Pointers from Maharashtra civic polls

Amulya Ganguli

Concerned as the BJP is over the stiff challenges which it is facing in the assembly elections, its worries will be multiplied by the party’s setback in the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) poll.
What the outcome has shown is that the Shiv Sena had read the political tea leaves right by breaking its ties with the BJP and going it alone. Prima facie, it would have appeared to have been a foolhardy decision considering that the assembly elections in Maharashtra had shown that the Shiv Sena had conceded its primacy of place to the BJP, which was earlier its junior partner.
But the BMC results have restored the earlier equation between the two parties and put the Shiv Sena in the No 1 position again. 
Why the turnaround? Has Narendra Modi’s demonetisation gamble hurt his party? Or is the reason more local, such as Maharashtra chief minister Devendra Fadnavis’s lack of charisma?     
Ever since the BJP lost notable personalities like Pramod Mahajan and Gopinath Munde, the party hasn’t had anyone in the state who could measure up to the public expectations of someone capable of being in charge of India’s financial capital.
As a national party, this was a prime requisite for the BJP. Unfortunately, it hoped that Fadnasvis’s “niceness” will help it to cross the electoral Rubicon.
It is also possible that the BJP is yet to match the Shiv Sena’s organizational muscle in the city, which is the latter’s forte. Uddhav Thackeray, too, is emerging as someone, who has toned down, albeit marginally, his father Balasaheb’s aggression.
As a result, he may have been able to attract a section of the non-Marathis as well, which is key factor in ensuring electoral success in a cosmopolitan city.
This was Raj Thackeray’s mistake. Hence, the poor performance of his Maharashtra Navnirman Sena (MNS), which has come to be known for attacking Biharis and others from North India who are engaged in trying to earn a living in the Maximum City.
The MNS leader presumably calculated that the insular path shown by his uncle, Balasaheb, was the right one. But Mumbai has changed since the 1960s and ’70s when Bal Thackeray established his base. Uddhav has evidently been able to assess Mumbai’s evolving persona better.
However, he still remains essentially a political “don” of Mumbai, who cannot expect to become any time soon a leader of the entire state. In that much wider field, Fadnavis can be expected to prevail. But, for the present, the chief minister has lost the battle for Mumbai.
Since the BJP’s ups and downs are inextricably tied up with Modi’s popularity, the question which will be asked is not so much whether Fadnavis was a match for Uddhav or not as whether the prime minister is unable to carry his party on his shoulders any longer as in the last general election and also in the assembly elections of 2014 in Maharashtra, Haryana, Jharkhand and Jammu and Kashmir.
If his image is fading, as the Mumbai verdict suggests, it will be a matter of grave concern for the BJP, especially if the March 11 results of the current assembly elections are not to the party’s satisfaction. After Mumbai, the BJP’s anxiety will hardly be alleviated by good showings in Pune or Nashik.
It is unlikely that the alliance between the BJP and the Shiv Sena will be affected in any way either in Maharashtra or at the centre, except that there will be uncertainly, especially in Maharashtra, as to who is the real Big Brother.
The BJP’s unstated assumption after its success in the assembly elections in the state that it has been able to displace the Shiv Sena as the No. 1 saffron outfit will, therefore, have to be reassessed.
The BJP’s task will be all the more difficult because its all-India image will not allow it to replicate some of the Shiv Sena’s tactics like blackening the faces of those who accompany a Pakistani guest. Or forcing a Muslim employee of Maharashtra Sadan in Delhi to eat during Ramzan for serving poor quality food.  
While the Shiv Sena is aware that its limited base in urban Maharashtra allows it to act in ways which, the party believes, will not be disliked by its core constituency of the Marathi manoos, the BJP cannot but be more responsible.
Having already distanced itself from the antics of the Hindu fundamentalists like ghar wapsi and love jehad, the BJP’s hope was that its development plank would win the day for it. But the post-demonetisation economic slowdown may have affected its fortunes.
The Mumbai outcome is probably not be the right barometer in this respect because of the cynical exploitation of parochialism by a well-entrenched local party. Only the assembly elections in U.P. and elsewhere will be the real test. Even then, the setback in Mumbai cannot but give the BJP top brass sleepless nights. (IPA)

Tuesday, 28 February, 2017