by a Gujarati landlord on the grounds that she was Marathi-speaking. This became a big issue as regional television news media took up the matter and almost all political parties jumped into the matter to take political advantage. A similar ruckus happened in the same area when some people put up certain Gujarati hoardings at a park. Traditionally the rights of the “son of the soil” has been always highlighted by the Shiv Sena in all their election campaigns. However in Tuesday's Dussehra rally, as in many other rallies previously, Chief Minister Eknath Shinde was seen targeting Uddhav Thackeray's Sena and Uddhav reciprocated it by focusing his criticism only against Shinde's breakaway group, apart from mentioning the BJP a few times in his speech. This Dussehra Mumbai clearly saw a Marathi Manoos versus Marathi Manoos rhetoric in the political battlefield.
It is very obvious that in Mumbai's political space the main beneficiary of these developments is going to be the BJP. The party started focusing on the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation as a solo contender without any alliance since 2016, as Prime Minister Narendra Modi directed all state units of the BJP to work towards bringing about the party's rule in various state assemblies and civic bodies without any alliance with smaller regional partners. In the 2017 polls the BJP's tally in the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation was very close to the Shiv Sena’s but the party decided to sit in the Opposition and “be the watchdog” as they put it. Now in the upcoming municipal polls the BJP wants to go whole hog and aim for a complete majority in the Mumbai as well as Thane municipal corporations. A split in the Shiv Sena's “Marathi Manoos” voter base will only help the BJP achieve that target.
Rohit Chandavarkar is a senior journalist who has worked for 31 years with various leading newspaper brands and television channels in Mumbai and Pune