With this stride, PM Modi and BJP also sought to send out a message, with Maharashtra CM Eknath Shinde by their side, that the BJP-Shinde Sena combine would position Shiv Sena as originally conceived by Balasaheb and not in new MVA avatar embodied by the Thackerays.
While the theme of Sunday’s opening of the Nagpur-to-Shirdi stretch was growth driven by infrastructure, the naming ceremony came as a declaration in the battle underway, especially ahead of polls to Mumbai’s cash-rich civic body which is perceived as Sena (UBT)’s lifeline.
The Nagpur-Mumbai corridor is known to be the brainchild of BJP’s Devendra Fadnavis. While he pushed the project during his tenure as CM between 2014 and 2019, Shinde, who was public works minister, led the process of land acquisition, despite Matoshree’s apparent lack of enthusiasm for the project. It was Shinde who, as PWD minister, first proposed in November 2018 to Fadnavis that the Samruddhi Mahamarg, as it was originally called, be named after Bal Thackeray. Once the MVA government led by Uddhav assumed office, it followed up on the proposal and in December 2019, passed a resolution formally naming the corridor after Balasaheb.
With Shinde now at the helm along with BJP, both camps would be hoping the symbolism of the naming bolsters their stand in ‘biological offspring versus ideological legatee’ argument Shinde team has mounted since the rebellion in Sena broke out.
BJP has ‘gone to town with it,’ as it were, because the ‘Balasaheb’ factor is key for it and Shinde in many ways. One, it takes the battle for the Sena legacy beyond the legal and legislative domain and into the realm of public imagination and memory.
Two, since the Mahamarg will cross-cross a majority of the state’s districts, it’s a purposeful acclamation by the Shinde-Fadnavis regime of the Sena pramukh’s pan-Maharashtra leadership of ‘Hindutva’, again a counter to Uddhav Sena’s Congress-NCP-friendly character. This is important as the highway runs through Vidarbha and Marathwada, regions where the BJP-Sena alliance with its saffron ideology made the first cracks in the once-invincible Congress fort of Maharashtra in 1980s.
Third, and just as important, is the recognition that Bal Thackeray was, as Shinde had said while submitting his proposal to Fadnavis in 2018, the “architect” of “the country’s first-ever expressway project,” the Mumbai-Pune expressway built during the first Sena-BJP government’s term between 1995 and 1999.
Four, Modi’s playing of the ‘dhol’ at Sunday’s function as local music rang out and saffron flags waved about him, his opening remarks in Marathi and his reference to ‘Sankashti Chaturthi’ as the day when auspicious beginnings are made, goes to the heart of Sena’s projection of itself as champion of the ‘Marathi manoos’ and Marathi culture. BJP would be hopeful about the messaging at a time when remarks by governor BS Koshyari and certain BJP members, along with the Maharashtra-Karnataka border dispute, have created embarrassment for the party.
Modi’s patting of Shinde on the back and his description of the latter as ‘lokpriya’ (popular) is in the same vein. The vein through which, Shinde claims, runs ‘Balasahebanchi’ Shiv Sena in his bloodstream.