BJP's Gujarati leadership in Maharashtra faces axe ahead of polls; growing popularity of Modi-Shah allows BJP to junk local leaders
By Kunal Purohit
Published: 2:31pm, 15 October, 2019
The list of Gujarati leaders who have faced unceremonious exits from the party include 60-year-old Mehta, former MLA and 65-year-old two-time MP Kirit Somaiya, six-time corporator and former deputy Mayor of Mumbai Ram Barot, as well as, former corporator Pravin Chedda
Till five years ago, the BJP, which always played second fiddle to the Sena, had consolidated its vote banks in Mumbai among the Gujarati and north Indian communities
This vote bank has allowed it to wrest a handful of Gujarati-dominated Assembly constituencies in Mumbai rather easily
Mumbai: Five years ago, the Bharatiya Janata Party's (BJP) Gujarati leadership in Mumbai, the city where the party was born, was ecstatic at having two Gujarati leaders take over the party's reins, nationally. In hushed whispers, the leadership celebrated it and believed that, at last, they will be rewarded for their work.
Five years later, however, with the axing of six-time party MLA Prakash Mehta, the BJP, under the Modi-Shah duo, has axed the entire Gujarati leadership of the BJP’s state unit that had held fort for all these years.
Party insiders say there are many reasons behind this. Some believe that this is an attempt to cultivate new leadership; others say that this is a sign that the party believes its popularity allows it to junk senior community leaders and yet, retain the community’s support.
The list of Gujarati leaders who have faced unceremonious exits from the party include 60-year-old Mehta, former MLA and 65-year-old two-time MP Kirit Somaiya, six-time corporator and former deputy Mayor of Mumbai Ram Barot, as well as, former corporator Pravin Chedda.
More than the denial of tickets, it is the manner in which they were denied tickets that have raised questions within the party — both Mehta and Somaiya were incumbent representatives who were dropped, while 73-year-old Barot, BJP's senior-most corporator, who had lost the 2014 state elections by a slender margin of 2,000, was denied a ticket. Instead, a former Congress legislator was inducted to the party and asked to fight the election in his place.
File image of Narendra Modi and Amit Shah. Reuters
Mehta was dropped and the ticket was given to a corporator, Parag Shah, who had joined the party only two years ago. In the recent Lok Sabha elections, Somaiya, an MP from Mumbai’s North East constituency, was asked to step aside and make way for another candidate after ally Shiv Sena expressed its displeasure over a possible renomination for him. Somaiya, in the past, had alluded to the Thackeray family's hold over the Brihanmumbai Muncipal Corporation (BMC) by calling them the 'mafia of Bandra.'
This time, Somaiya, it is learnt, had asked for an Assembly ticket for his wife, Medha, but his request was dispensed with.
Denied tickets, it now means curtains down for these 1990s-era leaders who owed their rise to the BJP leaders Pramod Mahajan and Gopinath Munde.
Till five years ago, the BJP, which always played second fiddle to the Sena, had consolidated its vote banks in Mumbai’s Gujarati and the North Indian communities. This vote bank has allowed it to wrest a handful of Gujarati-dominated Assembly constituencies in Mumbai rather easily. One of these were Ghatkopar, where Mehta came to dominate politics as a six-term MLA, getting elected since 1990.
Filling a void
Old-timers within the party explain that the from the start, dependence on Gujarati votes was a carefully demarcated strategy by the party. "In the 1980s, when the BJP started expanding, the Shiv Sena was already wrestling with the Congress for the Marathi vote. The other linguistic minorities, be it Gujaratis, Marwadis and even Hindi-speaking populations, did not have much representation. Hence, the party sensed the void and sought to fill it," explains a senior BJP leader, currently a vice-president with the party's state unit.
What helped the party grow were a string of strong Gujarati-speaking leaders — former MP Jaywantiben Mehta and Hemendra Mehta. But it was not just the Gujarati leaders. BJP gained from having other non-Marathi leaders like Hashu Advani and Ved Prakash Goyal.
The party got itself involved in the community’s social affairs. From organising cultural events like Dandiya nights during the Navratri festival to being in regular attendance at the community’s hyperlocal events, BJP leaders like Mehta and Somaiya cultivated the community’s vote. Among all parties, the BJP has taken the lead in offering electoral representation to the community as well. In the 2017 civic polls in Mumbai, one-third of the party’s total seats were won by Gujarati candidates.
But, the party’s engagement with the community did not always work in its favour. Its own ally, the Shiv Sena, has often taken potshots at the BJP and alluded it to a party of Gujaratis. This came to the fore five years ago, when the two allies fought the last Assembly election separately. The Sena, in its campaign, targetted the BJP as a party of ‘outsiders’, while calling itself the true representative of the ‘native Maharashtrians.’
Hemraj Shah, Shiv Sena leader and the President of Bruhanmumbai Gujarati Samaj, an umbrella body of various Gujarati bodies, says that the near-total backing of the Gujarati community can be attributed to the prime minister's rise. "Till 2004, the community supported the Congress, as well. But, with Modi's rise, first as the Chief Minister and then Prime Minister, the shift to the BJP is near-complete now," he says.
Shah admits that the community does not support any other party, including his own. "It is a vicious circle — all other parties want the Gujarati vote, but since the Gujaratis don’t vote for any other party but the BJP, no other party allows Gujarati leaders to rise and as a result, the BJP’s grip on the community goes unchallenged."
After an emphatic win in the Lok Sabha polls earlier this year, the party’s confidence is at an all-time high. “Even if these leaders are dropped, the Gujarati community will not stray anywhere else and stick to the BJP. That’s because the community knows that it is no longer voting for the local leaders but that its voting for Narendra Modi," says another Gujarati leader from the BJP based in Mumbai.
The dumped leaders seem to realise this — none of them have threatened to walk out, nor show any dissent at not being given the ticket. Somaiya says that the party was taking care of all its leaders, ticket or not. "The party needs to expand its base. Hence, it is trying to inject younger blood and cultivate younger leaders," he said, referring to the candidature granted to his colleague, Manoj Kotak, nearly two decades his junior.
"The assertion that it has junked Gujarati leadership is a baseless one. We are all still very active and working towards a BJP victory," says Somaiya, who was appointed the vice-president of the state unit recently.