Mini Assembly polls in Maharashtra may see mega drama in MVA parties

As the Maharashtra Vikas Aghadi (MVA) government of the Shiv Sena, Congress and Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) completed a year in office last week, the focus of all prominent political parties in the state is now on the elections to 15 civic bodies and 27 zilla parishads scheduled in 2022. Touted as mini Assembly elections in political circles as they would be held across the state, the polls will be seen as people’s response to the performance of the MVA government. However, the ruling partners of the MVA don’t seem to be on the same page about these elections.

Twenty-seven zilla parishad or district councils (out of 34), which govern the rural parts of any district, are scheduled to face polls in 2022, while 15 of the 27 municipal corporations will have elections in the next two years. Many of these local bodies are currently ruled by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which was in power from 2014 to 2019.

When the MVA was formed to claim the power in the state last year, it was unanimously decided to fight all legislative Council and local body elections together. In line with it, Shiv Sena chief and chief minister Uddhav Thackeray in his recent interview said all MVA partners will contest all local body elections, including to the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC), together as an alliance. “Three parties have come together as the MVA to form the government. Let anybody say anything, we will fight all local body elections, including BMC, together,” Thackeray had said.

However, recently, leaders from the Mumbai Congress, during their meeting with HK Patil, party in-charge for Maharashtra, said the party should fight the BMC elections separately to keep its voter base strong in the city, where it was born 135 years ago. The leaders said that it will be further decimated if workers do not get sufficient seats to contest.

The 2017 BMC elections had witnessed a lot of drama, as the Sena and BJP had contested the polls separately, snapping 25-year-old ties and despite being in power in the state government. The Sena and BJP launched sharp personal attacks on each other and ended up winning 84 and 82 seats, respectively. The Sena currently has 97 seats, BJP 83, Congress 29, NCP 8, Samajwadi Party 6, All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen 2 and MNS 1. The Sena had poached a few corporators from other parties including MNS to widen the gap after the results.

Leaders from the ruling parties feel for a few local bodies like Mumbai, sharing the traditional vote banks could be a major hurdle in fighting the polls together. “With 96 corporators in its fold, the Shiv Sena would want to fight at least 130 seats, while the NCP would vie for at least 30 seats, leaving us with hardly 65 seats. It will be too little for us, as our seat tally was 52 in the 2012 elections, although we did poorly in the last election. Secondly, there is always a fear of losing Muslim and north Indian votes if we forge an alliance with the Sena in Mumbai,” said a Congress leader from its Mumbai unit.

Eknath Gaikwad, Mumbai Congress chief, said “These are the things to be decided during the elections, but we have been preparing ourselves for both the possibilities. We are ready to fight in all wards, if need be. There would be no issue with an alliance if we get respectful treatment and the seats we want. After all, every party has right to spread its wings, and we are not exception. I feel that the three ruling parties should stand united during the BMC elections.”

An NCP leader said, “Seat-sharing would not be a problem for three parties if all of us amicably decide to come together to keep the BJP out of power. The Congress and NCP can fight 75 and 20 seats and go for a better strike rate.”

With a population of 13 million, Mumbai accounts for roughly one-third Marathi speaking voters, 30% north Indians and Muslim voters and 15% Gujaratis and Marwaris. The BMC is one of the richest civic bodies, with an annual budget of ₹33,441 crore for the current financial year. Power in BMC is crucial for the Shiv Sena, while the BJP is determined to wrest power from its former ally. North Indian Hindu voters are believed to be inclined towards the BJP, while the Sena banks on Marathi voters. The Congress counts Muslim and Dalit among its traditional voters.

Pratap Asbe, political analyst, said a strong fight by the three-party alliance will help polarise anti-BJP voters. “The Congress and NCP will have to compromise on seat-sharing in BMC elections in larger interest of the alliance. Only elections cannot be the platform to widen the party base if the party has not put in any efforts throughout five years. The Congress should understand this, at least from the lesson given by the Bihar polls. It would be wrong to say that Muslim voters will move away from the Congress because of joining hands with communal Sena, it is not true. In fact, Muslims may stand by MVA to keep the BJP out of power,” he said.

There is a buzz that the BJP will forge an alliance with Raj Thackeray-led Maharashtra Navnirman Sena (MNS) for the civic polls in Mumbai. However, the BJP leaders say their party would benefit more if the MNS fights independently, as it will damage the Shiv Sena.

Atul Bhatkhalkar, BJP legislator and party’s poll in-charge for BMC elections, said his party was all set to take on the alliance. “Three parties have come together because they have accepted defeat. The alliance will face anti-incumbency, for the Sena’s corrupt rule of more than two decades and also for the MVA’s failed rule in the state. Against it, Mumbai has witnessed how many of its infrastructure projects, including Metro, MTHL, coastal road, sewerage projects, BDD chawl development, got a push during the Devendra Fadnavis government. We are not allying with the MNS, as we are confident about winning more than 115 seats in the Mumbai civic body. We are not bothered about religious or caste equations in the city, as we firmly believe in development plank,” he said.

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