The evolution of the BJP in Mumbai and the MMR

For a party that was officially born in Mumbai in the year 1980, BJP had always remained the third largest party in the Mumbai Metroploitan region or MMR (containing the districts of Mumbai city, Mumbai suburban, Thane, Palghar and Raigad) behind the Shiv Sena and the Congress. This was true in terms of seat contested in this region, as recently as six months ago. BJP and Shiv Sena fought the 2019 assembly election in alliance. The BJP fought 32 out of the 75 seats in the MMR plus other two districts of Konkan (Ratnagiri and Sindhudurg). The Sena fought the remaining 43 seats. The result was astonishing as that the BJP won 27 out of the 32 seats contested (29 if we add the victorious BJP rebel candidates on the Mira-Bhayander and Uran seats), while the Sena also won 29 out of the 43 seats it contested.

Ex CM Fadnavis at a metro construction site in Mumbai

If we take out the 15 seats of Konkan (districts of Raigad, Ratnagiri and Sindhudurg), the BJP contested 29 out of the 60 seats in the MMR which in itself is an unusally high number. The BJP always fought less seats in this region within the NDA alliance, with the Sena contesting the bulk of these 60 seats. For example, in the 2009 assembly polls the BJP fought 13 out of the 36 seats in Mumbai and 6 out of the 24 seats in Thane and Palghar disctricts. The Sena fought 41 out of these 60 seats in the MMR

However the BJP which fought alone in 2014 won more seats than the Sena in Mumbai.  Thus the Sena was forced to concede more seats to the BJP in 2019. However, the BJP-Sena alliance is now history with the Sena having joined the UPA camp. This gives the BJP a lot of leg room to increase their footprint in the MMR, as well as the Konkan region. The BJP fought just 3 out of the 15 seats in this region, despite have presence here historically.

As the BJP evolves in the MMR, a lot of the old misconceptions about the BJP are slowly getting cleared from the mind of the voters. Of course the BJP has to take a lot more efforts to clear these misconceptions, so that it can secure a larger base in this region. Of course the Marathi media has historically been hostile to the BJP and has helped perpetuate these rumours.

In this article, I will try to clear some of the misconceptions about the BJP which are prevalent in the minds of some of the voters.

  • BJP is a party of non Marathi speaking people:  This was a myth that was perpetuated due to one major fact. The BJP was a junior partner of the Sena in every local body election like the BMC and the state assembly election. In the Lok Sabha election, the Sena was the junior partner as the BJP fought more seats.
    • For example in the 2012 BMC polls, the Sena fought 135 seats and won 75 seats. The BJP fought 63 seats and won 31. Rest of the seats were fought by junior allies or independents backed by the saffron alliance. The Sena fought in most of the Marathi dominated area of the old city and suburbs, while the BJP fought more seats in the Gujarati speaking and Hindi speaking areas.
    • Since the Sena predominantly put up Marathi speaking candidates (over 90%), the BJP fielded a significant number of Gujarati speaking and Hindi speaking candidates, to account for the votebank dynamics of the wards they fought. This led to the perception that the BJP will bring in the non Marathi speaking voters to complement the Sena’s Marathi speaking votebank.
    • This was not entirely true as the BJP had a huge votebank of Marathi speaking people on its own. It was complemented by the Sena supporters voting for it because of the alliance.
    • However, the picture changed in the 2017 BMC election where both parties fought separately. The Sena contested all 227 seats and won 84 while the BJP contested 195 seats and won 82. Since the BJP fought three times the seats it had contested in 2012, they could put up a lot of Marathi speaking candidates. This shattered the myth that the BJP is a party of non Marathi speaking people in the city of Mumbai.
    • Also my observation has been that the higher middle class and upper class Marathi speaking voters of Mumbai, who live in apartments tend to back the BJP. While the Sena gets the support of the bulk of the lower middle class and poor section of the Marathi voters, who predominantly live in chawls or slums.
    • As the voters gets better educated (graduate or above) and as younger generation get voting rights, they tend to shift support from the Sena to the BJP. This is what has been gradually happening in Mumbai over the last two decades.

  • Sena helped the rise of BJP in Mumbai: This again is a myth perpetuated by the Sena cadres and is not entirely true. When two parties enter in an alliance, the main purpose is to combine the strength of both the parties. The NDA alliance has helped both the BJP and the Sena to grow their political strength.
    • The percentage of Marathi speaking population in Mumbai has gradually fallen to 35% due to influx of migrants from other states. Though given the huge population of Mumbai (1.2 crores as per the 2011 census) and MMR (1.8 crores as per 2011 census) this is still a huge block of voters. Sena commands a huge chunk of these Marathi speaking voters, but the BJP is heavily poaching voters from this vote bank. I won’t be surprised if the BJP gets 40% of the total Marati speaking voters on it’s side in the next election. The Sena is afraid of this eventuality as the MNS is already poaching on this votebank.
    • This was one probable reason why the Sena broke away from the BJP, to ensure it’s own survival. It needs to be noted that the NCP is not a major player in Mumbai and the Congress hardly gets any Marathi speaking voters. The Sena additionally hopes to gain from the 20% muslim voters in Mumbai, who back the Congress.
    • Along with eating into the Marathi votebank of the Sena, the BJP had already eaten up the Hindi speaking voters (mostly migrants from UP and Bihar, some being born and brought up in the city their parents or grandparents migrated into). The BJP had exclusive control over the Gujarati speaking voters of Mumbai, as the BJP dominates politics in Gujarat. This Gujarati and Hindi speaking votebank combines to approx. 35% of the voters.
    • The Sena has benefitted hugely due to this huge votebank of the BJP, especially in the last 20 years. The only incentive these voters had to vote for the Sena was that it was an ally of the BJP. Two out of the three Sena MPs from Mumbai cannot win the Lok Sabha election without the BJP votebank
    • Thus it is clear that the Sena has been a bigger beneficiary of the BJP vote bank in the last two decades, than the gain accrued to the BJP from the Sena vote.

  • Sena alone built Mumbai: This is one of the biggest myths that the Sena cadre and the Marathi media tries to perpetuate. They claim that Mumbai was built by the Sena while the BJP is not a party to the development of the city
    • The Sena has been the major partner in the BMC and always had the most corporators and MLAs from Mumbai. Despite this the Sena has failed to take any concrete steps to improve the infrastructure of the city or the MMR. Sena controls most of the local bodies in the MMR. This point was brutally exposed during the current COVID-19 pandemic, where the lack of hospital beds, ambulances exposed the non performance of the Sena. These are precisely the reasons I listed on why the Sena deserves to lose the BMC.
    • The suburban train network though highly crowded is still the backbone of the city. It has always been operated by the Indian Railways which comes under the Union government. The BEST bus network has failed to cope up with increasing number of commuters and is in the dumps financially.
    • Sena does not have a very stellar record when it comes to the quality of city roads in Mumbai. The ruling party in the BMC is interested more in the percentage it can earn from the civic projects, than the quality of roads. Huge corruption in road contracts mean that the contractors are forced to use low quality material for making the actual road. If a contractor decides to build a good quality road, he may get bankrupt as the project would run into a loss.
    • On the other hand, the slew of flyovers built in the city in the last 90s by Nitin Gadkari (as the PWD minister in the Sena led government) or the metro network project that was started by Devendra Fadnavis (2014-19) have much more potential of easing the travel woes in the megapolis. The Sena has hardly started a major infra project on it’s own. The Bandra-Worli sealink project was started by Nitin Gadkari. The coastal road being built by the BMC was initiated by Fadnavis as Chief minister
    • Sena cannot claim credit for much of the development in Mumbai. Though I will give them credit to the Sena led BMC for the water supply in Mumbai. Started by the British, the hydraulics department of the BMC has kept up the good work. Mumbai is a unique city as it has multiple dams of it’s own (mostly situated in the MMR region).

  • BJP will break Mumbai from Maharashtra: This is the emotional calling card of the Sena. Whenever it faces a tough election or a crisis like the COVID-19, this issue is used by them to save their face. The recent controversy about the IFSC was used by the Sena to draw away attention from the failure of the Uddhav Thackeray government in combating the COVID-19 crisis in the state.
    • Mumbai is a very emotive issue in the state. Pandit Nehru tried to make Mumbai as an Union territory in the last 1950s and which was opposed by all major parties (except the state Congress). Diverse ideological parties like the socialist, communists, jan sangh and the Shiv Sena (which wasn’t a political party back then) got together to defy Nehru during the “Samyukta Maharashtra Andolan”. Nehru had to back down and retain Mumbai in the state of Maharashtra.
    • This issue has since been used by the Sena in every election, against the Congress in the past and now against the BJP. The fault lines of that andolan are still felt in the mill land area of Central Mumbai. Sena has always retained the BMC due to strong support from this area.
    • However, the BJP under Modi has not fallen in the trap and hence Sena has to rake up issues like the IFSC to try to get Marathi speaking voters against the BJP. In fact the Sena is famous for agitation politics, like opposing the West Coast oil refinery being built in Ratnagiri district. If in the future, the refinery project is shifted elsewhere, the Sena will shamelessly say that the BJP acted against the interests of the state
    • Though such emotional issue are giving lesser dividends now, the Sena is unlikely to let go of this topic. The development done by the previous BJP govt under Devendra Fadnavis has managed to dilute this emotional issue of the Sena. Uddhav’s mismanagement of COVID-19 pandemic and overall poor governance, will help the BJP
    • As I have always maintained the Sena retained control over Mumbai due to the TINA factor, as Mumbaikars never favoured or trusted the Congress. The Congress is now left with only the minority votes in Mumbai. Now that the Mumbaikars have a credible option to the Sena in the form of the BJP, the Sena maybe in for political trouble in the next 2 years. It will take more time to loosen the Sena’s control over the other local bodies in the MMR like the TMC or the KDMC.

As I have always maintained, the voters in Mumbai and MMR getting better educated and becoming upwardly mobile will always go against the Sena, for whom governance is not exactly a strength. Take the example of the suburbs of Bhandup in Mumbai. In 2008 Bhandup was more like a village in the city as it was dominated by chawls and slums. In the last 12 years, more and more buildings and high rises have come up in Bhandup (especially along the LBS road). Many Marathi voters have moved from chawls to apartments and their voting preference is slowly changing from the Sena to the BJP. The BJP now has a couple of corporators from Bhandup (they never used to contest an election here as part of the alliance). In the 2014 assembly election, the Sena had to struggle against the BJP and could win by a small margin of 5000 votes.

This in a way explains the evolution of BJP in Mumbai and the MMR. As the metro network routes start getting commisioned in Mumbai and MMR, my opinion is that the BJP will get a lot more traction among the voters, as commuting to work is the biggest problem in the life of an average Mumbaikar (given that water and electricity supply is among the best in the country), Thanekar or Dombivaikar. Let me end by saying that the future of the BJP is very bright in Mumbai and MMR and it is Mumbai and the MMR that needs the BJP for a brighter future.


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