Modi versus Marathi parochialism
The fact that sectarian sentiments based on caste or region or religion are not as deeply rooted as is common supposed but are really bubbles on the surface of the country’s political life becomes evident every time there is a wave of sort on the eve of an election.
Perhaps the most definitive example of this phenomenon was in 1984 when the Congress won 415 of the 543 Lok Sabha seats with a vote share of 48.1 per cent, demolishing all semblance of identity politics. It is evident that if a person or party can arouse popular expectations to fever pitch, then all sectional considerations are swept aside.
Arguably, something similar appears to have happened in the case of Narendra Modi and the BJP in the recent general election. It has been claimed that in the Hindi heartland, Modi’s pitch for development breached the casteist bastions of OBC stalwarts like Mulayam Singh, Lalu Prasad and Nitish Kumar.
However, it can also be asserted that it wasn’t the promise of development alone which helped the BJP to win 71 of the 80 parliamentary seats in U.P. and 22 of the 40 seats (plus six seats of its ally, the Lok Janshakti Party) in Bihar, but the longstanding preference of the upper castes for the BJP.
Moreover, as if to confirm that the Modi wave was not universal, the regional parties triumphed in Tamil Nadu, Odisha and West Bengal although the BJP did increase its voting percentage from six to 17 in Mamata Banerjee’s stronghold. But, the BJP never had much of a presence in these states. The real test as to whether it can negate sectarian pressure will be in Maharashtra when the assembly elections are held in a few months time.
Ironically, the fact that the BJP emerged as the first party of the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) with 23 of the 48 Lok Sabha seats in Maharashtra followed by the Shiv Sena’s 18 can queer the pitch for an alliance which has always seen the Shiv Sena in the No. 1 position. In 2009, for instance, the BJP won nine seats to the Shiv Sena’s 11.
If the Modi wave - although Raj Thackeray of the Maharashtra Navnirman Sena (MNS) says it has waned – enables the BJP to win more seats this time than its partner (assuming that the alliance remains intact), then it will be a blow to the Shiv Sena’s Marathi sub-nationalism.
The latter has been exploiting this sentiment with a mixture of strong-arm tactics and an appeal to Marathi pride since the mid-1960s. The targets of its animus have been the South Indians, mainly Tamil office workers and idli-dosa joints, North Indians – taxi drivers from Bihar and UP – and Muslims.
The BJP took no part in the anti-’Madrasi’ agitations in the 1960s because it wasn’t much of a force anywhere in Maharashtra at the time, and it obviously could not go against the Biharis and UP-wallahs because it is a party of the Hindi-speakers itself. Since the BJP is unlikely to endorse any of the Shiv Sena’s anti-Muslim attitudes in its present mellow mood under Modi, there is apparently little common ground at the moment between the two parties.
If, therefore, the BJP’s slogan of growth for all trumps the Shiv Sena’s half-a-century-old parochialism, it will demonstrate that the voter falls for these divisive ploys only if he sees no worthwhile alternative which holds the promise of a better future. Even the short-lived success of Arvind Kejriwal’s Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) in the Delhi elections last year proved that the electorate in the national capital placed greater trust in the assurances of a group of seemingly honest newcomers than in the other options which included established parties like the BJP and the Congress, which have been known for their cynicism.
Since then, the BJP has brushed up its image as a party focussed on economics rather than playing footsie with militant religiosity. There are, of course, sections which go along with its unalloyed Hindu nationalism, but it is undoubtedly the new coating of economic growth which has given the party its present gloss.
For the Shiv Sena, coming to terms with this new orientation may not be easy because the BJP’s preference for a bullish market not only implies the prevalence of social stability, but also the eschewing of factors which threaten it such as the Shiv Sena’s preference for the sons-of-the-soil theory in matters of employment. Since parties like the Shiv Sena thrive on creating tension between the communities, its alliance with the BJP will be under a strain.
The latter may not be too concerned, however, by this downturn in their relations because the Shiv Sena is no longer what it was. Not only has it split with Raj Thackeray breaking away, the death of Bal Thackeray has left a void in the organisation which Uddhav Thackeray has not been able to fill. With the Congress and the NCP on a downhill slide, the BJP’s day seems to have come in Maharashtra.