Art of Winning Mumbai

Shiv Sena has put up a great show in Mumbai in not being wiped out by anti-incumbency, but the point to be noted is that he has been unable to check the popularity of the BJP


A few days before the Shiv Sena announced to the media on January 27 that it would fight the BMC election alone, a BJP leader from Mumbai had alerted about what was to come. Known for his proximity to Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis, the leader sounded unaffected by the development, while the media wrote reams about it being a huge setback to the BJP.

One may argue that doing away with regional allies proves disastrous for national parties in the long run, but in this case, the BJP was on safe ground: an extremely popular and dedicated Chief Minister and an opposition (Congress-NCP) that was all but non-existent. The BJP’s only opposition was the Shiv Sena, which has been steadily losing its popularity in Maharashtra. As the results from Mumbai suggests that BJP is neck-and-neck with the Shiv Sena. As of now, BJP stands at 82, well more than double its previous tally, while the Shiv Sena stands at 84, just two seats more than the BJP.

The BMC victory for the Sena, if seen in isolation, suggests that the party is not just losing its hold in Mumbai, but also over the state and is being thumbed-down in bastions where it wanted to gain including Pune, Nasik and Nagpur. In Pune, considered to the turf of NCP strongman Sharad Pawar and Nasik which was in the last term held by the MNS, the BJP has not just made inroads but replaced those parties.

Nagpur boy Devendra Fadnavis and his one-time political rival and union Minister Nitin Gadkari have managed to retain Maharashtra for the BJP. In 2014, when the BJP gained power in Maharashtra along with the Sena, it was Nitin Gadkari who tried to stall Fadnavis’ ascent to power as the Chief Minister of Maharashtra. As roads and highways minister, Gadkari went to town talking about road safety and new roads in the state, while Fadnavis was lauded for implementing the centre’s schemes including safety for women, healthcare and cracking down on corruption.

But this is not 2014, and we are talking of the man of the day who till February 23rd morning was being labeled as the BJP’s first casualty of demonetization. Instead, Devendra Fadnavis, along with local leaders in Mumbai, has put the BJP in a position to have a big say in the choice of the city’s mayor. In fact, the party could have its own mayor if it chooses to ally with another party to run the BMC. It could choose to remain a supporter of the Shiv Sena, which has led the 37,000-crore BMC for 20 years, but this time, the terms and conditions of the alliance will yet again be decided by the BJP — just as they were in 2014 when they partnered to form the state government.

So what won the BMC for the BJP? The party had many things going against it including the fact that Mumbai, the financial capital, would be delivering its verdict on demonetization, which the BJP hailed as a landmark decision for the country. But Fadnavis used it to the advantage of his party, especially when the Shiv Sena made many mistakes including getting an “outsider” like Hardik Patel from Gujarat to campaign for it. The BJP successfully sold the line that demonetization was an attack on the black money-hoarding builders and real estate fraternity, something that struck a chord with the city and its people which have witnessed for decades the corruption of the land mafia. Whether it truly helped in stopping the land mafia is analysis for another day.

And then Hardik Patel. It must be remembered that the Marathi asmita and the anti-outsiders crusade in the state was first espoused by Bal Thackeray and later taken forward by cousins Uddhav and Raj Thackeray. In fact in the last assembly election, the Shiv Sena had specifically targeted the Gujarati community for being disloyal to the state and rank outsiders. In its editorial in Saamna in May 2014, the Shiv Sena said, ‘Staying in Mumbai, they (Gujaratis) enjoyed wealth. They minted money…those who were penniless exploited Mumbai, Maharashtra and built their own Dwarka of gold and are calling the shots in the country’s power politics based on this wealth generated from Mumbai. They are chalking out plans on who is to be made the Prime Minister and who is to be deposed).

It was almost hara-kiri then, a sign of desperation, when the party chose not just a Gujarati to campaign, but a Gujarati disliked by the substantial Modi vote bank in Mumbai. The result was the non-Maharashtrian voting en masse for the BJP in the state.

Credit also to the BJP for the victim strategy adopted by the party post the break-up of the alliance with the Sena. Fadnavis ensured that the sentiment that reached the voter was that the party was not too keen to woo the Sena, which, despite being in power in the local body for two decades, had done very little for Mumbai, and stopped the BJP from carrying out its development work which it had promised in the assembly election.

No doubt Uddhav Thackeray has put up a great show in Mumbai in not being wiped out by anti-incumbency, but the point to be noted is that he has been unable to check the popularity of the BJP in the state despite running the richest civic body in Asia.

Another aspect that went in the favour of the BJP was Narendra Modi’s very public affection for Sharad Rao Pawar in his speeches, which helped consolidated the NCP voter base in cities like Mumbai and Pune. The signal was loud and clear that the BJP is not averse to taking the NCP’s help and no longer considers it a pariah. While this affection wiped out the NCP’s base that saw it as a “secular” party, it consolidated the disgruntled voter in the BJP’s favor.

Last but not least, the image of Fadnavis and his political acumen has made him the man of the match. If his strategy and image remain unaffected in the coming years, it won’t be surprising if the BJP continues to hold lead in Maharashtra in the 2019 state election and manages to win the state without help from Shiv Sena. That could mean that Fadnavis gets a second term in Maharashtra from a grateful party.