In Maharashtra, Women Activists Of Anti-BJP Front Join Hands ‘For Democracy’

Women activists from all the parties that allied to forge the Maha Vikas Aghadi are campaigning with a never-before show of solidarity

Like many political alliances, the Maha Vikas Aghadi (MVA) began as a post-election coalition of parties that often pulled in different directions. The ties between the Congress and the National Congress Party (NCP) have often been rocky; and the Shiv Sena, unlike its allies, has followed a fiercely right wing agenda till fairly recently.

However, this election, the partners of the Aghadi have become staunch supporters of each others’ candidates and it is the women activists of the three parties who have been at the forefront of this display of electoral solidarity, we found while reporting on the election campaigns in the state. 

“This general election is exceptional – this time I am campaigning to save democracy. This may be the last nail in the coffin [of democracy] for who knows if we will see general elections in 2029,” said Prachi Taktode, 28, a political activist from Satara. A secretary of the Youth Congress in the state, she has been active in the district for five years.

The last couple of years have been tumultuous for two important constituents of the MVA: a faction of the Shiv Sena led by Eknath Shinde broke away from the leadership of Uddhav Thackeray in 2022. It managed to wrest both the name and the symbol of the party. Ajit Pawar split from the Sharad Pawar-led party in July 2023 with more than a dozen MLAs. Both these rebel groups have been supported by and are supporting the BJP-led NDA

But activists like Prachi remain optimistic and driven. She campaigned for Shashikant Shinde, who contested the Satara Lok Sabha seat for the Sharad Pawar-led faction of the NCP. She is so enthused that she spent Rs 22,000 out of her own pocket to do door-to-door campaigning across more than 100 villages in Satara. 

“I spoke to farmers, daily wagers but mostly women, and explained to them the real issues like inflation and unemployment and some local ones like the absence of basic facilities at the Satara industrial complex and so on. Women were furious about the inflation and expressed their rage wherever we went,” said Prachi. 

Prachi Taktode, young congress activist during the door to door election campaign for MVA candidate Shashikant Shinde in Satara. Credit - Prachi Taktode

Women activists of Shiv Sena (UBT) from Satara also campaigned for Shinde. “This kind of solidarity among the women karyakartas of INC, NCP-SP, Shiv Sena UBT and Aam Aadmi Party is unusual.” said Niranjani Shetty, a veteran civil rights activist based in Mumbai. She has been working with Shiv Sena (UBT) activists for a year now, attending their shakha meetings and joining their door-to-door election campaign. She is enthused by the changes in the party’s thinking under Uddhav’s leadership.

‘Broader Solidarity’

The biggest ideological difference between the allies was the Sena’s hardline Hindutva, its stand on the demolition of the Babri Masjid in Ayodhya and its views on Hindu Mahasabha’s VD Savarkar. Sometimes, seat sharing negotiations became fraught.

But in the face of the challenges this election poses and a significant shift in the Udhhav-led Sena’s thinking, the allies are putting aside their differences. The MVA’s campaign is thus being welcomed by women voters, Dalits, Muslims and other marginalised groups, and also the civil society, social organisations

“Initially this united front emerged out of political compulsions but that has changed into a larger narrative, creating a broader solidarity between these parties,” said Deepak Pawar, political analyst and professor of political science at the University of Mumbai. “This became possible because of the push from social groups and organisations, such as the Ambedkarites, socialists, leftists, NGOs and so on.”

NCP-SP’s Swamini Parkhe has campaigned for the Congress candidate from Dhule, Shobha Bachhav. “All the women karyakartas across the allied parties have been enthusiastically campaigning for our candidate, conveying the INDIA alliance’s message,” said Swamini, an activist who believes that this election holds an extraordinary urgency. 

Solidarities, Friendships Over Campaign Chats

This commitment  is also creating friendships and solidarities among the women political activists from different parties. They have created Whatsapp groups for communication around campaign schedules and use their personal social media networks to promote MVA candidates. 

Rashtra Seva Dal’s senior activist Manisha Pati, who is based in Pune, campaigned for MVA’s candidates in north Maharashtra. CPM’s women activists campaigned for the Congress candidate in Solapur, Praniti Shinde. Diksha Pawar, a young Congress activist mobilised women and campaigned for the Sena (UBT) candidate, Chandrakant Khaire from Chhatrapati Sambhaji Nagar (Aurangabad). Aam Aadmi Party’s Mumbai leader Preeti Sharma – Menon campaigned for MVA’s candidates in Mumbai local trains, distributed handbills to commuters and appealed to them to vote for saving the constitution. 

Aam Aadmi party's Mumbai leader Preeti Sharma-Menon conducted election prachar campaigns in Mumbai local trains for MVA candidates. Credit - Aam Aadmi Party Mumbai

Women from different political parties under MVA also joined Rahul Gandhi’s ‘Bharat Jodo’ and ‘Nyay Yatra’ enthusiastically. The narrative of a strong opposition was echoed in the ‘Nirbhay Bano’, the political campaign organised by civil society and social organizations in Maharashtra over the last few months. 

‘We Are In Dire Need Of An Alternative’

Women activists from across parties are also uniting over issues that impact their daily lives – inflation, particularly the rising price of LPG, irregularities in the PDS (subsidised ration) system and unemployment. Young women who have passed the examinations for government jobs are yet to receive their appointment letters despite many protests. The BJP’s stand on the remission of convicts in the Bilkis Bano case, its response to the women wrestlers and their campaign against sexual harassment, its silence on the violence inflicted on the  women in Manipur – these are all emerging as important campaign issues, said women activists. 

“We have seen how the Union government suppressed farmers’ protests, students’ protests, agitations against CAA-NRC. We have also seen how human rights activists have been arrested under UAPA, chief ministers like Kejriwal and Soren arrested by ED. The ruling government doesn’t want any kind of Opposition at all, political parties, civil society or media. So we are now in dire need of a strong alternative. The INDIA Alliance is that,” said Samya Korde, a young leader from Mumbai’s Dharavi.

Korde hails from Shetkari Kamgar Paksh (Peasants and Workers Party) and is actively campaigning for Anil Desai, the Shiv Sena(UBT) candidate from Mumbai south central constituency. She also participated in a mega rally organised by the MVA when he filed his nomination paper. Left parties have been critical about Shiv Sena for decades. What has changed? 

“This time the fight is between a fascist regime vs democratic India. There was space for dissent in our political history, now that space has shrunk so our first priority is to sack this divisive party. As political parties and activists, we do have differences of opinions but that is something we can negotiate gradually while shaping a common minimum programme after an electoral win,” said Korde.   

Desai’s promise on Dharavi’s slum redevelopment is another important reason why all party women activists are supporting him. The Adani Group has signed a Dharavi slum development project with the state government, promising 350-sq ft flats to slum dwellers but only under certain conditions that will result in the relocation of  7 lakh people. Desai and MVA have promised to fight for those who will be displaced. 

Korde is having sustained conversations with citizens, mostly women, in her constituency Dharavi. In a month-long campaign she visited more than 3,000 households and  determined to visit more families before Mumbai goes to the polls on May 20.

“We want jobs for the youth. When candidates from the ruling party centre their campaign around the Ram Mandir issue and try to polarise voters  on the basis of religion, we speak to people about their issues, about development,” said Prachi. 

Political scholar Deepak Pawar, is of the view that not just women activists but also women voters are also outraged by the absence of ethics in politics. “At the national level, it is Modi’s divisive speeches. Locally, people are fed up with the politics of party splitting. Also the INDIA alliance and the MVA are strategising their campaign around people’s disappointment with the BJP,” he said. 

Uddhav’s Sena And The Saffron Stance

Shiv Sena (UBT) is the largest party in the MVA alliance and as we said earlier, its roots lie in hardline Hindutva. But the party is now working at extending its base among Muslims and Dalits. The Thackeray slogan now is ‘Hridyat Ram aani hatala kam (Ram is in our hearts, but we’ll also talk about unemployment)’. This is a far cry from the days when Shiv Sena, including its women activists, were known for the virulent campaign against Muslims. 

“It is a metamorphosis, and for the better. The party was very aggressive in the 1980s and 1990s so much so that this led to caste and communal flare ups. One example was their campaign against Ambedkar’s thoughts on Hinduism, or the riddles movement as it is called. But now Uddhav Thackeray is weaving an inclusive narrative connecting it to the legacy of his grandfather Prabhodhankar Thackeray. But, credit also goes to Sena’s women activists, who are out on the streets in larger numbers than men. They were very welcoming towards a Communist activist like me and accepted me as their ally,” said rights activist Niranjani Shetty. 

She also observed the rare presence of Muslim women at Sena meetings and rallies. “Economic distress is hitting women hard, bringing them together,” she said.

  • Priyanka Tupe is a multimedia journalist with Behanbox based in Mumbai.

Malini Nair (Editor)

Malini Nair is a consulting editor with Behanbox. She is a culture writer with a keen interest in gender.

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