As BMC Elections Near, Shiv Sena Raises the Pitch of Attacks Against Ally BJP

The stakes in the Mumbai municipal corporation elections are very high for the BJP and the Shiv Sena.

File picture of Sena Sena chief Uddhav Thackeray and Maharashtra chief minister Devendra Fadnavis. Credit: PTI

File picture of Sena Sena chief Uddhav Thackeray and Maharashtra chief minister Devendra Fadnavis. Credit: PTI

Sniping between the BJP and the Shiv Sena has reached shriller levels as elections to Mumbai’s civic body, the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC), scheduled on February 23, near. The results, which will effectively give control of the country’s premier municipal corporation with a budget of a stupendous Rs 37,000 crores, could change the state’s politics. Already, talk of a mid-term poll is in the air.

Both parties are out campaigning, not just offering promises and hailing their own achievements, but actively running the other down. The Sena, with its grip on Mumbai, has been going for the jugular, but the BJP – mainly chief minister Devendra Fadnavis – is not far behind in paying it back in the same coin. Fadnavis keeps harping on corruption in the Sena-run municipal corporation.

Last week Sena chief Uddhav Thackeray took it to another level when his party paper Saamna wrote an edit praising the successive Congress prime ministers and arguing that without their contribution, Prime Minister Narendra Modi would have been left with “an African country to run”. “Indira Gandhi sacrificed herself for the country, Rajiv Gandhi may have been tainted by the Bofors scam but he ushered in the computer age. Narasimha Rao and Manmohan Singh successfully steered the country away from economic anarchy. If these people had not done what they did in the last 60 years, then Modi would have nothing in his hands but dust,” said the editorial.

The timing of the comment was significant – it can immediately after Modi had made the comment about former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh wearing a ‘raincoat in the bathroom’, implying he was untouched by the scandals around him. For the BJP, criticising Modi is a no go area and this has been breached by the Sena several times in the past. This time the party thought its junior ally in the government had gone too far.

The verbal attacks on the BJP have a long history. They began almost immediately after the BJP decided that it would go it alone in the October 2014 elections to the Maharashtra assembly. The decision came as a shock to the Sena, who had been the ‘senior partner’ to the BJP, which had never really got a grip on the state where the RSS is headquartered. But in 2014, in the afterglow of the spectacular victory at the national level, the BJP was confident of its chances and didn’t need the Shiv Sena any more. Indeed, the BJP felt that the Sena, with its image of indulging in violence, would be a drag on the national party’s development agenda.

That gamble failed and though the BJP scored big, winning an unprecedented 122 seats, it was not enough to get a majority in the 288 member house. Sharad Pawar’s Nationalist Congress Party bailed the BJP out by promising vote support, but the BJP could not in all conscience formally tie up with the “Nationally Corrupt Party” whose alleged scams it had promised to investigate. Ultimately, the BJP had to bring Sena on board, even if the latter has kept on complaining that its ministers are not taken seriously and given no work to do.

Bickering between allies is not unusual and the Congress and the NCP, who partnered in Maharashtra for 10 years, had made it a habit, but the latest round of BJP-Sena warfare is turning ugly because of the high stakes involved.

In the BMC, the Sena has been the undisputed king for over 25 years. The BJP does not have the on-ground network nor the cadre to get votes. Besides, when it comes to local elections, it is the Maharashtrian vote that really counts. The BJP’s support comes from Gujaratis, professionals and the upper middle classes – the former much less than the Maharashtrians and the latter don’t stir out in large numbers on election day. The Sena worries that the BJP is trying to woo Maharashtrians – a series of online ads seek to ridicule the Sena’s claim that it has the interests of the manoos (common man) at heart. The Sena has successfully got prominent BJP Gujaratis to defect, but will that be enough? The Muslim vote, that used to go the Congress, is now being sought by the AIMIM and even the Samajwadi Party, but in the past, many Muslims have supported the Sena.

For the BJP, control of the municipal corporation would make life easier in pushing through its pet projects in the city. For the Sena, losing the BMC would mean a near death blow, because it would have no power base to call its own. Besides, the corporation yields revenue, both official and unofficial, that every party would like to get their hands on.

If the Sena wins more seats, it will drive a hard bargain. It may bring the BJP on board as a junior partner in the corporation, but will ensure that it gets better portfolios in the state government. It will not miss any opportunity to humiliate its partner – in private, Sena leaders talk about how Modi and Amit Shah have insulted their party. It will also show how the BJP sheen has worn off in the country’s commercial capital.

If the BJP wins, there is a good chance that the Sena will be compelled to pull out of the state government, in which case, will the BJP take the help of the NCP to get the numbers? The NCP has already said no. But those kind of assurances are never caste in stone.

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