The last time the Congress won Mumbai, the country’s richest civic body, more than two decades back in 1992, the Republican Party of India (RPI) faction led by Ramdas Athavale was its ally. And, the Congress cornered the Dalit vote then.
Much water has flowed down the Mithi since then with the Shiv Sena wresting control of Mumbai’s municipal corporation. And, the Dalit leadership in the state has splintered further and been rendered ineffective.
But, Rajya Sabha MP Athawale, who is expected to join the Union cabinet on Tuesday, continues to have a support base in Mumbai, Thane and other urban areas, which will see elections to local bodies next year.
The induction of Athawale and the BJP’s Dhule MP, Dr Subhash Bhamre, in the Union cabinet has clearly been proposed with an eye on the upcoming civic elections in Maharashtra.
Athawale, who leads the biggest Dalit faction in the state, may not have the clout to win seats on his own — currently his party has no MP or MLA and only one corporator in the BMC — but enjoys a support base among Dalits that the BJP cannot alienate.
In cities such as Mumbai and Thane, an alliance with the RPI will help the BJP, especially if it parts ways with the Shiv Sena.
“In the back drop of several anti-Dalit incidents that have been associated with the BJP, giving Athawale a ministerial portfolio indicates our commitment to the community. Also, keeping Athawale happy is good strategy, since he is capable of switching sides and that will be our loss,’’ said a BJP party functionary, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
Dr Bhamre has been picked to cut senior BJP leader and former minister Eknath Khadse to size on his home turf. Bhamre, a Maratha and an oncologist by profession, is seen as close to chief minister Devendra Fadnavis, and his elevation will help the BJP nurture another power centre in North Maharashtra, which will help in case of a rebellion by Khadse. North Maharashtra also has a sizeable Maratha vote bank that Bhamre can tap into.
Bhamre’s proposed induction is also seen as a clear signal that Fadnavis has the ear of his political bosses in Delhi and can now call the shots in Maharashtra.
Khadse, a CM aspirant, was seen as Fadnavis’ biggest rival and naysayer in the cabinet.
“Bhamre has got a break because of Fadnavis. He is not an old BJP hand and comes from Sena stock but is a good candidate and leader to back in North Maharashtra with our tallest leader from the region Khadse clearly not on good terms with senior leadership,’’ said a BJP minister.
Maharashtra will see mini elections from October this year with nearly 26 zilla parishads and 9 municipal corporations going to polls. The poll results will give a clearer picture on where the BJP stands in the state ahead of the 2019 polls.