A change of name for votes

The BJP-Shiv Sena alliance hopes to woo the OBCs by renaming places

June 20, 2023 12:15 am | Updated 09:49 am IST

Maharashtra Chief Minister Eknath Shinde and Deputy Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis pay tribute to Ahilyabai Holkar on her birth anniversary, in Ahmednagar. File photo

Maharashtra Chief Minister Eknath Shinde and Deputy Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis pay tribute to Ahilyabai Holkar on her birth anniversary, in Ahmednagar. File photo | Photo Credit: PTI

Earlier this month, the Eknath Shinde-led Maharashtra government decided to rename Ahmednagar district as Ahilya Nagar, after the 18th-century warrior queen Ahilya Devi Holkar. In February, it renamed Aurangabad as Chhatrapati Sambhajinagar and Osmanabad as Dharashiv.

This renaming spree that the government has embarked on is a form of majoritarian politics. It suggests an erasure of those parts of history that are associated with Muslim rulers and can be seen as an attempt to make a community feel diminished by erasing its contributions to the nation. Aurangabad was named after Mughal emperor Aurangzeb; Osmanabad derived its name from the Nizam of Hyderabad, Mir Osman Ali Khan; and Ahmednagar is associated with Malik Ahmed Nizam Shah, the founder of the Nizam Shahi dynasty. This trend has also ignited communal unrest. About a week after the decision to rename Ahmednagar, tensions prevailed in Kolhapur following a protest by right-wing outfits over social media messages that reportedly glorified Aurangzeb and the 18th century Mysore ruler, Tipu Sultan.

It was, in fact, the Uddhav Thackeray-led Maha Vikas Aghadi (MVA) government which decided to name Aurangabad and Osmanabad in response to a long-standing demand of the Shiv Sena. This was the last Cabinet decision of the MVA government before it collapsed in June last year. After coming to power, the Shinde-Devendra Fadnavis government scrapped the decision stating that the Uddhav Thackeray-led government lacked a majority and claiming that the decision would face legal hurdles. Its Cabinet cleared the renaming proposal once again, and Aurangabad and Osmanabad were renamed in a way which the government hopes will appeal to its core voter base in the Marathwada region.

Now, by renaming Ahmednagar, which the locals simply refer to as Nagar, the government is aiming to woo the Dhangars, the shepherd community which holds significant electoral influence in western Maharashtra, Marathwada, and parts of northern Maharashtra, by invoking regional pride. Ahilya Devi Holkar, who was born in Ahmednagar’s Choundi, belongs to the Dhangar community, which is today the second largest community in the State after the Maratha-Kunbis. There are 15,000-25,000 Dhangar voters in each of the at least seven Lok Sabha and about 40 Assembly constituencies. In high-profile constituencies which are the stronghold of Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) leader Sharad Pawar, including Baramati, Daund, Shirur, Indapur and Sangola, the Dhangars wield substantial voting power. This move aligns with the BJP’s ‘MADHAV’ formula through which it hopes to consolidate the Malis (MA), Dhangars (DHA) and Vanjaras (V) and further expand its presence in western Maharashtra. It hopes to attract the powerful Other Backward Classes vote bank ahead of the 2024 Lok Sabha and Assembly elections.

In the hope of weakening the NCP’s hold on power in the region further, the government also announced that the Baramati Medical College would be renamed as Punyashlok Ahilya Devi Holkar Government Medical College. Mr. Pawar’s daughter Supriya Sule represents the Baramati Lok Sabha constituency and his nephew Ajit Pawar is Baramati’s MLA. These seats were previously held by Mr. Pawar.

The MVA has been careful about opposing the remaining as it fears that doing so would give the ruling alliance an advantage. It also does not want to seen as engaging in ‘Muslim appeasement’ politics given the widespread narrative that Muslim rulers were anti-Hindu and brutal.

Meanwhile, the dominant Maratha community, which believes that the Dhangars with the support of the BJP are trying to control power in the State, has opposed the renaming of Ahmednagar. Initially, even the BJP’s Revenue Minister Radhakrishna Vikhe Patil and his son Dr. Sujay-Vikhe Patil, who belong to the Maratha community from Ahmednagar, was against the demand.

The renaming decisions have far-reaching implications. They underscore the delicate balance between asserting regional and caste identities, appealing to a specific voter base, and maintaining communal harmony. Whether such name changes actually bring in votes remains to be seen. But ruling parties should ensure inclusivity and unity while navigating sensitive matters like these.

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