The February 16 civic polls are crucial for four key players in state politics—chief minister Prithviraj Chavan (Congress), deputy chief minister Ajit Pawar (NCP), Shiv Sena executive president Uddhav Thackeray and Maharashtra Navnirman Sena chief Raj Thackeray.
The elections to the civic bodies of Mumbai and nine other prominent Maharashtra cities will reveal who the most popular leader in urban Maharashtra is – which now houses almost half the state’s population.
The outcome of the civic polls would be crucial for these four leaders to decide the next moves of their parties in the preparation for the 2014 assembly polls. Either all of them or most of them will form Maharashtra’s future political leadership. For the Shiv Sena, the civic polls will show whether it is still a major force in the Mumbai-Thane area and test Uddhav’s ability to carry forward his father's legacy.
It will also show if Raj’s party has the potential to become a major player instead of being just a spoiler. The MNS could also play the crucial role of kingmaker. A lot is also at stake for Chavan, who has made every effort to ensure his party’s victory.
Uddhav Thackeray, Shiv Sena, executive president: For Uddhav, it's make or break
The third and youngest son of Sena chief Bal Thackeray, 51-year-old Uddhav Thackeray is the face of the Shiv Sena, which has been ruling the Mumbai civic body for 16 years.
This election could be a make-or-break situation for him. If he retains power, he will be able to check the decline in his party's fortunes. If he fails, there will be trouble, with the cadre losing faith in his ability to win polls.
Uddhav has been battling on several fronts: He has an aggressive adversary in MNS chief Raj Thackeray; the Congress-NCP alliance wants to grab control of the civic body; and an ally-cum-competitor BJP, which wants to grow bigger than the Sena.
Uddhav has largely ignored the elections to the 27 zilla parishads and has concentrated on the urban civic bodies. Of the 10 civic bodies going to polls, the saffron alliance controls five. Will the Sena retain power? Importantly, can Uddhav retain fortress Mumbai?
His election strategy
To counter the effect of Cong-NCP alliance and the MNS, he got Ramdas Athawale's Republican Party of India on board for Dalit votes.
His campaign began with an ad blitzkrieg, which showcased what the Sena has achieved in the city.
While distributing poll tickets, he has fielded many fresh candidates to nullify the anti-incumbency factor. But he managed to keep rebellion at to a minimum level.
He has avoided taking an aggressive stand against north Indians, but has attacked Raj.
Raj Thackeray, MNS chief: The great talker must deliver
It is said that Raj Thackeray, very early in life, decided he wanted to follow in the footsteps of his charismatic uncle Bal Thackeray.
The 43-year-old, who has imbibed his uncle's mannerisms, wit, aggression and arrogance, drew as much a crowd as the senior Thackeray.
But grabbing eyeballs is not going to be enough for this commercial arts graduate, who after quitting the Sena in 2005 and launching his own party, the Maharashtra Navnirman Sena, has made controversies his USP.
In these civic polls, the MNS will have to emerge as a major player in Mumbai and Thane. If it does poorly, Raj will have to work out a strategy to stay in the limelight and keep his cadre satisfied.
Raj knows his party's growth is restricted unless Uddhav loses control of the crucial Mumbai civic body, from where the Sena draws its power and influence.
He is using his uncle's strategy of targeting outsiders to gain popularity. But he is talking about civic problems and development, which shows that he has gauged the pulse of the common man.
Will he shed his image as a spoiler and emerge as a key player in Mumbai?
His election strategy
His best weapon is his oratory, which now surpasses his uncle's skills. His speeches strike a chord with the average Mumbaiite, especially the Marathi manoos.
He has kept the north Indian hate campaign on the backburner though he has given tickets only to the Marathi manoos.
He has focused on civic issues, corruption.
The MNS has a clean slate, which gives him the freedom to slam all parties and convince the electorate he can do justice to their issues.
Ajit Pawar, deputy chief minister (NCP): The politician who's in a hurry
In the 2004 Assembly polls, when the NCP emerged as the largest party in the state, it bartered away the top job to the Congress in exchange of more ministerial portfolios. Ajit Pawar, 53, deputy CM and NCP chief Sharad Pawar's nephew, believes it was the time his uncle went wrong.
In Mumbai, Ajit pushed for an alliance with the Congress, though his uncle was unsure. The reason: A defeat will demoralise the Sena, and the NCP stands to gain from it
The recent polls to small-town civic bodies, where the NCP emerged in the lead, indicate that he has got his strategy in place. "He is a politician who delivers. That sets him apart," said cousin and NCP MP Supriya Sule, often dubbed as his rival.
His dictatorial style and ambitions have won him many detractors. If the NCP does badly, the daggers will be out for Ajit.
His election strategy
He pushed for an alliance with the Congress in Mumbai though the NCP does not stand to gain much.
The purpose is to pull the Sena down to benefit during the 2014 polls.
He is aggressively wooing politicians across all parties to strengthen his party's base in weaker areas.
Ajit knows how to play his cards while handing out party tickets, supporting rebels and being generous in campaign funds.
Prithviraj Chavan, chief minister (Congress): He is Congress' one-man army
With the sole aim of ousting the Sena-BJP from power in Mumbai, CM Prithviraj Chavan, 67, has ensured that the Congress forged an alliance with the NCP.
An engineer and an alumnus of BITS-Pilani and University of California, Chavan was born into politics: His father was a state minister and his mother an MP. He was in charge of the PMO and was the all-India Congress general secretary when he was sent to Maharashtra after the Adarsh scam.
he had to quell internal rebellion over the forging of the alliance, though he could not check revolt over ticket distribution.
Disgruntled leaders have stayed away from the campaign, and Chavan has almost single-handedly been working in all 10 civic bodies. In Mumbai, he has played up his clean image to perfection.
His election strategy
Knowing that defeating the Sena-BJP in Mumbai, Thane, Nashik and Nagpur is impossible without NCP, he has forged an alliance in these places.
He let local leaders select candidates, so there is less rebellion.
He is playing up his clean image and promising the city the benefits of being in power as the Congress rules the Centre and state.
He has not spared the NCP in places where they are fighting each other.