Referendum for Uddhav, Prestige for BJP & Survival for Cong: Decoding Maharashtra's Local Body Polls

Dhaval Kulkarni
·5-min read

The ruling Maha Vikas Aghadi (MVA) in Maharashtra is preparing for a strategic face-off with the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in the municipal corporation elections due this year. The Shiv Sena and the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) have announced that they will fight these local body polls together, while the Congress may take a decision soon about whether it wants to contest as part of this alliance.

Both the MVA and the BJP have much at stake in these elections, with the results being pitched as a popular referendum on the performance of the Uddhav Thackeray-led regime in Maharashtra.

This year, elections are due in five municipal corporations, namely, Navi Mumbai, Kalyan-Dombivali, Vasai-Virar, Kolhapur and Aurangabad. Three of these cities are located on Mumbai’s periphery and are part of its extended suburbs. These polls will be the semi-final for the elections to 18 of the 27 municipal corporations and the 26 zilla parishads (district boards) due in 2022, which will be fought on the lines of a mini assembly election.

These 18 municipal corporations include the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC), which is the richest in Asia, and is crucial to the Shiv Sena’s control over Mumbai, Thane, Pune, Pimpri-Chinchwad, Nashik, Nagpur, Panvel, Mira-Bhayender, and Malegaon.

The Shiv Sena and BJP, which had a bitter falling out in 2019, leading to the former joining hands with the NCP and Congress to come to power, are locked in a prestige battle to control these municipal bodies, especially those in Mumbai and Thane.

Hence, the outcome of this year’s local body polls will be interpreted as a popular referendum on the MVA regime, which is led by the Shiv Sena president. Apart from being a bellwether for fence-sitters in the MVA, the results will test the BJP’s claims that the state government will collapse under the weight of its own contradictions.

The BJP also faces a crucial test. It has been long postulated that the party’s electoral success is driven largely through an “outsourcing model” which involves getting powerful leaders to defect to it. After coming to power in the Centre and in Maharashtra in 2014, largely riding on the Narendra Modi wave, the BJP gradually weaned powerful regional satraps into its fold. This included then leader of opposition Radhakrishna Vikhe Patil, Satara royal family scion Udayanraje Bhosale, former ministers Ganesh Naik, Madhukarrao Pichad and others.

Those in the BJP’s rank-and-file, especially the “loyalists,” question if these recent imports will stay the course if the party, which has to sit on the opposition benches despite being the single-largest in the assembly, faces successive electoral setbacks.

Though the MVA has fared well in the elections to the legislative council from the graduates and teachers constituencies, where the BJP lost its strongholds, namely the Pune and Nagpur graduate constituencies to the NCP and Congress respectively, these polls had a limited electoral college. Similarly, all political parties have made claims of winning maximum seats in the gram panchayat (village council) elections held earlier this year, which cannot be verified independently as these polls are not conducted on party symbols.

The Congress and NCP also managed to trump the BJP in the elections to the mayor’s post in the Sangli Municipal Corporation on Tuesday. But the municipal polls are the first instance of the MVA and the BJP going to the masses to seek a mandate.

Though the MVA’s USP is the combined strength of the three parties and their core voters, the leaders of MVA constituents admit that seat-sharing between the three allies will be a tricky proposition.

There are apprehensions in the Congress that though the larger purpose is to keep the BJP away, they (Congress) may be forced to settle for the position of a poor number three by the Sena and the NCP, thus eroding its base further. Hence, senior party leaders admit that it may decide on an alliance after considering local factors.

The Congress will also find it tough to ally with the Shiv Sena in cities like Aurangabad, where politics is polarised around issues of religious identity. The Shiv Sena is seeking that the city, which is located in Marathwada, be renamed as Sambhajinagar after Chhatrapati Sambhaji Maharaj, instead of its present nomenclature after Mughal emperor Aurangzeb, who had brutally tortured and killed him.

Congress leaders admit that in these circumstances, allying with the Shiv Sena in Aurangabad may be a zero-sum game, especially considering the rise of the All India Majlis E Ittehadul Muslimeen (AIMIM) led by Hyderabad MP Asaduddin Owaisi. Aurangabad became the first city to elect an AIMIM MP (Imtiaz Jaleel) to the Lok Sabha from outside Hyderabad in 2019.

Contesting alone strategically in some places may also help the Congress gain some anti-incumbency space, which may otherwise be occupied largely by the BJP. The party can enter into post-poll alliances with the MVA later, explain its leaders.

The elections also hold vital importance for the BJP and their results may determine how the factional politics in the party eventually shapes up. The Shiv Sena snapping its ties with the BJP in 2019 was blamed on former chief minister and incumbent leader of opposition Devendra Fadnavis consistently rubbing it the wrong way despite the two parties sharing power between 2014 and 2019.

Fadnavis has also been blamed for ensuring that leaders “imported” from other parties are given prominent positions at the cost of BJP loyalists. Murmurs against Fadnavis have grown stronger since the party’s humiliating rout in the graduate constituency polls, especially in Nagpur, which is a party stronghold that has been represented by veterans like former Jan Sangh president Pandit Bachharaj Vyas and Fadnavis’s father Gangadharrao.

Hence, any electoral set-backs will lead to anti-Fadnavis voices getting stronger in the state BJP.

The author is a Mumbai-based journalist and author of ‘The Cousins Thackeray: Uddhav, Raj and the Shadow of their Senas’. Views are personal.