Next month, 25 district councils, or local government bodies that administer rural areas, will go to the polls.
For the first time the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) will make a serious bid for the rural vote bank across Maharashtra.
In the state’s polity, the Congress and its offshoot, the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP), have traditionally been the parties with a rural base, while the saffron alliance, the Bharatiya Janata Party and the Shiv Sena are strong with the urban voter.
This premise may be challenged this time, if the saffron alliance dents the Congress-NCP. After all, after the 2014 Assembly polls, the BJP and the Sena effectively control nearly two-thirds of the state through their elected legislators.
More than the results of the municipal corporations or municipal councils that administer big cities and towns, the district council polls will indicate if the Congress and NCP bastions can be breached. At stake is more than 75% of the state’s rural population.
The Congress-NCP have dominated rural politics as they control the agrarian economy through a network of sugar and credit co-operative societies and co-operative banks.
The control of these co-operative structures gives the parties direct access to lakhs of farmers, who form their support base. Over the years, while the saffron parties have tried to make headway in these rural structures, the power has stayed squarely with the Congress and NCP.
This time round, however, this status quo may change. And, if it does, the Opposition will find it difficult to make a comeback in the 2019 Assembly polls.
Apart from local issues, the Centre’s demonetisation decision is also likely to have an impact, as the rural economy was hit worst by the cash crunch. Will this result in a vote against the BJP or only strengthen the Prime Minister? Can the Opposition leverage the issue to its advantage?
The Congress is hopeful of covering lost ground.
“In the ZP polls, we will do well, as both demonetisation and the anti-farmer policies of the government will hurt the BJP. We expect a better show than in the municipal council polls, where we managed to come second and retain most of our seats. These elections, however, have to be seen from the prism of the 2014 polls, which give the BJP the advantage,’’ said Congress spokesperson Sachin Sawant.
The BJP concedes it will have a more difficult time in the Zilla Parishads, than in the municipal corporations.
“Our assessment is that like in municipal councils, we will vastly improve our tally in these polls and emerge as the number one party. We will do well in Zilla Parishads also, where we currently rank last. But here, our success may not be as big as in the cities. In the Zilla Parishad polls, local equations such as control of banks, sugar co-operatives and panchayat samitis matter. And, they (Opposition) have more of a presence in this network,’’ admitted BJP spokesperson Madhav Bhandari.
Going just by the results of just the 2012 polls in these 25 ZPs, the BJP has an uphill task.
The party ranks last in terms of presence in these ZPs, with just 165 of the total 1,516 seats in its kitty. It has a lead only in Jalgaon and Jalna. In several ZPs, especially in Western Maharashtra, like Satara, Sangli and Solapur, the party has no presence.
The NCP leads with 511 seats, in 10 ZPs and as such, has the most at stake in the upcoming rural bodies polls. The Congress too has a considerable presence (419 seats) and the party’s challenge will be to maintain this advantage.
The Sena ranks third with 233 seats. For both the main alliances, contesting these polls together may help. But, given the lack of trust between the Congress-NCP and BJP-Sena, such a tie-up may not work out across the state.
A lot rides on these elections for all the four main political parties, and the mandate has not been so interesting for the state as a whole in a long time.