A day after the BJP-led government completes one year in power in Maharashtra, the party faces elections in two upcoming cities with the main opponent likely to be old ally and new bugbear, the Shiv Sena.
Elections to the civic bodies of Kalyan-Dombivili in the Mumbai Metropolitan Region and Kolhapur in western Maharashtra are slated for November 1. In itself control of these cities, with a combined budget less than one fifth of Mumbai’s civic body, should not have been significant. But, the November 1 polls assume importance as they are the first of a series of civic elections in big cities and zilla parishads across the state over the next two years before the big one, Mumbai, in 2017. Thane, Pune, Nagpur, and Nasik municipal corporations and 22 of the 36 zilla parishads will go to the polls before Mumbai.
For the BJP, which is currently placed a poor fourth behind the Congress, the NCP and the Sena in terms of control of local bodies in the state, this is the first opportunity while in power to try and expand its base. It’s moot that the expansion could be at the expense of its ally.
Since their alliance was sealed in 1989, the Sena had played big brother. Roles were reversed after the BJP’s thumping win in 2014. The Sena is yet to reconcile itself to this and now proudly wears the mantle of the NDA’s most troublesome ally.
Its worry over the BJP’s expansion is at the root of the Sena’s barbs, through its mouthpiece Saamna, that singe everyone from prime minister Narendra Modi to BJP president Amit Shah and chief minister Devendra Fadnavis.
With the November 1 date announced, the saffron allies are back to sniping at each other. The BJP has indicated that it wants to go solo in Kolhapur. Fadnavis on Tuesday said that his party was “still in talks” over a possible alliance in Kalyan. On the ground, however, it was clear the BJP was preparing to go it alone if need be: most of the space for hoardings had been booked by the party and voters had started getting phone calls with recorded messages from the chief minister.
The Sena appeared unfazed. “Do you think anything will surprise us now after what we have been through during the 2014 assembly polls seat-sharing talks? We contested assembly elections solo so why should we be worried about two civic bodies. Our stance is crystal clear, we welcome an alliance, if not, we are more than capable of contesting solo,” said Sena leader and industries minister Subhash Desai.
“The talks for civic polls are always held at a local level and they are going on. As a party, we have every right to expand our base. And from now to 2019, we plan on doing that by focussing on every civic election which comes in between,” said BJP spokesperson, Madhav Bhandari, pointing out that the situation had changed after 2014.
Kalyan-Dombivili, once a small suburb beyond Mumbai and now fast growing into a vibrant city, has been a Sena citadel ever since the municipal corporation was formed there in 1983. The mayor has always been a Sena nominee. Now, after two decades of playing second fiddle, the BJP has three legislators in the area and the wherewithal to risk going solo. The next logical target would be Thane and then Mumbai, the source of the Sena’s strength.
That’s where, sources say, even the soft-spoken Sena chief Uddhav Thackeray may draw the line. Speculation has long been rife that squabbling over the civic polls in Mumbai in 2017 could precipitate midterm polls in the state. At least, that’s what the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) and even a section within the BJP are counting on.