Maharashtra civic elections

BJP’s show

Print edition : March 17, 2017

Uddhav Thackeray, president of the Shiv Sena, at Sena Bhavan on February 23 after the election results were announced. Photo: PTI

Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis being fed sweets by Ashish Shelar, president of the BJP's Mumbai unit, at the party office in Dadar, Mumbai, on February 23. Photo: Arunangsu Roy Chowdhury

The Shiv Sena gets more seats in the Municipal Corporation of Greater Mumbai, but the BJP emerges the winner in the civic elections in Maharashtra.

THE 2017 civic elections in Maharashtra were perhaps as closely watched and contested as an Assembly election. And with good reason. The drama that preceded the elections continued to the very end with the Shiv Sena and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), former allies, almost neck and neck.

Of the 10 municipal corporations, 25 zilla parishads and 283 panchayat samitis that went to the polls, the most keenly followed was the election to the Municipal Corporation of Greater Mumbai (MCGM). The Sena and the BJP had together ruled the MCGM since 1997. It was the alliance that had kept them in power, and thus, when their disagreement over seat sharing resulted in a parting of ways, the elections suddenly became interesting. Essentially, the elections were about these two parties. The others were inconsequential in the power game. The Sena considers “owning” Mumbai a matter of its right, but the increasing cosmopolitan composition of the city with a more aware citizenry meant that the party did have a true fight on its hands. The BJP had the automatic boost that comes from being the party in power at the Centre.

It was widely agreed that these civic elections would have the effect of giving Maharashtra’s politics a new direction. In Mumbai, the Sena won 84 seats and the BJP 82. But in the larger political game, it is actually the BJP that has emerged as the winner. It has drastically improved on its 2012 tally of 31 seats in Mumbai. The Sena’s growth has been smaller: it won 71 seats in 2012.

In the rest of the State, the BJP was an outright winner in Pune, Nagpur, Nashik, Ulhasnagar, Pimpri-Chinchwad, Solapur, Akola and Amravati. The party’s victories in the first three cities mentioned stand out. Pune was a stronghold of the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP), but the BJP displaced it by winning 98 of the 162 seats; the NCP won only 40. Nagpur was an expected win for the BJP since it is Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis’ home base, but what was exceptional was that the Sena won only two seats there. The results in Nashik too were on expected lines. In the last election, Raj Thackeray’s Maharashtra Navnirman Sena (MNS) wowed everyone with its performance, but the party’s promises were bigger than its capabilities and Nashik’s voters saw to it that the MNS plunged from 40 to five seats. The BJP won 67 of the 122 seats. The BJP also did exceptionally well in its non-traditional areas in the zilla parishads and panchayat samitis. It led the race, beating even the Congress and the NCP for whom rural Maharashtra has been a bastion.

What happens in the MCGM is going to be the game changer for the State’s politics. In a combative mood, the BJP refuses to be held back in the second place in Mumbai and claims support from independents. That the BJP is in the ascendant has been recognised by politicians for a while. Former independent candidates who were strong in their own right decided to join the BJP for this election because they recognised the power of the party. The counting of votes in the city was a cliff-hanger. The Shiv Sena consolidated its lead early in the day and steadily increased the difference between it and its nearest rival, the BJP, as the day wore on, but towards the end the Sena plateaued, while the BJP’s numbers kept climbing. The final results for the 227-member House of the MCGM: the Sena got 84 seats, the BJP 82, the Congress 31, the NCP nine, the MNS seven, and others 14.

Like two gladiators fighting for their lives, the Sena and the BJP are circling each other warily. To re-enter into a partnership would be the most logical move, but given that their parting was recent and hostile, some face-saving device will be required. Other political parties are watching the face-off. The Congress is watching with an especially keen eye since it will be to the its advantage if the two do not form an alliance again. It has already made an offer of support to the Sena (the two parties share a closer relationship than the Congress does with the BJP), and with its 31 corporators in Mumbai the Congress can make a significant difference to the Sena.

It would also be logical for the Thackeray cousins to patch up and regroup. Although this would not have any immediate gains since the MNS only has seven seats in Mumbai, it would certainly bolster the Sena in the long run because its traditional vote will no longer be fractured.

The NCP, largely a lame horse in this election, is also watching the proceedings. NCP chief Sharad Pawar said before the election that he believed there was a possibility of the Sena pulling out of the alliance with the BJP at the State level after the elections. He said that if that happened the NCP would not support any party but would be ready for midterm elections. (The Maharashtra Assembly has 288 members: BJP 122, Sena 63, the Congress 42, the NCP 41, independents seven and other parties 13.)

At the centre of this unusually interesting election are Uddhav Thackeray and Fadnavis. Both leaders are trying to consolidate their authority and position. Uddhav has struggled against his own reluctance to enter politics and with trying to live up to being his father’s son. Fadnavis has had to fight off the image of being a puppet manipulated by Prime Minister Narendra Modi. The outcome of this election has helped both, and they are expressing their victory in characteristic styles. Uddhav is preening about how his party has held Mumbai. And Fadnavis is being the obedient pracharak and crediting the victory to the BJP leadership in New Delhi. Fadnavis has, however, one advantage: he has less to prove to his electorate and has the backing of the Centre. Uddhav has as yet to make a crucial decision: to be like his aggressive father and make a grandiose move like withdrawing support to the Fadnavis government, or develop his own style of politicking and continue in government without losing face.

With all eyes on the winners, it would be easy to miss the losers, except that in this case it is the country’s oldest party. The Congress has slipped so far and so rapidly in Maharashtra that it is fast becoming inconsequential. Its strongholds of Solapur, Sangli and Latur have slipped from its grasp; it has lost its hold over the rural areas too. In Solapur, the hometown of former Chief Minister Sushil Kumar Shinde, the party won only 14 of the 102 seats despite the flag being carried by Shinde’s daughter. Even Asaduddin Owaisi’s Hyderabad-based All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen (AIMIM), a relative newbie in Maharashtra politics, did well and made a successful debut in Mumbai. The rout of the Congress leaves Muslims with few options, and the AIMIM will gain from this.

Will the close fight between the Sena and the BJP in the civic elections have any implications for their continuing relationship at the State level? There is the possibility that the Sena, flush with its success in Mumbai, may try and flex its muscles. If this happens, it is equally likely that the BJP will stand firm and may even dictate terms. It can, after all, afford to do so since it has been the biggest winner in this election.