Aurangabad municipal elections next year are more important for Maharashtra’s politics than you think.
Aurangabad Municipal Corporation election in March/April 2020 – that may be the first big test for the Maharashtra Vikas Aghadi (MVA) government in Maharashtra.
An unlikely alliance, where the Shiv Sena, the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) and the Congress parties came together, has got off to a stable start.
Contrary to the hope which perhaps the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and its vocal support base on social media had, the MVA allies seem to have made all the right noises so far in banding together.
Necessity of grabbing power is the mother of political invention. The MVA – focusing on regional pride as opposed to the national themes pushed by the BJP – is one such invention.
However, a stable and purposeful post-poll tie-up need not always reflect with the same efficiency before polls. This theory will be tested in the Aurangabad Municipal Corporation election next year.
Aurangabad is important – and different from the politics of Mumbai and Western Maharashtra – for three reasons.
Firstly, the Shiv Sena expansion happened in the Marathwada region largely after 1993 in its Hindutva avatar. While the Sena was already a big force in the Konkan and parts of Western Maharashtra, it grew in these areas as a regional force espousing local causes.
It was only in the mid-1990s when the Sena championed national causes that it got big outside its traditional strongholds in the state.
Secondly, Aurangabad is the focal point of the growth of the All India Majlis-e-Ittehad-ul-Muslimeen (AIMIM) in the state. The AIMIM will be heavily targeting the MVA, attempting to expose the contradiction of a ‘secular’ Congress supporting a ‘communal’ Shiv Sena.
If it allies again with the Vanchit Bahujan Aghadi (VBA) like it did for the 2019 Lok Sabha polls, this combination can pose a big challenge on the ground for the MVA. This challenge will not come just in terms of poll arithmetic but also in terms of setting a narrative for the campaign.
Thirdly, Hindutva matters in Aurangabad. Aurangabad was one of the few places where the BJP and the Shiv Sena alliance worked in the 2019 assembly elections.
After twin failures in the 2014 Vidhan Sabha where the AIMIM won Aurangabad (Central) assembly seat and the 2019 Lok Sabha election where the AIMIM won the Aurangabad seat in a close contest, the BJP and the Shiv Sena were closely aligned in the 2019 Vidhan Sabha polls.
The six seats under the Lok Sabha constituency were divided between the two pre-poll allies, with Shiv Sena winning four and the BJP winning two.
There is no better example in the state than Aurangabad where the voters turned up for the BJP-Shiv Sena combine to defeat the AIMIM and the Congress-NCP alliance. In March/April 2020, the people will have a very different challenge to face.
Will they vote the MVA to keep the AIMIM and the BJP at bay or choose the BJP to keep the MVA and the AIMIM out?
Conversely, will the AIMIM Muslim voter back the party in a bid to win the first corporation in the state or will it back the Congress-ally Shiv Sena to keep the BJP out?
The following table shows the complexity of the Aurangabad elections since 2014.
Aurangabad has a very clear Hindu as well as Muslim vote. The two blocks work at cross-purpose. Whichever block has greater unity prevails.
The Dalit vote has largely been anti BJP/Shiv Sena when there’s a Congress or an NCP option, but it seems to go along with the Hindutva block when the other option is AIMIM. It votes for the VBA when the party contests.
In summary, the Hindutva plus the Buddhist voters generally have the same preference, especially so when a Muslim party is the other option.
Wresting Aurangabad Central from the AIMIM was the highlight of the 2019 Vidhan Sabha elections.
Pradeep Jaiswal of the Shiv Sena had a famous meeting with BJP’s city unit chief Kishanchand Tanwani, who backed out from contesting as a rebel for Jaiswal. Their picture went viral during the campaign phase and was touted as the model for the BJP-Shiv Sena unity.
The seats won by various parties in the 2015 municipal elections were as below.
Even in the municipal polls, where the issues are quite localised, the BJP and the Shiv Sena benefited from staying together. Currently, the mayor of the Aurangabad Municipal Corporation is from the Shiv Sena.
The party is struggling with anti-incumbency. Issues like cutting thousands of trees in the city for a memorial to be dedicated to Balasaheb Thackeray right after Chief Minister Uddhav Thackeray has stayed works for the Aarey Colony metro depot have taken prominence in the media.
How does the Shiv Sena play its cards for the March/April 2020 municipal election?
If it sticks to the Hindutva theme, there will be likely backlash from within the MVA itself. Additionally, the AIMIM will go all out to expose this contradiction within the MVA. If the Shiv Sena goes secular, will its Hindutva voters shift en masse to the BJP? That has been the pattern historically.
Also, an important question to address for the MVA will be to divide the wards between the three parties, with potentially even the Samajwadi Party as an additional ally. This will not be an easy exercise because all wards are heavily dominated by one of the two religions, with very few homogenous wards.
The contradiction in the MVA starts with the naming of Aurangabad itself. The Shiv Sena has always advocated renaming the city as Sambhajinagar. Historically, this has not found support from the Congress and the NCP.
The BJP can make that promise this election and push the Shiv Sena into a corner on its own old election promise. On the other hand, if the MVA supports this renaming, the AIMIM will then make it a central issue to unite the Muslim voters.
There is an additional complication for the 2020 election. For the first time, the Aurangabad Municipal Corporation elections will be contested in a prabhag system.
Four wards will be combined to create a prabhag and each voter will elect four corporators. This is the system employed in Pune, and it makes the election less candidate-driven and more party-driven.
While this system works very well when one party has a clear edge – voters prefer the party over the candidate – this can create complications in Aurangabad for the MVA, given that the party preference will not be clear for voters who go along religious lines.
The BJP on its part seems reconciled to letting the MVA govern in the short term. But if the alliance collapses in Aurangabad or if it sticks together and loses big time, the BJP will get a fresh opening to go after Shiv Sena and the NCP MLAs.
On the other hand, if the MVA arithmetic prevails, the BJP will be under pressure to keep its MLA flock together.
Which option will prevail: arithmetic driven by the hate for the BJP or the chemistry along the religious lines? Shaping the latter as the right answer is critical for the BJP.
For now, it seems that the MVA has a comfortable and clear run in the state. Depending on the Aurangabad municipal results, the next stage of the state’s politics will shape up.