BMC polls: BJP may need to relook at ‘Mission 2022’ to wrest power from Shiv Sena

BJP leaders feel the local leadership is not effective enough to take the Shiv Sena head-on, there is flip-flop on part of the party over the issue of alliance with Raj Thackeray’s MNS
BJP aims to wrest control of BMC, which has been Shiv Sena’s source of clout and resources for three decades, and set the stage for the Thackeray-led Maharashtra government’s defeat or collapse. (HT FILE)
BJP aims to wrest control of BMC, which has been Shiv Sena’s source of clout and resources for three decades, and set the stage for the Thackeray-led Maharashtra government’s defeat or collapse. (HT FILE)
Published on Oct 03, 2021 10:50 PM IST
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ByNaresh Kamath, Mumbai

A year after losing power in Maharashtra to its erstwhile ally Shiv Sena, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in 2020 had launched an ambitious ‘Mission 2022’, which aimed to oust the Uddhav Thackeray-led party from the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC). The Sena has held power in BMC for several decades (1985-1992 and 1997-present).

BJP aims to wrest control of BMC, which has been Sena’s source of clout and resources for three decades, and set the stage for the Thackeray-led Maharashtra government’s defeat in the next elections or even the collapse of the three-party ruling coalition before that. BMC, with its budget of 39,038.83 crore last year, is the richest civic body in India, and has played a major role in the growth of the Shiv Sena.

However in the past 10 months, BJP leaders feel that there is confusion over the way forward and that they would need a course correction. The local leadership is not effective enough to take the Sena head-on, there is flip-flop on part of the party over the issue of alliance with the Raj Thackeray-led Maharashtra Navnirman Sena (MNS) and moreover, some controversies created by the party leaders have given the Sena leaders an ammunition to charge up the party workers and even BJP’s loyal support base.

The situation is different as compared to the 2017 civic elections when the party had launched a spirited campaign to oust the Sena, though the two parties were running a government in the state together.

Many workers pointed out that one of the major factors is the local leadership in Mumbai, which is not effective. Currently, Mumbai BJP is led by senior legislator Mangal Prabhat Lodha. Former chief minister (CM) Devendra Fadnavis, who has taken up the responsibility to deliver BMC to the party, has backed BJP legislator Atul Bhatkhalkar to handle the party affairs for effectively kick-starting the BJP poll machine.

A senior Mumbai BJP leader said: “We need to have a proper plan to take on the Sena step-by-step. If there is one [plan], then we have not been told about it yet. We have multiple issues to corner the Shiv Sena but then we need someone to lead us headstrong. As it has shown in [Union minister] Narayan Rane’s case, the Sena will resort to strong arm tactics and we need to match it,” said the leader.

A senior BJP corporator, on the condition of anonymity, said, “We have 16 legislators in Mumbai, but most of them are occupied in winning BMC tickets for their kin. Many don’t even want us to win the seats as they are afraid that the winners may later stake claim for Assembly tickets from their areas.”

Political analyst Hemant Desai said that the current BJP leadership in the city lacks the aggression to take on the Shiv Sena.

“It is difficult for Lodha and Bhatkhalkar to take on the aggressive Sena machinery which has a grassroot-level network in Mumbai through its shakhas (units). In the 2017 elections, the party had spared no efforts to oust the Sena from BMC. That kind of campaign is not visible as of now,” said Desai.

“Last time, the BJP government headed by Fadnavis had also played a major role in providing resources to the party campaign, which is absent this time. Today, the Sena heads the state government and will spare no efforts to retain BMC, which has been its citadel for decades,” he added.

Analysts said that three incidents have played a major role in bringing the Sena back to the streets and put BJP in the defensive.

In June, clashes broke out between Shiv Sena and BJP workers as the latter’s youth wing took out a protest march towards the Sena Bhavan after Sena mouthpiece Saamana made ‘offensive remarks’ on the Ayodhya land deal controversy. Later, BJP leader Prasad Lad’s remarks – that party workers would destroy Sena Bhavan – evoked a strong reaction from the Sena cadre as well as the party’s support base, which is the Marathi-speaking population. Lad retracted his comment, stating that it was taken out of context, however, it galvanised the grassroot Sena workers in Mumbai.

The final nail in the coffin was in August when Rane, BJP’s Union minister, sparked off a row with his remark about slapping the CM. Rane had claimed that Thackeray was unaware of the year of India’s Independence. Three first information reports (FIR) were registered and Rane was arrested over his remarks. Though he was granted bail within hours, the incident infused the Sena workers, who took to the streets against the Union minister. There were Sena agitations across Maharashtra, condemning Rane. One of the agitations was held by the Yuva Sena – the youth wing of Shiv Sena – outside Rane’s Juhu residence in Mumbai.

Another political analyst, Surendra Jondhale, blamed BJP for invigorating the Sena.

“The Sena workers were in limbo from the past one-and-half years, ever since they had a government in the state. But these incidents, especially [the one related to Rane] put life into them and they were back to the streets. This could cost BJP very dearly as now even Thackeray has realised that these workers cannot remain quiet and he is discreetly supporting them. The Sena network is still influential to win BMC polls,” said Jondhale.

Meanwhile, Desai pointed out that an “enemy” like Rane campaigning aggressively would charge up the Sena workers. Besides, the Sena’s efforts to mobilise the Marathi vote bank will also have an effect on the polls.

In 2017, BJP had contested alone on the plank of bringing transparency in Asia’s richest civic body and “freeing them from the clutches of the Shiv Sena”. The party surprised everyone by bagging 82 seats, which was a whisker away from wresting power from the Shiv Sena, which had bagged just two seats more to regain power.

The BJP campaign is being spear-headed by Fadnavis, for whom BJP workers have high regard. However, many of them think that he has given preference to defectors from other parties instead of loyalists.

“The loyal workers who have slogged for decades have to make way for defectors from other parties. Today, Lad (who defected from Sena’s current ally in state Nationalist Congress Party) and Pravin Darekar (from MNS) have more influence in city BJP,” a party veteran, who has been currently sidelined, said.

“Top leaders such as Vinod Tawde, Raj Purohit and Prakash Mehta, who know the city at the back of their hands and were denied tickets in the last Assembly elections, have been fully sidelined and are hardly contributing to the campaign,” he added.

Dismissing these claims, the BJP has called reports of demoralisation of cadres as misleading.

“All our workers are ready to face the elections and it is only the Shiv Sena which is afraid and trying to postpone it. We are confident of a landslide victory,” said Bhatkalkar.

He also dismissed any factionalism in BJP, saying that the party will win more seats this time from 2017.

“The factionalism and leadership issues are a figment of imagination of the media. This time, we are fully prepared to contest all the 227 seats unlike last time, when we were still unsure of having an alliance with the Shiv Sena,” said Bhatkalkar.

“People have seen how the Thackeray government has stopped major projects started by the Fadnavis regime and made their lives miserable. They are witness to the corruption in BMC and the ruining of the civic services. Citizens will vote Shiv Sena out of BMC,” said Bhatkalkar.

Responding to the issue of new entrants to the party, Bhatkalkar added: “We in BJP assimilate outsiders and they contribute to the growth of our party. There is no dissatisfaction over them.”

Former BJP chief Ashish Shelar said Prime Minister Narendra Modi will continue to be a major factor in the upcoming BMC election.

“Modiji will play a major factor, considering the manner in which he is handling the whole country and even Fadnavis’ developmental work will influence the whole campaign,” said Shelar.

Another factor causing anxiety in the party ranks is the party’s equation with Raj Thackeray’s MNS. The visit of BJP’s Maharashtra president Chandrakant Patil to Raj Thackeray’s house has not gone well with the ranks.

“Our leaders need to realise that any truck with MNS will alienate our North Indian votebank. In addition, the Marathi voters will support the Shiv Sena in large numbers as they will see MNS as the spoiler and this will in fact help in consolidating the Sena’s vote bank,” said a North Indian BJP leader.

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Monday, December 06, 2021