Why the Shiv Sena is likely to lose its bastion of Mumbai to the BJP

This Maharashtra assembly election has seen the NDA and UPA allies get back together after the experiment of going solo in the assembly election of 2014. This has been dictated by the need to stay for five more years in power for the BJP and Sena, while for the Congress and NCP it is to ensure their survival. The BJP and Shiv Sena had done extremely well winning 15 and 14 seats respectively in Mumbai in the 2014 assembly election. Since they are fighting together this time, they are likely to win 31-32 out of the 36 seats. In a sweep kind of situation, the figure could touch 33-34 as well basically annihilating the Congress from Mumbai.

BMC Headquarters

The Congress already reduced to be the new Muslim League of Mumbai is dependent on Varsha Gaikwad from Dharavi, Amin Patel from Mumbadevi, Arif Naseem Khan from Chandivali and Zeeshan Siddiqui from Bandra East (son of ex MLA Baba Siddiqui) to give it some representation in the assembly from Mumbai. The NCP is already irrelevant in Mumbai, more so after losing Sachin Ahir (ex-MLA from Worli and junior minister) and Sanjay Dina Patil (ex-MP from Mumbai North East Lok Sabha constituency) to the Sena. Only well-known face is party spokesman Nawab Malik who is likely to repeat the same result as 2014 in Anushakti Nagar, a big defeat. Abu Azmi of the Samajwadi party is an ally this time and is likely to retain the Mankhurd-Shivajinagar seat.

The real fun starts after the assembly elections are over. The BJP is fighting on 17 assembly seats in Mumbai and is expected to win all of them, their weakest seat being the Versova seat where Sena rebel Rajul Patel is in the fray. The Sena is fighting on 19 seats but is facing tough competition in the five seats (mentioned above) where the UPA has notable candidates. Thus, in all likelihood the BJP is again expected to surpass the Sena tally in Mumbai. Now this would hurt the ego of the shiv sainik’s who would prefer retaining power in the Brihan Mumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) over getting power in the state. The BJP had nearly shocked the Sena in the 2017 BMC elections when they finished with 82 corporators as against the Sena tally of 84. Keep in mind that the BJP never crossed the figure of 40 in the BMC (BJP tally in 2012: 31), when it fought in alliance with the Sena. The Sena was alarmed at the exponential rise of the BJP in Mumbai.

Once the assembly elections are done and the NDA government is formed in the state, it is unlikely that both the parties would ally in the 2022 BMC elections. The Sena is unlikely to part with half the seats in the BMC nor would the BJP be ready to go back to the pre 2017 arrangement in the BMC. This would mean that sparks would fly between the BJP and Sena leaders in Mumbai, visualize Sanjay Raut on one side and Ashish Shelar and Kirit Somaiyya on the other side. Either side would want to lay their hands on the cash rich BMC.

The situation is ripe for the BJP to snatch the BMC out of the Sena’s stranglehold. The Sena has managed to retain the BMC for some many years, because the opposition Congress is a pathetic choice for majority of the voters. While the Sena cannot ensure good pothole free roads to the citizens, but the alternative Congress is likely to promote illegal slums to build their vote bank. Hence, the voters abhor the Congress, and this is the secret behind the Sena retaining the BMC for more than two decades. If a credible opposition like the BJP is stacked against the Sena in 2022, it is likely that the BJP could cross the 100 seats (might not get a simple majority of its own) while the Sena might be limited to 75 odd seats. The BJP would eat into the seats of the Sena as well as the Congress (current strength is 31).

The BJP’s traditional bastions in Mumbai used to be Gujarati-Marwari dominated areas of Borivali, Kandivali, Ghatkopar, Mulund and Malabar Hill. Slowly they started making inroads in the Marathi vote bank of the Sena. The upper middle-class Marathi voters started migrating to the BJP while the working-class Marathi voters living in the chawls and the slums remained strongly with the Sena. The BJP also started attracting a chunk of the Hindi speaking voters post the Babri masjid / Ram Janmabhoomi andolan. The rise of Modi and Yogi at the centre and Uttar Pradesh respectively caused a whole scale transfer of that demography towards the BJP. The nation-wide demise of the Congress accentuated this process. The combination of captive Gujarati and Hindi speaking vote coupled with a good chunk of the Marathi voters and other upper middle-class voters (Kannadigas, Marwari-Jains etc.) created a formidable vote bank for the BJP.

The change in the attitude of the BJP leadership from Vajpayee-Advani-Munde to Modi-Shah-Fadnavis was a culture shock for the Sena. The passing away of Balasaheb Thackeray left a void at the top for the Sena. Uddhav Thackeray did not have the stature to command comparable respect from the BJP top brass. The junior partner BJP who would silently endure the abuses from the big brother Sena, had metamorphosed to an aggressive big brother. The Sena realised this during the negotiation for the 2014 assembly election when the BJP called off the seat-sharing talks over three seats (Sena wanted minimum 151 seats while BJP was ready to give 148 seats). The BJP got nearly double the seats as those won by the Sena. BJP formed their first ever government in the state and the Sena had to join it later with no real power.

In the run-up to the 2019 Lok Sabha polls, the BJP and Sena allied together with the intention of finishing off the Congress and the NCP. This would leave the field clear for the saffron allies to face-off and decide who is the ultimate winner. The Congress and NCP meanwhile would be trying to heal themselves from the battle scars of the electoral battles and would stay away from the fray. So, a faceoff between the BJP and Sena is inevitable in the coming future. Both parties have started working on this scenario since the last ten-fifteen years.

The BJP has started capturing the constituencies of Mumbai one by one. For example, take the Mumbai North Lok Sabha seat. The BJP used to contest four assembly seats and the Sena on two assembly seats till 2009. In 2014, the BJP snatched the Dahisar assembly constituency from the Sena. Thus, in 2019 the BJP is contesting five assembly seats from this area while the Sena is limited to just one. Similarly, in the adjoining Mumbai North West Lok Sabha constituency, the Sena fought on five assembly seats and the BJP fought on one assembly seat in 2009. Post 2014, this has changed to the Sena and BJP fighting three assembly seats each. The BJP strategically started with the construction of the Metro Line 2A (Dahisar to DN Nagar) and Metro Line 7 (Dahisar to CSIA) in 2015, which pass through the Mumbai North and North West Lok Sabha constituencies. The results were visible in the 2017 BMC election, where the BJP got 49 out of the 82 corporators from the Dahisar to Bandra area (falls under Mumbai North, Mumbai North West and Mumbai North Central Lok Sabha constituencies).

Chief Minister Fadnavis is getting increasingly popular in Mumbai and other urban areas

Having created a strong base, they started to connect the dots to their other strongholds in the old city (SoBo) and Central suburbs with new metro lines designed to travel across the length and breadth of Mumbai. Infact these lines will now travel to the neighbouring district of Thane and thus create a strong transport system throughout the Mumbai Metropolitan Region (MMR). I compare the ever-expanding metro network in Mumbai to the horse freed for the Ashvamedha yagna by a king who wants to become an emperor. Wherever the horse goes, the territory accedes to the emperor or is won through battle. Similarly, wherever the metro network is expanded, the BJP starts winning seats in that area or become competitive. Hence, the BJP expanding their 82 seats to 100 plus in the 2022 BMC election is not far-fetched.

Another factor helping the BJP is the construction of high rises in traditionally strong Sena areas like the central mill land (Lower Parel and nearby) area of Mumbai and in the central suburbs like Bhandup, Kanjurmarg and Sion etc. The residents of these high rises were apathetic towards elections, but the rise of Prime Minister Narendra Modi changed the picture. This class started coming out in large numbers to vote. This gave a strength to the BJP in traditional Sena bastions like Bhandup and Sion etc. In Bhandup, the BJP won in the wards along the LBS Road, where numerous high-rise towers have come up in the last 10 years. The BJP also started emerging as a force in the mill land. BJP candidates getting 33446 votes in Mahim, 37740 votes in Wadala, 21921 votes in Shivadi and 30849 votes in Worli was unthinkable before 2014. This slow natural increase in votes coupled with infrastructure projects like the metro, trans harbour link etc. would make the BJP a strong force in this area in the future.

The Sena too tried to change it’s ways. It tried to attract the Gujarati, Marwari-Jain voters as well as the Hindi speaking voters. Sena even tried to woo the Muslim voters and did get their support in areas where the Sena could defeat the BJP. Sena has softened its image of a parochial regional party and built a strong Hindutva image. MNS helped them by taking up the regional sentiment issue strongly. The Sena has played its latest gamble by blooding Uddhav’s son Aditya in the electoral field. This is a move to create a youth centric face to counter Devendra Fadnavis. But one thing in which the Sena lags the BJP is the attitude towards development. They have pretty much nothing to show to the Mumbaikars in terms of development. Sena’s stand during the Aarey metro depot controversy would have lost them a lot more votes.

In conclusion, the Sena’s inability to match the developmental image of Devendra Fadnavis and the changing demography of key Sena strongholds in Mumbai, means that the BJP will become the biggest player in Mumbai city (which has 36 out of 288 seats in the assembly or 12.5% of the total seats). This shift seems inevitable with the Congress going down the barrel and the rise of BJP across the country and especially in Uttar Pradesh. The Sena may have to radically change their political positioning to be able to seriously challenge the BJP. Otherwise the BJP would stream roll the Sena and become the King Kong of Mumbai.

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