municipal election

Maharashtra civic polls: BJP sweeps state, giving Devendra Fadnavis the last laugh

Saffron party wins eight of ten municipal bodies. In Mumbai, the Shiv Sena comes out ahead – but just barely, while the Congress falls far behind.

A day can be too long a time in politics. Shiv Sena Executive President Uddhav Thackeray realised the full importance of this as Thursday wore on and the results to the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation election became clear.

For the first few hours after counting began in the morning, his party’s tally raced to reach an enviable 93 leading positions in the 227-member house. It appeared as if the party would get near the half-way mark of 114 and would be able to shun the Bharatiya Janata Party after all. There was much jubilation in the Sena’s camp. Despite having been allies for nearly 25 years in the municipal corporation, the two parties fought the elections alone and targeted each other intensely during the bitter campaign.

Then, the Sena’s tally was stuck at 93 for a couple of hours. Commentators made jibes about the “nervous nineties” that stalked Maharashtrians such as ace cricketer Sachin Tendulkar. As results firmed up in the evening, the Sena’s final tally dropped to 84. The BJP had won 82 and said it had the support of at least four Independents. This was a claim to the high seat of power: Mumbai’s municipal corporation, India’s richest civic body with its annual budget of Rs 37,052 crore for 2016-’17, and the Sena’s source of clout, control and capital in the last two decades.

Thackeray’s worst nightmare had come true. The Sena would not enjoy a clear and unchallenged majority in the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation – and Mumbai. Worse, the Sena had only marginally improved upon its previous tally of 75 while the BJP’s numbers had galloped from a mere 31 to 81. Besides, it had come in second in nearly 20 seats with small margins.

Thackeray later claimed that the Sena had performed well to enjoy a majority in the fifth successive election to the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation and would have fared better “if not for the wide-spread confusion in the electoral lists in which lakhs of voters’ names were missing”.

In the next few days, the Sena and BJP will have to weigh the alternatives: the two parties could sort out their differences to retain power together in the corporation; the Sena could accept support from other parties; or the BJP could work out a post-poll alliance with other parties.

The Congress won 31 seats, down from the 52 it had won five years ago. The Nationalist Congress Party won only seven seats, six less than its previous tally, but it hardly had a presence in Mumbai. Raj Thackeray’s Maharashtra Navnirman Sena was down to a mere seven seats from its heady tally of 28 five years ago. The All India Majlis-e- Ittehadul-Muslimeen opened its account in the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation with a couple of seats.

That the Sena was still the largest party in the corporation was hardly any consolation for Thackeray. The BJP and Maharashtra Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis has had the last laugh.

The BJP’s good run

Fadnavis is our man of the match, exulted BJP’s supporters outside the party’s Mumbai office. There is good reason to cheer Fadnavis’s performance in what was a mini-Assembly election. A total of 10 municipal corporations from some of Maharashtra’s largest cities and 25 district councils went to the polls.

The Sena managed to retain power – and its hold – in the Thane Municipal Corporation. Thane has been the party’s “gad” or fortress. But the BJP won handsomely in eight municipal corporations, wresting them from the Congress or the Nationalist Congress Party, and got a majority or near-majority in nearly half of the district councils, including some where it did not have a single seat so far.

Fadnavis profusely thanked the people of Maharashtra for reposing their trust in the BJP and said that the outcome was their support for Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s policies including that of demonetisation and transparency in the functioning of local bodies.

The last bit was a taunt to the Sena, especially to Uddhav Thackeray, who had mocked at Fadnavis’s campaign centred on transparency in the Mumbai corporation. Fadnavis had been hitting out at the rampant corruption in the Mumbai corporation under the Sena’s watch. The manner in which Fadnavis mounted the campaign for transparent and clean administration, it was easy to forget that the BJP had, in fact, partnered the Sena all the way for the last 20 years in the civic body. The strategy was cynical and dishonest, but it worked.

Fadnavis’s election

The BJP wave that swept across Maharashtra saw the party damage both the Congress and the Nationalist Congress Party in their stronghold areas. The BJP wrested the Pune Municipal Corporation (162 seats) and came close to majority in the nearby Pimpri-Chinchwad Municipal Corporation (128 seats). This used to be Pawar’s territory, lately managed by nephew and former deputy chief minister of Maharashtra, Ajit Pawar.

Similarly, in the Solapur Municipal Corporation (102 seats), which has been the domain of the Congress for decades, the BJP with 46 seats emerged as the single largest party with only a handful seats needed for majority. The Congress was reduced to 14, a blow to Sushil Kumar Shinde, the region’s satrap, former Lok Sabha Speaker and Union home minister. In this sugar belt of Maharashtra, the BJP picked up the majority of seats in district councils too, showing that it had breached the Congress and NCP’s rural bastions.

Latur district in Marathwada region, for decades the home turf of the late Vilasrao Deshmukh, former chief minister and union minister, fell to the BJP. Among the exceptions was the Beed-Parli region, the late Gopinath Munde’s territory, where the BJP put up a disappointing show. This led to Pankaja Munde, his daughter, political heir and minister in Fadnavis’s cabinet, to offer her resignation.

But, by and large, the results will thrill the party bosses, Prime Minister Modi and party president Amit Shah. In this success story, Fadnavis is undoubtedly the super-hero. From devising area-specific strategies including the BJP’s standard template of extensively using the social media to tirelessly campaigning across the state and addressing rallies on his own, his command in the state BJP is now complete – a far cry from October 2014 when he was sworn in as the chief minister and considered “a light-weight leader with blessings from Nagpur”, the headquarters of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh.

That said, Fadnavis has been lucky too. He headed the BJP’s campaign in Maharashtra when the Sena is contained by its own limitations and the two Congress parties are in unprecedented decline. In at least one seat in Mumbai, luck played its hand: the BJP’s Atul Shah was declared a winner after a lottery because he and the Sena’s Surendra Bagalkar got an equal number of votes.

Whither Congress?

The other big story of this election is the decimation of the Congress from Maharashtra’s cities. From Mumbai, where it was formed in December 1885, to Pune, Solapur, Nashik, Amravati, the leit-motif has been either a setback or a complete rout.

Its profound loss of seats and command in the cities can be illustrated in one fact: In the ten cities that voted for their municipal corporations, the Congress won a total of 75 seats. The BJP, on the other hand, picked up 81 in Mumbai alone. In most cities, the party was riddled with internal warfare between factional leaders and a remarkable jadedness in its campaigns.

Given the corruption and mismanagement of the Mumbai corporation, the Congress could have taken the ruling Sena-BJP alliance to the cleaners. But the party was not equipped to exploit the issues. It lost 21 seats from its 2007 tally and city president Sanjay Nirupam tendered his resignation from the post.

“There was simply no cooperation from the city’s leaders,” he said. “When each one thinks he is bigger than the party, the party suffers the most.” The lack of cohesiveness in the organisation and strategy was evident throughout the campaign.

The point was reinforced by former MP Milind Deora when he tweeted: “Conclusion one can draw from BMC election results is that Mumbaikars seem content living with potholes, flooding, malaria & water tankers.” Deora, a two-time MP from South Mumbai who keeps his distance from party’s affairs, exemplified its unwillingness to look within for its debacle.

Whether Mumbai or other cities, the Congress network is almost non-existent, it offers no programmes or activities, and has failed to capture the imagination of the youth. In the district councils, its performance was better but nowhere near its best.

The other players

The Nationalist Congress Party too has to reflect on its performance, especially the message that Pune and Pimpri-Chinchwad sent out. Pawar’s daughter and MP, Supriya Sule, promised in a tweet that the leadership will “introspect and rebuild our base”.

A footnote in the election story is the growing irrelevance of Raj Thackeray’s Maharashtra Navnirman Sena. It not only lost power in the Nashik Municipal Corporation, which he had said five years ago would be the showcase of his party, but it also lost seats in the Mumbai corporation. Its tally of seven seats is a poor one-fourth of that in 2012. And what he will not appreciate at all is that the Shiv Sena has recaptured almost all the seats in Mumbai’s Marathi belt of Dadar-Mahim that he had wrested in the last election. What the future holds for the younger Thackeray cousin is anybody’s guess.

Into Mumbai’s political soup has entered the All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul-Muslimeen with a handful of seats from Muslim-dominated areas. It also picked up seats in the Muslim-majority far suburb of Mumbra in Thane’s civic body. It is uncertain how the battle will pan out between the AIMIM and the Samajwadi Party, which has so far projected itself as the party of choice of Muslims.

But here’s a development worth noting: In the Behrampada slum in Bandra East, across the Western Express Highway from the Thackerays’ bungalow Matoshree, Mohammed Halim Khan won the election. This would not be a surprise given Behrampada is a Muslim-majority slum. What is astonishing is that Khan was a Shiv Sena candidate in an area where it had run a most vicious anti-Muslim campaign during the 1992-’93 riots which resulted in many slum dwellers and passers-by killed and their property torched.

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