On Saturday, Prime Minister Narendra Modi launched the Bharatiya Janata Party’s campaign for the civic polls by announcing the start of work on a clutch of infrastructure projects for Mumbai. The elections to ten civic bodies including Mumbai and district councils (Zilla Parishads) are likely to be declared in less than a fortnight. However, the highlight is going to be the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) that governs India’s financial capital. With its annual budget of more than Rs30,000 crore, managing the BMC is like managing a small state. It has been the source of power and strength of Shiv Sena for more than two decades, but after winning more assembly seats (16) than the Sena (15) in Mumbai, the BJP has made it clear that it wants to rule the Mumbai civic body.
By now we know that the BJP prepares for an election in a much more systematic way that its rivals. The party has already set up a war-room, got some surveys done and giving finishing touches to its strategy for the civic polls. With PM Modi laying foundation stones for big-ticket projects such as two new metro lines, the Mumbai Trans Harbour Link (Sewree-Nhava sealink), and the Mumbai Urban Transport Project 3 to improve railway infrastructure, the Devendra Fadnavis-led team of the BJP is now all set to show how their party is best-placed to govern Mumbai. The common man can’t be faulted if he is impressed. He has been hearing of these projects for a long time, but now there is some visible development. This is where the BJP scores over its rivals, especially the Congress.
Most of the infrastructure projects launched on Saturday were on the table for a long time. But the Congress-NCP government did not realise the need to start work on them on an urgent basis. In some cases, even if it pushed for their implementation, the Congress-led government at the Centre was non-cooperative and did not give the necessary clearances for a long time. Fadnavis and his team made it a point to get the approvals as early as they could and launched them before the elections. Now the BJP’s campaign machinery will use the same to its advantage. The Congress and the NCP are arguing that these are old projects and nothing is likely to happen on the ground in a short period. However, will they win against the BJP in a battle of perceptions? One really doubts it. The BJP communicates its decisions much better than its rivals.
While trying to own the development plank (which was for long the Congress’ copyright), the BJP is also attempting to disown its joint rule with the Shiv Sena in the city for the past two decades. For more than a year, the city BJP leaders have been publicly holding the Sena responsible for the drawbacks (and there are many) in civic governance. Their allegations against the Sena got some seriousness when investigations were ordered into alleged irregularities in roads and stormwater drains desilting work. The Sena leadership will have to find ways to shrug off the dirt thrown at it. As of now, the Uddhav Thackeray-led party is trying to strengthen its position at the grassroot level. The civic body elections are also about local connections and at many places, citizens vote for candidates who are good in their work and have maintained a rapport with them. On this front, the Sena has a better network in areas under its influence and the BJP will have to try hard to break into those areas.
As long as the Congress is concerned, it cannot shrug off responsibility for the state of affairs in Mumbai. For a long time, the party ignored Mumbai though it ran the state government. Its government launched the Mumbai makeover project to rebuild the city’s crumbling infrastructure in the early 2000s. In 15 years, it could build just one metro line, a monorail, which very few people use, a few roads and some development of railway infrastructure. However, it failed in building a good network of mass transport that could ease congestion on suburban trains or a link to the mainland (MTHL), which could decongest Mumbai and encourage commercial growth in Raigad-Navi Mumbai. Again, thanks to non-cooperation from the Centre, Mumbai’s second airport did not take off. This is why the Congress-NCP may find difficult to convince voters they are a better choice than the BJP.
Still, things may change once the bugle is sounded in early January. It depends on how the parties pitch themselves and corner the opponents. The battle of perceptions that began in 2014 is far from over.