BMC Election 2017: Come 23 February, Mumbai Will Be A Saffron City

BMC Election 2017: Come 23 February, Mumbai Will Be A Saffron City An election rally in Mumbai.
  • The BJP and the Shiv Sena are set to turn in their best performance in the BMC polls since 1997, and the Congress is set for its worst performance.

    Which party gets more seats between the BJP and Sena will largely determine the contours of Maharashtra politics in the two remaining years of the government.

A saffron political war is being fought for the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) in the election scheduled for 21 February. At stake is the prosperity of Mumbai, India’s financial capital.

And that is how the political rivalry between part-time allies, part-time opponents Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and Shiv Sena will play out in the future. The incumbent Shiv Sena has been running the BMC administration since 1997. It was always the dominant partner in the saffron alliance in Maharashtra until October 2014, when the BJP formed the state government, with support from Shiv Sena coming a few months later. The loss of the seniority tag has been rankling the Shiv Sena for the last 28 months; and the feeling has been compounded by the general popularity of the Devendra Fadnavis-led BJP government.

BMC 2017 is the battleground of bruised egos. It is a battle for staking control over the saffron legacy in the city. It is a battle for the political survival of the Shiv Sena. It is a battle to chart the future growth trajectory of BJP in Maharashtra. And, it is likely to be a no-holds barred electoral contest. A strong chance of a post-poll saffron alliance isn’t going to reduce the pre-poll animosity between the BJP and the Shiv Sena in anyway.

As the battle gathers steam, the two contenders are propagating their own distinct narratives: With little to show for in its two-decade BMC rule, Shiv Sena is relying on its tried and tested formula of “Marathi pride” with an added dash of “betrayal” to fire up its cadre. BJP on the other hand is pitching the “transparency and change” (pardarshita evam parivartan) plank, trying to tap into the anti-incumbency vote. Whoever sells the narrative better over the next two weeks will emerge as the winner.

Undoubtedly, Shiv Sena with its dense network of shakhas will still enter the poll as the strongest of all parties. That said, it has to contend with a few fundamental changes, which could make the battle with the BJP a close affair.

Results of last 4 BMC elections – Shiv Sena tally has come down progressively.
Results of last 4 BMC elections – Shiv Sena tally has come down progressively.

Run-Up To BMC Elections Has Parallels With The 2014 Assembly Election

The backdrop to 2017 BMC election is somewhat similar to the 2014 assembly election in a number of ways. There had been an acrimonious break-up between the Shiv Sena and BJP. All key parties – BJP, Shiv Sena, Congress and Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) were fighting independently. Just as victory in the Lok Sabha elections in 2014 had given the BJP a strong tailwind, the 2016 victory in municipal council elections across the state has provided the party a similar momentum. Congress is yet again coming across as a leaderless and agenda-less organisation in Mumbai. The Maharashtra Navnirman Sena (MNS) has been on a decline with a number of key leaders jumping ship. And the All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen (AIMIM) provides an alternative for the Muslim community to choose from, just like it did in the assembly election. In this context, it is instructive to glance at 2014 assembly election results themselves.

The table above shows how each party fared on the standings in Mumbai in the assembly election.
The table above shows how each party fared on the standings in Mumbai in the assembly election.

The above picture does not seem to have changed much since the assembly election. BJP marginally trumped Shiv Sena as the single largest party in the city, and now with the saffron alliance broken, the two parties will vie again for the top spot in the BMC polls. MNS and AIMIM, however, have seen contrasting fortunes since 2014 with AIMIM on the rise even as MNS has imploded.

Shiv Sena: Still The favourite, But Long-Term Demographic Trends Go Against It

Shiv Sena has always been the Maharashtrian party, the way it was founded in the 1960s. The party strongholds are indeed in the island city (central parts of Mumbai), the traditional base for the locals. Over time however as Mumbai grew, this has become a disadvantage for the party. As the city expanded and the BMC seats got delimited and reconstituted, the number of seats from the island city has constantly reduced. The Maharashtrian population across Mumbai is now just 33 per cent, same as Gujarati and North Indian population put together.

There is no doubt that Shiv Sena starts as the favourite to be the single largest party, but it will also have to deal with the general anti-incumbency of being the governing party for 20 years. This is the first BMC election Shiv Sena is fighting without its iconic founder Balasaheb Thackeray. The saving grace for the party is however the complete implosion of MNS which should help Shiv Sena salvage territory in the Marathi dominant areas of Mahim, Worli, Sewri in the island city and eastern suburbs like Bhandup and Vikhroli.

<b>Change in ward distribution – Proportion of suburban wards going up progressively.</b>
Change in ward distribution – Proportion of suburban wards going up progressively.

<b>Distribution of voting population (2017)</b>
Distribution of voting population (2017)

BJP: Can The State-Wide Momentum Overcome Gaps In On-Ground Presence?

BJP has been on an upswing in Maharashtra, and has gained more in the state since May 2014 Lok Sabha election than it did between 1980, the year of its formation and May 2014. With the booster from a comprehensive victory in the recently held local body elections across the state, Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis has guided the party organisation from strength to strength and at the moment it seems he can do no wrong. Fadnavis has created a pro-development image, much like the Prime Minister Narendra Modi at the Centre, staying away from contentious topics and identity politics. The demographic change in the city is also playing to BJP’s strengths.

BJP’s Mumbai chief Ashish Shelar has been the lucky mascot for the party with the party having won every election in the city since he took over the party reins. Under Shelar, BJP has been plugging organisational gaps with a mix of organic and inorganic means. Shelar has attracted a number of leaders from the Maharashtrian community (Pravin Darekar, Prasad Lad, Mangesh Sangale, Suresh Gambhir, and Prabhakar Shinde) and North Indian community (Ramesh Thakur and R N Singh) with presence in specific areas.

The key challenge before the BJP is the absence of credible winnable candidates across all wards in the city. For the last 30-odd years, BJP has fought only on around 65 wards and its ground network in a majority of the other wards is weaker than Shiv Sena, albeit it has been improving over the last two years. BJP has had to rely on a number of imports from other parties to shore up its candidate list. Demonetisation too has invariably affected BJP’s staunchest supporters – the Gujaratis and the Marwaris, and other parties are trying hard to take advantage of that.

Additionally, the BJP is fighting only on 195 odd seats having left the rest for its allies, the Republican Party of India (RPI) – 25 seats, the Rashtriya Samaj Paksh (RSP) – four seats, and the Shiv Sangram – three seats. The BJP adopted the same strategy in the assembly election leaving more than 30 seats across the state to the allies. Despite their pockets of strengths, most of them came a cropper with the disadvantage of the BJP election symbol missing. So it is surprising that BJP has adopted the same approach again for the BMC election.

The leadership of Fadnavis and Shelar has brought them within a striking distance of single largest party status in Mumbai, but actually getting there will need some momentum and a favourable voting day arithmetic.

Congress: Ridden By Factionalism And Yet To Come To Terms With Voter Realignment

Over the last 15 years, the North Indian and Muslim vote has been the bulwark of Congress in Mumbai, having enabled it to get good success in the Maharashtra Assembly and Lok Sabha elections in 2004 and 2009. In fact, of the five sitting Congress MLAs from Mumbai from the 2014 assembly election, three are Muslims. Almost 40 per cent of Congress’ corporators in 2012 BMC elections came from North Indian and Muslim communities. Almost the entire top leadership of the Congress in Mumbai comes from the North Indian (Sanjay Nirupam, Rajhans Singh, Priya Dutt, and Kripashankar Singh) and Muslim (Arif Naseem Khan, Baba Siddique, and Amin Patel) groups with token presence of Maharashtrians (Varsha Gaikwad, Kalidas Kolambkar) and Gujaratis (Milind Deora).

However, the two communities seem to be gradually drifting away from the Congress. Divorce from Shiv Sena has meant that the BJP is a credible alternative for the North Indian migrants. Moreover, the AIMIM is clearly emerging as a voice of the Muslim community, offering an alternative much beyond what Samajwadi Party (SP) was ever able to. Additionally, the Congress is not being seen in the race at all precluding fence-sitters from going its way. This re-alignment has left the Congress highly vulnerable.

Distribution of Congress Corporators (2012)
Distribution of Congress Corporators (2012)

The Congress is also a highly divided house with veterans like Gurudas Kamat openly revolting against the city leadership and a number of his loyalist corporators moving on to greener pastures in other parties. In fact, most of the senior Congress leaders associated with Mumbai gave the party manifesto release function a miss. The set-up doesn’t look promising for the party and it could be well on its way of posting its worst ever performance in BMC election history.

AIMIM And MNS: Contrasting Fortunes

The AIMIM, which made its assembly debut in 2014 by winning the Byculla seat has been a party on the rise and is fast becoming the number one choice for the Muslim community in Mumbai. It is now seen as a potential winner unlike in 2014 when it was still seen as a vote splitter. The Muslim minority constitutes almost one fifth of the voting percentage in Mumbai with good presence across 10 assembly segments: Malad, Andheri West, Versova, Bandra, Kurla, Chandivali, Mankhurd, Anushakti Nagar, Byculla and Mumbadevi. While the AIMIM is contesting 61 seats, its key focus is on the 25-30 seats influenced largely by the Muslim population and erstwhile won primarily by Congress and SP.

MNS on the other hand is in tatters. It was never able to innovate beyond its Maharashtrian identity agenda and the exit of a number of leaders has left the party in shambles. While it is contesting 203 seats, it is really in contention only on a handful, primarily in its stronghold of Mahim and Dadar.

Likely Outcomes

The most likely outcomes for the BMC poll:

  1. BJP and Shiv Sena (together) are on their way to post the best ever tally in BMC election history. Their previous best was 129 seats in 1997 (when the alliance was in power) and the current run-up indicates both together should cross 150.
  2. Congress is on its way to post its worst-ever tally in BMC elections. The previous low was in 1997 with 48 seats and the 2017 performance could well be lower than that.
  3. AIMIM will most likely emerge as the fourth largest party, racing ahead of NCP, MNS and SP.

How the 150+ seats are split between the BJP and Shiv Sena will drive how Mumbai and Maharashtra politics will evolve from now until 2019 – the year of next Lok Sabha and Assembly polls.

If BJP goes past Shiv Sena in Mumbai (and posts strong results in other non-traditional strongholds like Pune and Pimpri-Chinchwad), Devendra Fadnavis may well become the first Chief Minister since Vasant Rao Naik in 1972 to complete his full five year term. Ashish Shelar may see his star rise as well with greater responsibilities in the government and in the party. Shiv Sena will then have to fight an uphill battle to stay relevant in 2019.

On the other hand, if Shiv Sena emerges as the single largest party in Mumbai, the acrimony between the two parties will further increase. BJP support may still be needed to run BMC, so Shiv Sena won’t pull out of the alliance in the state or central government. However, the party would have rebounded from low morale and indifferent recent local election results and will play the Maharashtrian pride card more aggressively in its negotiations and demands.

Either way, on 23 February, Mumbai will most likely be a saffron city.


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