The poll bugle has been sounded in Maharashtra. This is not like the high-powered election to the Legislative Assembly as in Uttar Pradesh, Punjab and the other states due in February and March, on which political parties, pundits and pollsters are currently lavishing their attention. Instead, this is a cameo in the poll season: important not for its span but its significance in the larger scheme of political alignments and preparations ahead of the 2019 national election.

As many as 10 large municipal corporations across the state will go to polls on February 21, including those in Mumbai, Thane, Pune, Nagpur and Nashik. Between them, these five cities house a staggering 22 million citizens – nearly half of Maharashtra’s urban population – and power the state’s economic indices. They have an unmistakable impact on the urbanisation of satellite cities and nearby towns.

These five cities also have among the richest municipal corporations in the country. The Municipal Corporation of Greater Mumbai, colloquially known as Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation or BMC, is not only India’s richest civic body but has had annual budgets larger than the combined financial outlays of several smaller states. Its budget outlay for 2016-’17 is Rs 37,000 crore. This impressive figure often masks the fact that less than half of it – in some years just about 30%-35% – is spent on projects and work in the city.

Mini-state polls

All things said, which party or parties hold power in these cities matters. Their agendas become the overarching frame of urban development over the next few years, their preferences and eccentricities can easily turn into policy and how they manage the inevitable tension between the local and the global determines the future of these cities.

Besides the big five, other cities that will vote for a new general body in their municipal corporations include Ulhasnagar, Pimpri-Chinchwad, Solapur, Akola and Amravati. In these cities that are poised for growth and development in the next decade, the civic challenges are many, including providing adequate and efficient basic services such as reliable water supply, sewage and garbage collection, roads and open spaces.

Along with the 10 cities, 25 zilla parishads or district councils, and more than 280 panchayat samitis will vote for their local representatives in two phases, on February 16 and February 21. Together, these urban and rural local bodies represent more than two-thirds of the state’s population. That’s why these elections, though local in scope, are crucial for the future of the state as well as its political parties.

The Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation is India's richest civic body. [Credit: Wikimedia Commons]

The local agenda

For the cities and districts that will go to the polls, there’s a lot of stake. Beyond the sheer number of people whose quality of life will be determined by the outcome, the elections in the big five municipal corporations also matter for the future of the cities themselves.

Some of the 10 poll-bound cities, including Mumbai, Pune and Nagpur, aspire to be Smart Cities or at least have select “smart” zones to attract top business and industry investment. Yet, their basic civic services leave a lot to desire. Outstanding issues include unregulated and shoddy housing, rapacious real estate lobbies which in tandem with politicians set the tone of urban development and the threat to open spaces and recreation parks.

Then, there’s the challenge of providing adequate civic amenities such as schools and hospitals, managing growing traffic and transport options, creating affordable housing to rehabilitate slum dwellers and others, ensuring the right climate and mandatory social framework for the informal sector and last but not the least, aligning urban development with the United Nations – Habitat III goals of sustainable and equitable growth.

Unplanned growth

In Mumbai, the Development Plan for 2014-’34 – a 20-year blueprint for the city’s growth that outlines land reservations, civic amenities, transportation networks and services – has already been delayed by over two years. The plan, which was scrapped and revised last year as it was riddled with errors, is still being put through the consultation process.

After this year’s BMC elections, it will have to be debated and approved by the newly elected corporators in the civic body.

The last 20-year Development Plan for Mumbai was made in 1981 and finally adopted in 1994. In the intervening years, the city transformed in a way unforeseen – without a comprehensive plan. “This tells the story of why Mumbai is not the international city with a great quality of life that it aspires to be,” said PK Das, architect and urban planner who was recently awarded the prestigious Jane Jacobs medal.

Thane, across the Mumbai harbour, is among the fastest-growing cities in India. Once an idyllic and historic city with lakes, where bungalows and open spaces skirted the forest, Thane witnessed untrammelled real estate development in the last decade. This now threatens its fabric: traffic congestion, pollution, proliferation of slums, inadequate water and power supply and so on are just some of the problems its residents face. The lament about the decline in the quality of life in Pune is matched only by Thane’s fast-paced but haphazard development.

While it is true that the state government, especially Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis who also holds the urban development portfolio, has had a disproportionately large role to play in determining the growth and development of all these cities, their municipal corporations are no push-overs. They decide on the nuts and bolts – roads, water, garbage, gardens – that keep the cities moving. A hung House, or bickering allies, or myopic corporators, who swear more allegiance to their party bosses and less to the city’s needs, spell bad news.

In the district council and panchayat samiti elections, the issues are vastly different but no less urgent: a limping or stagnant agrarian economy, lingering effects of drought and floods, the unsustainably low price fetched by crops, the continuing dominance of the same set of leaders, the latent anger among Marathas after the successful kranti morchas – silent rallies demanding reservations and the dilution of the Prevention of Atrocities Act to protect Dalits and Adviasis – and the hardships faced by the district cooperative banks in the weeks after the Narendra Modi government banned Rs 500 and Rs 1,000 notes.

Bickering allies

Also at stake in the local elections, urban as well as rural, are the political futures of parties and their key leaders.

Out of the 10 poll-bound cities, the Bharatiya Janata Party-Shiv Sena alliance enjoys a majority in four municipal corporations. Both are looking to increase their footprint in the coming elections – either solo or as allies. The two share power in Mumbai, Thane, Ulhasnagar and Akola while the BJP independently has majority in Nagpur, the home ground of its parent organisation, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh.

The Congress and Nationalist Congress Party together hold power in three city corporations, Pune, Solapur and Amravati. Pimpri-Chinchwad has the Nationalist Congress Party at the helm of its urban body while in Nashik, one of India’s fastest growing cities, Raj Thackeray’s Maharashtra Navnirman Sena has held power for the last five years.

Mumbai and Thane, where the Sena has been calling the shots in alliance with the BJP, are considered the most prestigious of all. The two bodies form the nucleus from where the party draws its clout, visibility and sustenance in public life. These are also among the most corrupt local bodies in the state, where every contract from road laying to garden maintenance, school provisions to hawkers’ licences allegedly come at a steep unofficial price.

This corruption has already become a poll plank as the BJP seeks to embarrass the Sena with revelations and demands for a more transparent local body. Though the two are allies in the civic bodies, in the state and at the Centre, theirs has been an uneasy relationship. Each of the allies wants to outdo the other in this round of local elections in urban areas and it is not yet confirmed whether they will contest the BMC polls together this year.

BJP’s Mumbai president Ashish Shelar recently stated that “transparent administration” was high on the party’s agenda, taking a swipe at the Sena. Kirit Somaiya, BJP MP from Mumbai suburbs, has been targeting the Sena over corruption in handing out contracts, especially road contracts, and vowed to “end the corruption mafia in the BMC”.

Piqued, the Sena has hit back. Its chief, Uddhav Thackeray, asked if only his party was in power in the BMC for the last 22 years, and if not, was the BJP not equally responsible for the state of affairs.

It is no secret that the BJP, under Fadnavis, wants to wrest complete control of the BMC, or at least garner a majority. This will serve two purposes: Dominance in and over Mumbai and unseating the Sena from its territory.

“The higher the number of urban bodies the BJP wins or gets a majority in, the better positioned it will be in 2019 when the general and [Maharashtra] Assembly elections take place,” a senior BJP leader said. Fadnavis is clearly leading the charge here as he has been the last two months when 212 municipal councils and nagar panchayats went to polls across the state.

Uneasy allies. [Uddhav Thackeray/via Facebook]

Advantage BJP?

Despite the severe cash crunch, crippled informal economy and criticism of poor implementation, the BJP has emerged as the strongest party in the state after the so-called demonetisation exercise.

In the recently concluded four-phase civic elections to multiple local bodies in the state, the BJP was the clear winner. At the end of the elections, held last year on November 28, December 14 and December 18 and then January 8, this year, as many as 78 municipal councils had a BJP president and the party had a total of 1,207 municipal councillors. The Sena, on the other hand, ended with half the number of councilors – 616 compared to 359 in 2012. The Congress and NCP performed poorly compared to their earlier tallies.

For these polls, Fadnavis single-handedly addressed an average of half a dozen meetings a day, supervised election management and kept close tabs on local leaders, giving him a much-needed boost in the state. Considered a relative novice in political management and lacking the confidence of more than half his senior cabinet ministers, Fadnavis had a point to prove. The success in the municipal council elections put him far ahead of his rivals within the BJP in Maharashtra. “If the BJP performs well in the major municipal corporations, Fadnavis’s political future will shine bright,” the BJP leader said.

For Uddhav Thackeray, the stakes are equally high but of a different texture. The Sena’s performance in the municipal corporation elections, especially in Mumbai and Thane, is critical to the party’s future. If he can retain control in both, the Sena’s influence in Maharashtra’s largest cities is attested again; if not, his leadership itself may come under strain.

For his cousin, Raj Thackeray, this is the classic do-or-die election. After the Maharashtra Navnirman Sena’s spectacular failures in the 2014 general and Assembly elections, where it won zero and one seat respectively, the younger Thackeray may find it difficult to stay relevant in Maharashtra’s politics if his party cannot retain the 28 seats in the BMC and the majority in the Nashik municipal corporation, which it won in 2012.

Other equations

The Congress and the Nationalist Congress Party have similar issues. They are, independently as well as together, in positions of strength and power in district councils and panchayat samitis going to the polls, but their presence in urban local bodies is less influential. If the BJP and the Sena work out an alliance – leaders of both parties have been talking but no one is willing to take a bet that the two will stay the course – then the Congress and the NCP too are likely to tie up. If this happens, their combined strength will be better than what either party can manage independently in Mumbai and Thane. But in Pune, Pimpri-Chinchwad and Solapur, as well as in a majority of district councils, both parties hold sway and will even try to outdo each other.

Then, there are the Samajwadi Party and the All India Majlis-e-Ittehad-ul Muslimeen or AIMIM, who are fighting hard to win Muslim votes in Mumbai, Thane and other cities. Party leader Asaduddin Owaisi has already sought to communalise the campaign by demanding that Muslims in Mumbai get a proportionate share of the BMC’s budget.

With urban development and political futures at stake, it is no wonder that Maharashtra’s local elections have acquired the feel and importance of a mini-Assembly election.