Mumbai on a platter

Print edition : February 23, 2007

Shiv Sena supremo Bal Thackeray with his son and party working president Uddhav Thackeray at a press conference after the results of the BMC elections were announced.-

The Sena-BJP combine wins another five years in the city corporation of Mumbai as the Congress and the NCP fail to strike a deal.

THE decision of Sharad Pawar's Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) in Maharashtra to go it alone in the BrihanMumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) polls turned out to be a fatal one. The two parties lost their chance to wrest the BMC from the Shiv Sena-Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) combine, which has held it for 10 years.

Of the 227 seats, the NCP won 14, the Congress 73, the Sena 83 and the BJP 28. In the last BMC elections, the Sena and the BJP won 104 and 36 seats, respectively, getting a clear majority. This time, however, the saffron combine only got 111 seats. Had the Congress and the NCP teamed up, there was a strong chance of their getting a simple majority in the country's richest municipal corporation.

The NCP's decision to contest the elections on its own gave rise to an allegation that it was a deliberate move by Pawar to show the Congress how powerful he was. The NCP's better performance than the Congress in the elections to the Thane, Ulhasnagar, Nashik, Pune and Nagpur municipalities seems to lend some credence to this accusation. True or not, the allegation highlights the rickety relationship between the Congress and the NCP.

An analysis of the results of the municipal elections held in 10 cities across Maharashtra shows that the Sena-BJP combine fared poorly compared with the alliance's performance five years ago. This suggests that the Congress and the NCP had a good chance of winning the BMC if they had put up a united fight. It is widely recognised that the two parties won the Assembly elections in 2004 primarily because of their unity. Why did this experience fail to influence their decision for the BMC elections?

The bone of contention was the distribution of seats. The NCP wanted much more than the 44 seats that the Congress was willing to give it. The Congress' city unit chief Gurudas Kamat asserted that the NCP's position in Mumbai was not strong enough for the Congress to give it the 75 seats it was demanding. Kamat had a valid point. The NCP's strength lies in rural Maharashtra, which was evident in the Assembly elections. The Congress had triumphed in the urban areas.

After fierce bargaining, Kamat and the NCP team comprising Public Works Minister Chhagan Bhujbal and MLAs Sachin Ahir and Nawab Malik agreed that the NCP would get 65 seats and the Congress 162. This too was viewed as a compromise by many in the Congress, but it was accepted since an alliance was crucial for victory. But the NCP had another grouse. It was unhappy with the wards allotted to it. The seat distribution was done in such a way that the sitting councillors would be allowed to contest from their wards. The NCP argued that this rationale was not applied to its sitting councillors, for two of them had their wards taken away from them. Tempers rose when it was realised that one sitting NCP councillor was deprived of his seat to accommodate Revenue Minister Narayan Rane of the Congress, who had defected from the Sena.

Seat-sharing was a contentious issue within the saffron combine too. There was deep resentment within the BJP because the Sena refused to concede its demand for 80 seats. "We settled on 72," said a BJP functionary, "but the Sena seems to forget that we are the party with the national presence and not they. The advantage of partnering with us seems to have slipped out of the Sena's mind." True as this might be, it is equally undeniable that it is the Sena that has always powered the saffron coalition to victory within Mumbai.

So how did the people of Mumbai finally vote? Were they influenced by issues, individuals or parties? There is no clear answer. In fact, the election results reflect a deep anger in `Mumbaikars'. That the Sena-BJP did not win a clear majority despite the lack of Opposition unity shows that Mumbaikars are dissatisfied with the functioning of the BMC. However, the saffron win is also a vote for the `Marathi manus'.

Anti-`outsider' feelings have been on the rise in the city for the past two years, and have been expressed in public fora by Sena chief Bal Thackeray and his son Uddhav. However the messages being sent out by the father and son have been muddled. In an editorial in his newspaper Saamna, Thackeray ranted against "Biharis and bhaiyyas [people from Uttar Pradesh]", telling them to go back to where they came from and asking whether a Maharashtrian would be able to fight elections in either Uttar Pradesh or Bihar. Uddhav, mindful of the damage this could do during the elections, took a moderate stand and said everyone was welcome in the State. He even agreed to be chief guest at the Viswa Bhojpuri Sammelan, a gathering of the "Biharis and bhaiyyas" reviled by his father.

It was, however, Thackeray senior's message that left the more lasting impression on Maharashtrian Mumbaikars, who for long have been feeling that the Sena has let down its core Marathi-speaking supporters. Triumphant after the results, the Sena chief thanked the `Marathi manus' for the victory.

All parties realised that the concept of `Marathi manus versus outsider' would be one of the deciding factors in the elections. The `Muslim vote' was also consciously wooed, especially by the Congress. The Congress, fearful of the Sena's parochialist steamroller crushing it, gave the party ticket to over a hundred candidates with a "Maharashtrian background". Part of the Sena's strategy was to lash out at the Congress for not keeping the "best interests" of the city's Maharashtrians and Gujaratis at heart. The two groups together constitute about one- third of the city's 83 lakh voters. The inclusion of the Gujaratis into the Sena fold is inevitable because of the party's association with the BJP, but the irony still cuts deep since the community was once violently targeted by the Sena as outsiders who were depriving Maharashtrians of their livelihoods.

Akhil Bharatiya Sena Leader Arun Gawli with his daughter Geeta after the filing of her nomination for the BrihanMumbai Municipal Corporation election. Geeta went on to become a councillor.-

Despite the deplorable thrust of the campaigns, it has to be said that the Sena and the BJP at least had an electoral strategy whereas the Congress and the NCP were mostly reacting to the saffron combine's manoeuvres. The failure of Raj Thackeray's Nav Nirman Sena to gain more than seven seats was no surprise. After its inception last year, the MNS has barely had any public presence despite all the promises shouted out by its founder at his Shivaji Park rally last year. Clearly, uncle Bal Thackeray's prophesy that the nephew would be like a boat adrift once he had severed ties with the mother party came true.

Determined to prove his uncle wrong, Raj had candidates contesting in all the 227 wards. Ultimately, the MNS' poor performance proved Thackeray right. Raj had made a pre-poll announcement offering to tie up with any party other than the Sena, but there were no takers. But Raj did succeed in scaring the Sena at the start of the campaign and in splitting the votes to an extent. This split affected the overall performance of the Congress and the NCP.

Independent candidates and other parties won 23 seats. This is seen as the result of a section of voters preferring them in the absence of a common platform for secular parties.

Civic issues did not figure in a major way in the campaign. In ward number 226, in the upmarket Colaba area, slum redevelopment was the primary issue. The reason was simple - all the candidates were slum residents. In the suburbs, which bore the brunt of flooding two monsoons ago, almost all the candidates promised to prevent recurrence of floods.

On the whole, most candidates showed an alarming lack of understanding of the needs of the city and had no comprehensive plan for the BMC's gargantuan Rs.11,000-crore annual budget. A report put together by the Association for Democratic Reforms and AGNI, a civic rights group, rated the candidates on the basis of the value of the assets they had declared and the number of criminal cases pending against them. A random sampling of the wards and the candidates based on these criteria showed why the level of campaigning and the poll promises were so dismal. It is also an indicator of why many educated Mumbaikars want to disassociate themselves from the poll process, believing it is not an instrument of change or progress. Nevertheless, the single most important factor that determined the outcome of the polling in Mumbai was the failure of the Congress and the NCP to fight the elections together.

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