Sunday, February 19, 2012

How the Shiv Sena can capture power in Maharashtra….

Shiv Sena put up a good show and won the BMC elections fairly convincingly. They didn’t quite get a majority, but they emerged as the largest alliance (alongwith the BJP) with a clear lead over its rivals. There is a new hope in the party about coming to power at the state level. Before it can achieve that goal however, the Sena needs to take cognisance of the limitations its current political strategy puts on its growth prospects. It’s to do with the “positioning” the party has taken as part of its political strategy that should worry it.

The Shiv Sena’s primary platform (the “positioning”) for seeking votes is that it stands for the Marathi Manoos. It stands for their pride, their dignity, and for their right to be the privileged citizens of Maharashtra. To the Sena’s credit, they have pursued this strategy rigorously, avoiding diluting it with anything else. It’s this single minded pursuit of guaranteeing Marathi pride that has seen the party rule Mumbai for 16 years so far (and for five more years now).

The Sena unfortunately split a few years back, and the Maharashtra Navnirman Sena (MNS) was formed from within it. In the long term, the biggest competitor of the Sena is the MNS. Led by a charasimatic and young Raj, the party has smartly also added the word “Navnirman” in its name. Navnirman stands for development and as I will prove later in this post, that one word gives the MNS the edge over the Sena in the long run.

The Sena’s strategy has ensured that it succeeds in parts of the state where the Maharashtrian-first platform is relevant. For example in Mumbai, which is pot-pourri of cultures and languages, it is a highly relevant platform. The business in this city is dominated by the Gujaratis – the stock market being the symbol of that hegemony. The trading business and the diamond industry are also strongly dominated by the Gujaratis, as is “big” business. At the lower end of the population is the large bunch of people who have come from UP and Bihar – accounting for some 20% of Mumbai’s population. This section has drawn the ire of the Sena for long. The Sena (and the MNS) have protested against the Chhath puja as being an unnecessary display of Bihari strength; they have created problems for candidates from these states taking part in the Railways exams held in Mumbai and so on. It is this mixed population which gives the Sena its appeal amongst the Maharashtrian population in Mumbai. Maharashtrians are hard working and well educated people and feel that they should have a larger say in the economy of the city (remember, Mumbai cares most for the economy; everything else is secondary). No wonder then that they eagerly support the Sena (and now also the MNS).

The Sena and the MNS do well in all cities where there is some sort of a perceived threat to Maharastrian pride. That’s why the MNS has emerged as the single largest party in Nashik – an industrial hub of Maharashtra – where a large number of migrants from UP and Bihar have come for work. The Sena also does well in the towns around Mumbai – Ulhasnagar (where the Sindhis dominate) and Thane (which is really an extension of Mumbai itself). These have been the traditional areas of strength for the Sena and the MNS. Added to this list now is Pune where – though the NCP/Congress alliance has won the recent polls – the MNS has emerged as the 2nd largest party after the NCP. Not surprising, given the increasing number of migrants year after year that make Pune their home. Pune is the second largest city in Maharashtra, and has tradionally been known as the cultural hub of the state. But today, Pune is also getting well known for its youth (thanks to the colleges there), pub, and BPO culture. Pune is also getting a lot of investment in the real estate sector from Mumbaiites. Pune is now considered a “cosmopolitan” city, somewhat like Mumbai. As Pune has become more mixed, the issues that the Sena and the MNS address become relevant. No wonder then that the two parties are starting to do well here.

But in cities which don’t have such mixed population, the Sena and the MNS start to falter. Take Nagpur, or for that matter, the entire Vidharbha region which includes Amravati and Akola as well, and the two start to struggle. While Nagpur is ruled by the BJP, Amravati and Akola are dominated by the Congress, NCP and the BJP. So also in Solapur which is largely dominated by Maharashtrians.

The Sena also fares relatively poorly in rural Maharashtra where the Maharashtrian platform is irrelevant – since the rural areas are anyways predominantly Maharashtrian. Since the Sena and the MNS have almost single mindedly focused only on the Marathi platform, and this is an irrelevant issue in rural Maharashtra, the Sena and the MNS havn’t been able to cut much ice there. No wonder then that the NCP-Congress swept the recently held zilla parishad elections.

This challenge (of having a limited appeal and that too only in certain urban pockets) has made the Sena dependent on the BJP. Where the BJP succeeds is in appealing to the non-Marathi Hindus…..those who resent Muslim appeasement (as they call it) of the Congress and the NCP. By itself, the BJP is a smaller outfit in Maharashtra than the Congress and the NCP but for the Sena, it is the ideal partner. Together, the two occupy the right-of-center saffron platform. The only moral conflict the BJP faces is that the Sena’s anti-UP/Bihar positioning makes life difficult for it in Bihar, where it is the minority partner with JD (U). Every time the Sena strikes in Mumbai or Nashik, it faces the heat in Bihar and UP.

The relatively limited appeal of the Sena explains why the Sena-BJP combination has seized power at the state level only once between 1995 and 1999. At that time, Maharashtra was roiled by the politics of Ayodhya and the Babri Masjid demolition (including the riots that followed the demolition in Mumbai in 1992-93). The same conditions that helped the BJP take power at the Center (consolidation of Hindu votes) helped the alliance gain power in Maharashtra also. And as the communal tempers cooled, the BJP-Sena lost power at the Center and in Maharashtra.

If the Sena has to capture power again in Maharashtra, it has to add another dimension to its Maharashtrian-first strategy. Being focused on Maharashtrian pride is great; but there is need also for another story. The best story in these times is the story of development. Much like the MNS has adopted. If the Sena could focus more on development – show some good governance in Mumbai for instance – it could capture the imagination of a wider section of the people of the state. But if it sticks to the same old platform, it will find its growth prospects a little limited. In that case, it will be the MNS that will leapfrog to the numero uno position in the state.

The real truth is that the Sena will have to re-invent itself if it has to make a serious attempt at gaining power at the state level. Its opponent – the Congress and NCP – haven’t exactly taken done themselves proud on governance or development. Maharashtra has been losing out to neighboring states like Gujarat, Karnataka and AP on the economic front. The only reason they are surviving is because of the Sena’s own limitations. If that changes, the Congress-NCP could lose power in Maharashtra…..

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