Getting it Right in Mumbai

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Change goes saffron in the city of perpetual makeovers
Two large BJP party workers, large flaming tilaks on their foreheads and lotus symbols pinned on their shirts, stand on one side of the door, pushing, as a petite woman with a microphone under her arm has a go from the other side.

“Let me in,” she screams. “I want to go in. They know me, they know me.” A limb makes through, then a hand. But the men manage to keep her torso out.

An hour ticks by. It’s now almost 10 am and we are at the BJP’s Maharashtra headquarters at Nariman Point. The state’s election result is to be declared by noon, all exit polls have estimated a spectacular victory for the party, and even the early results on TV are saying so. But there are no BJP leaders in sight. Everyone, we are told, is cocooned behind the doors in the BJP’s “war room”. Whenever a new leader arrives at the headquarters, they quickly disappear into the office. Even the otherwise ebullient BJP spokesperson, Shahina NC, responds to queries with just a smile. It appears no one is to talk before there is some confirmation of the results.

Outside, the trees on the roads sag under the weight of paper lotuses. There are Narendra Modi cut-outs, TV sets, tuned into the channel showing the best results for BJP, both outside on the road and at various corners inside the office, and an electronic board displaying digital lotuses and the figure ‘145+’, the seats required to form the Maharashtra government. The area is now swelling with reporters, policemen, and BJP well- wishers. At some point, the water in the office runs out, and the city’s municipal body, under the Shiv Sena-BJP alliance, sends a water tanker. With no leader available for a comment, the journalists now walk around with troubled frowns, their large microphones sticking out like thermometers from their arms. men. The petite woman stations herself right outside the door, ready to get a quick TV byte.

Maharashtra, especially Mumbai, has never been a BJP stronghold. The only time it tasted power here was as part of a coalition with the Shiv Sena in 1995. But that period, coming right after the Babri Masjid demolition and the Ram Mandir movement, and the riots and bomb blasts that rocked the city, was a very different time. Otherwise, it has usually been the Congress’, either alone or with the help of an ally.

In the past, the ruling and opposition spaces in the state used to be occupied by those of a left-of-centre ideology. It would usually be the Congress in power with parties like the Peasants and Workers’ Party, the Republican Party of India and the Janata Dal in the opposition. It was only in the 1990 election that right-wing parties first made a mark. Then with 94 seats, their best ever performance, a Shiv Sena and BJP alliance came to form the opposition. But even then, right up till the last state election, the BJP, lacking both in organisational strength and electoral vigour, had always been the junior of the two.

“If BJP comes to power, it will have changed Maharashtra’s politics forever,” says Kumar Ketkar, a senior journalist and political commentator. “It is from Maharashtra that the so-called Congress system, with its ties with unions and cooperatives, came to be. To see them decimated and the BJP as the most dominant party would be unheard of.”

The state and city have for many years now survived only on coalitions. The great cosmopolitan city of Mumbai, with the tugs and pulls of its vast array of people and their aspirations, has for long thrown up only a fractured mandate. There are just too many people, too many different ideas and needs, to find the shade of a single umbrella enough.

There is a shuffle of feet on the other side. A swarm of TV reporters station themselves outside the door, as the woman with the microphone pushes herself right in front. When the doors open, it is not the sight of Devendra Fadnavis, widely tipped then to become the next Chief Minister, or Pankaja Munde, whose name as CM has also been doing the rounds, or any of the leaders that greets the reporters, but the enormous sound of two tutaari horns, played by two men in shimmering red and green outfits. Somewhere on the road, firecrackers are bursting. Some are drawing lotus motifs on the road. More Modi cutouts are brought out. Laddoos are being distributed.

The TV now shows the BJP leading in 120 seats, with the second placed, Shiv Sena, at around 60. A man runs around with a BJP flag shouting—“AM, PM, zindabad! AM PM zindabad!” When asked, he explains that AM stands for Amit Shah and PM for Prime Minister Modi. People now appear, wearing what look like life jackets with images of the lotus and Modi emblazoned on them. A Muslim man in a saffron kurta appears with a packet of laddoos to feed a cutout of Modi, as others join in. Egged on by photographers, one supporter, with puckered lips, kisses the parted lips of a Modi cutout.

“They (BJP) don’t know how to celebrate,” one policeman tells another. “They aren’t used to it here.”

Every CM candidate, right before he hits the big league, gets a taste, it appears, of the commoner. He gets the local train squeeze. Fadnavis, when he emerges from closed doors, is tugged, pulled, tossed and flung. He moves from one sweaty embrace to another. Some, with their heads somehow positioned underneath his crotch, are trying to lift him. Ladoos are force-fed, sometimes into his mouth, sometimes into his nostrils. Arguments break out among supporters and cameramen. It is impossible to get a word from him, and he moves away, into his car and, from thereon, we are told, to the airport to travel to his constituency, Nagpur.

The other victors get similar treatment. Sardar Tara Singh, the BJP victor from Mulund, with his waxed, upturned moustaches has to apply saliva on them to keep them from wilting. Shahina NC, who spent most of her day at the headquarters, says, “We would have liked a full majority. But this is still good enough for us. We are going to form the government,” as her voice is drowned out by the noise.

The BJP has in all won 122 seats of the 288, its best ever performance in the state. This is more than twice its tally of the last state election. With a 28 per cent vote share, it has failed to attain a majority by just 23 seats. The second placed Shiv Sena, in comparison, has managed just 63 seats. The BJP has not only decimated the Congress and NCP, which seemed to be a given, it has also effectively marginalised the Shiv Sena. While the BJP has been able to win 12 of the 44 seats Shiv Sena won in 2009, the latter has managed to snatch just one from the former’s 2009 kitty of 46.

The results are most interesting in Mumbai. Of the total 36 seats, the BJP bagged 15, Shiv Sena 14, and the Congress only five. The victory margin was often also exceptionally high for the BJP, which is something remarkable in a four—and sometimes five—cornered fight. Several BJP candidates won by over 60,000 votes, with the likes of Vinod Tawde from Borivli defeating the second-placed candidate by 79,267 votes, but only one Shiv Sena candidate, Ajay Chowdhari with a victory margin of 64,407 votes from Sewri, was able to cross the 40,000 plus gap. The political landscape of Maharashtra, and Mumbai, has completely changed, it appears. “I don’t think it is ever going to be the same,” Ketkar says. “The BJP, with its sort of sophisticated image and middle class-educated-white collar base was somewhat more of an urban phenomenon in Maharashtra. Shiv Sena was the one with more organisational skills and links. Sainiks ruled the streets, not BJP.”

According to Ketkar, the demography of the city has changed rapidly in the past few years. The strikes of mill workers, most of whom were Maharashtrians from the Konkan region, the chief vote-bank of the Shiv Sena, and the subsequent closure of the mills in the 1980s, led to a large number of them emigrating from the city. “Over the years, this exodus of the Marathi worker community has been filled by people from other states, and the city’s economic vibrancy has drawn in more migrants from other parts of the country. All this has diluted the Shiv Sena’s votebank,” he says.

Mahesh Jethmalani, a senior advocate at the Bombay High Court and a BJP leader, says, “Growing urbanisation has brought a change in the state’s politics. People, especially those living in cities and towns, are young and possess high aspirations. They are not interested in caste and language. They want development and welfare.” “The results are fantastic,” he says, “given that we never ever had a dominant position in the state.”

At Sena Bhawan, the Shiv Sena office, the mood is sombre. According to rumours, most Shiv Sena candidates were flown or driven to Sena Bhawan in the morning and kept behind closed doors to ensure none of them were poached away. But there is no sign of them. A few leaders who have won in Mumbai come by in a procession of drummers and dancers, and one even has a man dressed up as a tiger. But Uddhav Thackeray stays back at his residence, Matoshree. It is as though they are confused about the results—to cheer their good haul or stand dejected in their once junior ally’s rise?

On the first floor hall of Sena Bhawan, which is used for press conferences, there are empty chairs and a few journalists waiting in the hope that something news-worthy might occur. In one corner is the late Bal Thackeray’s first car, the bullet-proof Contessa with the number plate ‘1995’ (the year he purchased the car), shrouded in grey canvas.

The only Shiv Sena member around seems to be the party’s public relations officer. When asked for comments or information, he raises his hand and shrugs his shoulders.