Over the next month, more than 75% of Maharashtra’s rural and urban population in 10 of the state’s biggest cities will give a referendum on the Devendra Fadnavis-led government.
The state election commission on Wednesday announced elections to 10 municipal corporations, including the country’s richest civic body — the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC), 25 of the state’s 33 district councils or zilla parishads and 283 panchayat samitis.
The municipal corporations will go to polls on February 21, while elections to the district councils will be held in two phases on February 16 and 21. The results of all the polls will be declared on February 23.
The elections assume significance as the results will shape the battle for Assembly in 2019. It will be clear if the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) can consolidate its position and make a bid for another term in two years. For the Shiv Sena, the crux of the poll battle is for the control of Mumbai, core of the party’s strength, both in terms of resources and clout for nearly two decades. The BMC had remained Sena’s bastion even when the Congress-NCP ruled the state for 15 years.
If the saffron allies contest the BMC polls solo, the city will witness a triangular fight next month. The real battle could then be fought between the allies, with BJP going all out to wrest control of Mumbai. If the saffron allies manage to stitch up an alliance, the fight will be paler but a direct one between the Congress and BJP-Sena combine.
In any scenario, if the Sena manages a good lead in the 227-member BMC, there will be repercussions on the state alliance and the government. A win in the BMC will give Sena chief Uddhav Thackeray the requisite bargaining power and a morale boost to critique the government and even pull out of the uneasy alliance if it gets too troublesome ahead of the 2019 elections.
On the other hand, if the BJP wins near equal number of seats or emerges a winner, it could mean trouble for the Sena.
The results will also give a clear indication of whether the opposition, Congress and NCP, can redeem itself after the humiliating 2014 defeat and keep their rural bastions intact. For both the Congress and NCP, the control of the district councils is crucial to maintain their party bases in rural Maharashtra.
The results of the district councils will also give a referendum on the Centre’s demonetisation decision, which has hit the rural economy. If the Opposition is unable to leverage this and loses considerable space to the BJP, these parties will find it difficult to make a comeback in 2019.
“The results to these elections can alter fates of all political parties. In district council polls, demonetisation and Maratha protests will be important factors and it will be interesting to see how they affect the electoral fortunes of the parties. For instance, if the NCP, which leads in ZPs currently, loses its clout and seats in a big way, a comeback will be difficult for the party in the 2019 polls,” said Surendra Jondhale, a political analyst.
Jondhale said similarly, Sena’s performance in Mumbai could make the party more belligerent and give it the much needed confidence to take on ally-turned-rival BJP.
In the recent elections to municipal councils, while the BJP came out on top in small towns, the Congress managed to retain its hold in these bodies by coming in second.
Going by just the 2012 polls results, BJP faces an uphill task in the upcoming phase. It is at the bottom of the pack in terms of seats in the district councils and also doesn’t have a big advantage in the big cities, other than Nagpur and Akola.
If the BJP is successful in consolidating power it won in the 2014 Assembly polls, it will be a victory for chief minister Fadnavis. The young chief minister will be able to bolster his position in the party further and is likely to then remain unchallenged until the end of his government’s tenure.
There are signs that the party may win big in cities, where its development agenda will find takers. But, it’s too early to call. At the end of it, whichever way the poll winds blow, the results will alter the political dynamics and electoral fortunes of all the four main political parties in Maharashtra.