India is closely watching the five states — Uttar Pradesh, Punjab, Goa, Manipur and Uttarakhand — that are going to polls in February and March. The elections, in a way, will be the first real test for the Narendra Modi-led BJP government to see how people have judged its demonetisation drive.
At a time like this, the civic polls in Maharashtra may not evoke much interest among a lot of people, but the BJP top brass is taking it very seriously for the simple reason that these elections will be instrumental in deciding whether the Modi magic is still working.
Let’s just begin with some statistics. While 10 cities in Maharashtra will go to polls, the focus will be on the country’s richest civic body — the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC). The current term of the Mumbai, Thane, Bhiwandi-Nijampur, Ulhasnagar, Pune, Pimpri-Chinchwad, Nashik, Akola, Solapur, Amravati, Nagpur civic bodies will end by March 2017.
The total population of the state is more than 110 million, out of which the urban population is 40 million. Cities which are going to polls include Mumbai, Thane, Pune, Nasik, Nagpur, Pimpari-Chinchawad which covers a population of more than 20 million.
Most importantly, if the BJP chooses to go it alone in Maharashtra, it will have to fight against its alliance partner at the Centre, Shiv Sena. What’s more, it will be a direct contest between the two in Mumbai, Thane and Nasik. This could turn out to be a real indicator of how the urban population viewed demonetisation.
The Shiv Sena has openly criticised not only the BJP but the prime minister on the issue of demonetisation. The BJP, in turn, has promised rapid growth for Mumbai, where the Sena has been ruling (the corporation) undisputedly since 1997.
With all eyes set on Mumbai, the Sena may face its first biggest challenge if the BJP decides to fight the polls alone. The BMC election results over the years show that the Sena’s influence has declined. In 2002, it managed to get 97 out of 227 seats. This was followed by 82 in 2007 and just 75 in 2012.
In 2012, even though the MNS emerged as Sena’s biggest competitor, Uddhav Thackeray (with the help of BJP) managed to retain Mumbai. But this year it’s going to difficult. The 2014 assembly elections saw a sudden surge in the support for the BJP in the city. The saffron party managed to win 15 seats, whereas the Shiv Sena came second with 14 seats.
Not only did the BJP manage to get a good number of votes across Mumbai, the party gave a tough fight and emerged as a close second in around 10 seats where they couldn’t manage a win. Again, the BJP not only has built a strong voter base with the help of Gujarati and north Indian voters, but also have educated middle-class Marathi voters in its stride. The BJP’s rise in a city like Mumbai has come as a bolt from the blue not only for the Shiv Sena but also for its identical twin, the MNS.
If the BJP and the Sena decide to fight the BMC polls separately, it will be a first in 20 years. Even though both the parties are saying they want to contest these elections together, it looks difficult at this point. And if at all they decide to get together, it will be the most unnatural alliance, notwithstanding the fact that the Sena is a key ally of the NDA government at the Centre. Back in 1996, the United Front (UF) government — a coalition of 13 parties — came to power at the Centre as a minority government with the support of the Congress party.
In her speech during the confidence motion in Parliament, BJP’s Sushma Swaraj had pointed out that the United Front and the Congress do not see eye to eye on almost all the issues and the BJP fails to understand how the two will be running this government together. So is the case with the BJP and the Shiv Sena at this point in time. The Sena has been regularly attacking Modi and the BJP. Be it the surgical strike, Kashmir unrest, terrorism, Make in India policy or demonetisation, not a single day has passed without the Sena mouthpiece Saamana having pulled up the government in its editorials.
It is believed that the Sena has been wary of the GST only because its leaders fear that it will take away the financial “independence” of local bodies such as the BMC, which earns nearly Rs 7,000 crore annually through its octroi tax collections.
The Shiv Sena even has problems with the much-awaited Mumbai Metro train project as it may cause some displacement in the party’s core areas. Many in the BJP feel that if they manage to beat the Sena in the BMC polls, they will be cutting the life line of the party. The BJP also knows it well that 2014 loss in Mumbai has dented the Sena’s confidence and would not like to lose this golden opportunity this time around they.
Luckily for Sena, there is no other challenger who can take advantage of the situation. Riddled with infighting, the Congress is yet to consolidate itself. So much so that the Gurudas Kamat-led fraction will be more than willing to contest against the Sanjay Nirupam fraction than fighting the BJP or the Sena. While MNS chief Raj Thackeray is still struggling with his form, the AIMIM and Samajwadi Party are too small to take on this challenge.
But one thing is for sure, whether the Sena and the BJP fight the coming civic polls together or against each other, Sena will not find it easy this time around. The BJP, on the other hand, is looking out for an opportunity to take this win as the financial capital of India’s thumps up to demonetisation.
By Sahil Joshi as published in dailyo.in