Now that the bugle has been sounded for the civic polls across Maharashtra, the stakes seem to be the highest for the Shiv Sena. Of the five big corporations going to polls — Brihanmumbai, Thane, Pune, Nashik and Nagpur — it does not really matter whether the Sena wins or loses the last four. But its very survival depends on the results to the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC), where it has ruled for more than two decades and which constitutes both the ‘astitva’ and the ‘asmita’ for the party.
Despite concerted efforts by the BJP, with whom the Sena is allied in both the Union and state governments, and the Congress which is in opposition to both the allies, recent surveys show that the Shiv Sena is still holding its neck above water despite charges of incompetence, non-performance and corruption, laid against it by both the parties.
So it is but natural that the party should not want to ally with the BJP for the polls which, after some sabre rattling against its junior partner, is suddenly showing signs of warmth towards the Sena and hinting at a possible alliance with it.
That may be because the surveys indicate that in case all parties go it alone at these polls, the BJP could be in third position, even behind the Congress – that is likely to cause the ruling party in the state a major setback, not just electorally but also in terms of the psychological barriers that both the Congress and the Shiv Sena will overcome.
While the Congress has identified the Sena as its main rival at the polls and might be content with merely maximising its seats in the BMC – given its dismal state and poor show at the two elections in 2014, this would be a shot in the arm for the party – even a few seats more than the BJP could come as a boost to its prospects in 2019. While it is true that it is largely local issues that govern civic elections, one cannot turn a blind eye to the fact that post demonetisation, these elections will be a litmus test for the BJP. Their core voter base in the city are traders and small entrepreneurs and their vote will determine the future of the BJP. For even if these traders decide to side with the Shiv Sena now, their disenchantment with the BJP is likely to open doors for the Congress during the 2019 elections.
For the BJP, thus, the stake is very high at these civic polls although the party is unlikely to be decimated in the way the Shiv Sena can be if either of them fails to do well in February.
A Sena victory, though, will return things to status quo. However, a Shiv Sena defeat is likely to lead to a tectonic shift in the polity of not just the metropolis but also the state. In one fell stroke, the BJP, even in the event of its inability to capture the BMC, would have achieved its purpose of destroying the Shiv Sena, which so far has bounced back from every adversity and continues to be seen as the only party with the guts to take on both the BJP and Narendra Modi.
These five big corporations, along with Aurangabad which went to polls in 2015 and returned the Sena to power, might help gauge the urban mood in the state, though it is already clear that the Sena has an advantage in both Thane and Nashik, while Pune and Nagpur might still go with the NCP and BJP, respectively.
I am placing my bet on the Sena, simply by judging the mood of defectors from other political parties – most have favoured the Shiv Sena, a few the BJP. That brings its own perils for it causes resentment among old timers who see tickets slipping out of their grasp. That is also why workers of all parties do not want an alliance – even if their leaders do – to prevent further reduction of their chances and this is as true now for the Congress, which suddenly finds the NCP cosying up to it as it is of the Sena workers vis-à-vis the BJP. This is now facilitating a rebirth for the principle of ‘friendly fights’ between the Sena-BJP and Congress-NCP, where they will not attack each other, only the other grouping, in the hope of making up the numbers together at a later date.
The Shiv Sena could then well lead them all in the numbers game.