Opinion: It's BJP vs Team Thackeray For Dussehra, Team Shinde Sidelined

From "Thank you, Modi-ji" letters from beneficiaries of central government schemes, to recruiting superstar Ranveer Singh to star in Dandiya celebrations in Lalbaug, the BJP is maxing out on its campaign for the municipal corporation election in Mumbai (BMC).

The corporation runs a dreamy budget of 40,000 crores; operating it is a major prestige symbol. This year, even more so, because competing factions of the Shiv Sena are pushing to establish themselves as the original or 'real' party with the other relegated to a spin-off. The feuding factions consist of the branch led by Uddhav Thackeray, and the other led by Eknath Shinde, who replaced Uddhav Thackeray as Chief Minister after partnering with the BJP.

The aggressive and big bucks campaign of the BJP was launched with huge fanfare on September 5 by Amit Shah, who addressed party workers in the financial capital and exhorted them to "teach Uddhav Thackeray a lesson".


Amit Shah, Devendra Fadnavis and Eknath Shinde in Mumbai

On Dussehra (October 5), the competing Senas are both holding rallies. The festival has big significance for the party. Eknath Shinde lost the legal battle to hold his rally in Shivaji Park, where, on every Dussehra, Sena founder Bal Thackeray would address the cadres. The Chief Minister has been forced to redirect his rally to another public park.

In his Dussehra speeches, Bal Thackeray would launch strident attacks on enemies with his trademark high-octane speech. His son, Uddhav, and his grandson, Aditya, shared the stage. In fact, Uddhav Thackeray was introduced by his father as the new chief of the party at Shivaji Park on Dussehra.


Bal Thackeray with his son Uddhav (File photo)

Eknath Shinde has already inspected thrice the location allotted to his rally. Significantly, he has not yet invited his deputy Devendra Fadnavis and others in the Maharashtra BJP to his event. Senior leaders I spoke to across the Maharashtra political spectrum make two points. Neither Bal nor Uddhav Thackeray allowed BJP leaders at their Dussehra events while their parties were allies; this was based on the Sena making it clear that the BJP was to stay away from trying to infiltrate areas of heavy Marathi domination (core Sena vote in Mumbai). But with Eknath Shinde, who it props up as Chief Minister, the BJP has made it clear that no-go areas stand bulldozed - so, the BJP has launched "Marathi Garba" with singer Avadhoot Gupte to connect to the Marathi vote; then came the Ranveer Singh spectacle. The BJP has planned many such "events" in the run-up to the vital BMC elections.


Ranveer Singh performing at the Marathi Dandiya Mahotsav

Both editions of the Sena - Team Thackeray and Team Shinde - are urban parties drawing their strength from the Mumbai voter. And Eknath Shinde is discomfited with the ingress of Devendra Fadnavis into the former's turf.


Eknath Shinde and Devendra Fadnavis (File photo)

Meanwhile, team Thackeray which is fighting for its survival has to ensure that it wins the BMC elections -  its traditional stomping ground and an upcoming electoral face off with Shinde Sena in Andheri (East). Erstwhile MVA allies, the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) and the Congress party have indicated that they will support team Thackeray in the election.

The face-off between the two Senas is fierce. On WhatsApp and social media, both camps are releasing videos about Dussehra deriding the other. Sources say Uddhav Thackeray, who oversaw Sena videos when Bal Thackeray was alive, is reviewing the new videos to make sure they deliver as propaganda. The date for the BMC election has not yet been announced. The Sena has won it for the last 25 years. 


Uddhav and Aaditya Thackeray (File photo)

Significantly, the BJP has decided to use Prime Minister Narendra Modi as a mascot for the BMC election. In 2020, the BJP placed top leaders like Yogi Adityanath, Amit Shah and party President JP Nadda in the campaign for the Hyderabad civic polls. The party was keen to use those local elections to begin a wider initiative for a foothold in Telangana.

"We need Maharashtra for 2024 (Maharashtra has 48 Lok Sabha seats) and we win every poll using Modi-ji's face, so we are promoting him to show how seriously we take the BMC polls". Amit Shah is expected to up his visits to poll-bound Gujarat and give similar attention to Maharashtra.

Team Thackeray, say sources, will play the regional card and accuse the BJP-Eknath Shinde alliance of betraying the "Marathi Manoos". As evidence, they will continue to highlight the state's hard luck story - that Maharashtra lost a 20-billion-dollar chip-making project to Gujarat.

The BMC has turned into election gold. Nothing local about it. 

(Swati Chaturvedi is an author and a journalist who has worked with The Indian Express, The Statesman and The Hindustan Times.)

Disclaimer: These are the personal opinions of the author.