Scheduled for April 22, the municipal elections in Navi Mumbai and Aurangabad will be an acid test for the ruling BJP-Shiv Sena, who are sharing power in Maharashtra after a gap of 15 years.
The civic elections in Aurangabad, a citadel of Shiv Sena, and Navi Mumbai, the stronghold of NCP stalwart Ganesh Naik, are being seen as an important precursor to the municipal polls scheduled for early 2017 in Maharashtra's 10 main cities, including Mumbai, which has the richest civic body in Asia with a budget more than that of a state like Kerala.
Despite a bitter parting on the eve of the assembly polls in October last year, the Shiv Sena later joined the BJP government and the two parties retained their alliance for the Aurangabad Municipal Corporation (AMC) election.
While the saffron combine is trying to oust Navi Mumbai's NCP strongman Ganesh Naik from power, the Sena and the BJP have witnessed rebellion in both the cities in its ranks due to the alliance.
The NCP and Congress are contesting independently in both the civic bodies.
Political observers say the Shiv Sena has an edge in the 113-member AMC and the alliance with BJP will help it retain power. The presence of Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen (MIM) is also working in favour of the saffron combine. However, Congress is likely to make some gains because of MIM's internal strife over ticket allotment.
There are about 25 Muslim-dominated wards in Aurangabad where the number of wards have increased to 113 from 99.
The Sena-BJP alliance is ruling the AMC since 1988. Shiv Sena has held the Aurangabad Lok Sabha constituency for last 25 years, while three Assembly seats have been won by BJP, Sena and MIM each. Congress stalwart Rajendra Darda was defeated by the BJP in the election last year.
"The Sena-BJP tie-up happened because of the local leadership. Besides, state BJP unit president Raosaheb Danve Patil, who hails from Jalna, wanted the alliance to stay despite other leaders voicing their dissent against the alliance. Even Sena leadership was not keen," a BJP leader said.
The BJP, which got 49 seats in the sharing arrangement with Sena, is contesting only on 41. Two seats have been given to RPI and the party is not contesting the remaining seats, which are predominantly Muslim-dominated. This is because the BJP had no base in these areas and could not find a candidate, observers said.
Out of the 41 wards where BJP is contesting, there are about 21 Sena rebels in fray while about 10 to 15 BJP rebels are contesting from wards where Sena has fielded candidates.
Despite the rebellion and alliance hiccups, the Sena has a slight edge with Aurangabad being its citadel since 1988.
On the other side, the Congress, which had 19 corporators in the outgoing civic body, would gain slightly because of the internal fighting in the MIM over ticket distribution. NCP has no base in Aurangabad.
Poll observers said more than the "Modi wave", which helped the Sena-BJP sweep this city in Marathwada region, local factors and shortage of basic amenities like poor infrastructure, bad roads, shortage of water will be the deciding factor.
In Navi Mumbai the number of wards increased to 111 from 89. The political landscape of the city, located on the outskirts of Mumbai, has seen Ganesh Naik's dominance for the last 15 years.
Naik, a former Shiv Sena leader, switched over to NCP, but continued to hold sway over Navi Mumbai.
Navi Mumbai Municipal Commissioner Vijay Nahata joined the Sena after his retirement and is now party's deputy leader. He has relentlessly targeted Naik and his family over alleged corruption.
His campaign resulted in defeat of Ganesh's son Sanjeev Naik from Thane Lok Sabha seat.
Ganesh Naik was defeated from Belapur in the Assembly elections by Manda Mhatre, former NCP MLC who switched over to BJP on the eve of Assembly polls. Naik's other son Sandeep, however, won his Airoli Assembly constituency.
In a bid to retain his hold over Navi Mumbai, Ganesh Naik has changed his strategy to counter rivals. He has not fielded any family member in the civic polls and is out on the streets personally campaigning for the NCP candidates.
He is also targeting Shiv Sena, which rules the neighbouring Mumbai and Thane civic bodies, over lack of basic amenities and is also campaigning that the Navi Mumbai municipal corporation is more efficient than Mumbai and Thane.
Shiv Sena rebels have come close to NCP and some, who did not get the tickets, have joined the party.
The BJP is ridden by factional infighting as local leaders do not get along with local MLA Manda Mhatre. The BJP's image has taken a beating due to this, the observers say.
The NCP is highlighting development in its campaign and promising to develop Navi Mumbai on the lines of Singapore and Shanghai, while Sena and BJP are targeting it over corruption and appealing people to vote out the corrupt NCP.
The Shiv Sena, which targeted the Naik dynasty, has given tickets to family members of local leaders, sources said.