The otherwise predictable election to the Mumbai civic body has become an intense political battle after Shiv Sena chief Uddhav Thackeray’s January 26 announcement that his party will contest the polls on its own. In fact, he declared the Sena will contest all future elections without an alliance with another party (read BJP). The BJP, too, has vowed to contest the civic polls fiercely, with an aim to push its ally-cum-rival to second spot and take control of the civic body that governs India’s financial capital.
It was no hidden secret that the BMC elections would become a flashpoint between the allies, as the BJP had made its intentions clear in the past two years after winning the state. It won 15 of 36 Assembly seats in Mumbai while Sena won 14. As it won one seat more than the Sena, the BJP’s leaders became confident of wresting control of Mumbai from Sena and planned systematically to realise their dream. Post-demonetisation, however, a group in the state BJP (including CM Devendra Fadnavis) did not want to take chances in the mini-assembly polls of 10 civic bodies and 25 district councils. It suggested a tie-up with Sena. Talks began in Mumbai, but did not make much headway as BJP publicly kept taunting the Sena over transparency. The exercise ended on January 26 when Uddhav announced his decision. Many think Uddhav has played a gamble and will regret it. BJP leaders are calling the Sena chief’s decision a blunder.
Does that mean Uddhav pushed the Sena to the brink of a disaster? It is a fact the Sena chief has taken a risk. For the past two-three decades, the power in BMC has been Sena’s source of strength and influence. If Sena loses its control over BMC, it will be major setback. Second, by not contesting civic and district council polls in alliance with BJP, the Sena may not do well outside Mumbai-Thane and Konkan. It may lose the chance to win civic bodies like Nashik. It may not be able to increase its strength in zilla parishads or district councils that play a significant role in rural politics. It may also impact its chances in the next Assembly polls. Worse, if the Sena does badly, many in its cadre will lose faith in Uddhav’s leadership. Did it make sense to take such an extreme step?
Sources close to the Sena chief and others in political circles have a counter-view. They think Uddhav took a calculated risk. “You actually think seat-sharing talks with BJP would have worked out even if we would have conceded the 105 seats they were suggesting, after demanding 114? It was just the first step. While demanding more seats, they also staked claim over seats we would not have parted with,”said a key Uddhav aide. The Sena top brass was wary the BJP would have improved its tally further, reaching close to Sena number or even bypass it. “If we ran the risk of winning equal or fewer seats than BJP by contesting only 120-something, then why not contest 200-plus? If the results are the same, we will lose some ground. But if we manage to win significantly more seats, it will give us a boost,”he said.
Of course, the parties are willing to take the risk as they are convinced the Opposition Congress is not a challenge. For Sena, there is another advantage—the weakening of Raj Thackeray’s Maharashtra Navnirman Sena (MNS). In ten years as the MNS gained ground, the Sena’s seat share reduced. From winning 98 seats in 2002 civic polls, its number reduced to 84 in 2007 and 75 in 2012. The MNS won 7 seats in 2007 and 28 in 2012 with 20.67% vote share snatched largely from Sena. Uddhav made an appeal to Maharashtrians in 2014, he managed to wrest five out of six Assembly seats MNS won five years ago—indicating an aggressive Sena can reclaim its Marathi votes.
This explains why Uddhav ignored Raj’s overtures for a strategic tie-up in Mumbai.
As of now, he has mobilised the Sena cadre that loves when their leader shows aggression. Whether Uddhav’s decision is a calculated risk or a gamble will be known on February 23, when votes are counted.