Shiv Sena chief Uddhav Thackeray’s Dussehra rally address this year was a much-awaited event not only because the party completed 50 years in June this year but, more importantly, because it has to contest tough elections in the next few months for urban local bodies. The biggest and most prestigious of these are the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) polls. Thackeray’s address turned out to be more of the familiar mix: Muscle-flexing of we-are-the-tigers-watch-out variety, reaffirmation of the party’s commitment to Maharashtrians, and posturing against its frenemy, the BJP.
In these highly politicised and jingoistic times, an election can be fought and won on flag-waving chauvinism, religious or linguistic appeal to voters, and an engineered riot or two. The BJP plays this repulsive game only too well and there is nothing to stop the party from pulling out its stock cards in the BMC election. Its objective is to dislodge the Sena as the largest party and control the 227-member general body of the BMC. Though it has shared power with the Sena all along, it has always played the second fiddle in the civic body.
Thackeray would have been better placed to take on the BJP, and opposition parties like the Congress and Samajwadi Party, if he could cite the party’s track record and achievements in the BMC. This is hardly the case. Its electoral tagline in the 2012 civic election “karoon dakhavla” (we did and showed) rang hollow in many ways. If it is re-used this time, it will sound untrue. The Sena has little to show except its status as the voice of some Maharashtrians.
During the Sena’s unbroken stint of 20-years at the helm of Mumbai’s civic affairs, the BMC’s role in deciding the city’s growth has become increasingly marginal. The BMC has been progressively confined to the day-to-day managerial tasks but has been unable to deliver on them too. Its record on maintenance of roads and pavements, garbage disposal and sewage treatment is pathetic, its management of hospitals and non-English school education, administration of open spaces including the city’s tree cover is nothing to crow about. The BEST bus network and a stable water supply are among its few achievements.
The Sena’s long control of the country’s richest municipal corporation gave some of its leaders political momentum and administrative experience, but the party could neither anticipate nor plan Mumbai’s growth. By design and machinations of the Congress and, since 2014, the BJP, the most fundamental and momentous decisions about Mumbai were made not in the BMC but in the state government headquarters at Mantralaya.
From major infrastructure projects such as the Metro network to growth incentives in hand-picked areas such as Parel and Bandra-Kurla Complex, from Mumbai’s Development Plan to policy initiatives, the state urban development department called the shots. Successive chief ministers of Maharashtra, by virtue of the fact that they always held the urban development department portfolio, functioned as the de facto bosses of Mumbai. Their writ was carried out by municipal commissioners, IAS officers, appointed by the government.
The Sena-majority BMC offered more or less resistance depending on the personality of the commissioner and the proposals he put on the table. But the party rarely offered a coherent alternative or a more representative vision of how it wanted Mumbai to develop, whether the chief minister was from the Congress or the BJP. In fact, the Sena has presided over the erosion of the BMC’s authority to determine Mumbai’s growth and future. Bombast and muscle-flexing can hardly substitute vision and policy. The Dussehra rally was apparently the party’s poll bugle, but Thackeray’s address was unsurprisingly heavy on the former, sparse on the latter.