Nothing announces forthcoming elections more than defections. Local body elections in Maharashtra were due to be held at staggered intervals starting from April 2020, but the lockdown prevented it. Now, with the State machinery moving in low gear, local body elections and byelections are being held sporadically in different parts of the State.
In late December last year, the Congress triumphantly announced that “hundreds of activists from Thane, Nashik and Beed” had joined the party. Some of the new members are people of some consequence and could help their new party in a local body election.
But, as always, it is a win-some-lose-some situation. So, the Congress, as part of the ruling Maha Vikas Aghadi (MVA) coalition, gained with former Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) members joining it in Thane, Beed and Nashik districts, and with its victory in the Nagpur graduates’ and Pune teachers’ constituencies during the Legislative Council elections. But it lost when its MLC Amrish Patel quit to join the BJP. Further, he easily defeated the ruling MVA’s candidate in the recent MLC byelection in Nandurbar, rubbing more salt on the Congress’ wounds.
Taking on the BJP
Recognising that the BJP was far from a spent force even after its partner, the Shiv Sena, terminated their 31-year-old political relationship last year, the MVA in Maharashtra has been making a determined effort to fight local body elections as one cohesive unit and not as individual parties.
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The strategy has, by and large, been successful. The MVA proved itself in the Legislative Council elections that were held in December. At a press conference, Sharad Pawar, NCP leader, said, “The victory in Nagpur, from where BJP leaders like Nitin Gadkari and Devendra Fadnavis come, shows people’s confidence in the MVA government. We had never won these seats [before].” Pawar’s comment was indeed true. With Nagpur being the headquarters of the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS), it has consistently been a BJP bastion.
Sachin Sawant, Congress spokesperson, described the victory in his usual style, saying: “The BJP has been describing MVA as the government of ‘Amar, Akbar, Anthony’… Now, Amar, Akbar and Anthony have given a befitting reply to Robert Seth [the film’s villain]. In future, too, they will continue to flatten the ego of Robert Seth.”
The BJP has nursed a grudge against the Shiv Sena ever since the 2019 Assembly election. The two parties fought and won the election together but a dispute emerged soon afterwards, with the Shiv Sena claiming that they had a pre-poll agreement that the Chief Minister’s post would be rotated, with the BJP holding it first and then transferring it to the Shiv Sena midway through the term. The BJP denied the agreement and the Shiv Sena broke away, leaving its erstwhile partner of 31 years with inadequate seats to form a government. The rest is history, with the Shiv Sena tying up with the Congress and the NCP to form the MVA to rule Maharashtra.
The anger within the BJP simmered and the party has, at regular intervals, tried to destabilise the government. The byelections and local body elections were another opportunity to showcase its strength but the BJP did not come out on top.
However, it will have more opportunities this year. Elections to the municipal corporations of Navi Mumbai, Aurangabad, Vasai-Virar, Kalyan-Dombivli and Kolhapur are due in 2021, as are elections to two zilla parishads, 13 municipal councils and 83 nagar panchayats. Moreover, 14,234 gram panchayats in 34 districts will also go to the polls on January 15. These had earlier been scheduled for March 31 last year. There are 27,920 gram panchayats in the State. The MVA plans to contest these elections as a single entity.
Impact on BMC elections
The elections this year will have some impact, psychologically, at least, on the elections to the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) due next year. The Shiv Sena has doggedly held the lead in the BMC for more than 20 years, resisting attempts by all other parties to wrest power from this very rich corporation. So prestigious and important is the BMC that even partners in political tie-ups have fought the BMC elections separately. Even when the Shiv Sena and the BJP were together they had opted to contest against each other in BMC elections.
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So far, the MVA has spoken about fighting all elections as a cohesive coalition unit. Chief Minister Uddhav Thackeray has already said that the MVA will fight the BMC elections together, but no one will be surprised if the final decision is for each party to fight separately. The BMC’s power and the riches of its budgetary chest, amounting to more than Rs.33,000 crore, which is more than the State budgets of some of the smaller States in the North-East, may just prove to be too tempting for parties to be willing to share it with others. The Congress already seems to be thinking of striking it out on its own. On December 22, when Ashok Jagtap was appointed president of the Mumbai Congress, he said that the Congress should fight the 2022 BMC elections separately.
In the upcoming political battle, the Congress is the party that has to prove itself the most. These elections will be something of a watershed for the party, which is at its lowest ebb in the State. Despite being the oldest party, it is the most junior one in the coalition in terms of votes garnered and, by its own admission, the least consulted in decisions taken by the MVA.
The Congress was founded in Bombay in 1885. Post-independence it ruled the city and the State for decades, and hence, it must be galling for the party to find itself in its current position. The Congress took a political beating in the last Lok Sabha and the Assembly elections, as well as civic and local body elections.
In reality, the party needs to be part of a coalition even more than its partners do. Yet, clinging to past glory, Jagtap spoke of going to the BMC hustings alone. In 1992 the Congress had a majority in the BMC, with 112 of the corporation’s 227 seats, when it was in alliance with the Republican Party of India (Athavale). In the last BMC elections in 2017, the Congress held just 31 seats, while the BJP raced past with 82 seats. The Shiv Sena led with 84 seats.
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In many ways the Congress is adrift. From commanding the erstwhile Bombay city and indeed all of Maharashtra, it is now not even sure of its voter base. The Shiv Sena’s core Marathi voter base support is intact and under Uddhav Thackeray’s surprisingly solid leadership the party has actually expanded its reach to include many voters who used to be anti-Sena. The NCP may not have an identifiable urban power base but with Sharad Pawar at its helm, and especially after he engineered a grand alliance to create the MVA, it has become a power broker. The BJP continues to derive power from the middle class, the business class and supporters of its Hindutva ideology. It is only the Congress that has lost its old power base and not been able to replace it with anything substantial.
The Congress will have to make decisions carefully for the local elections. While the party has an overwhelming need to prove itself politically and regain its past glory, there is the ever-present danger that if it strikes out on its own it may very well shoot itself in the foot and also bring down the very coalition that is propping it up.