The February 16 polls are clearly a precursor to the big fight in the state in 2014. Neerja Chowdhury analyses
The gentleman chief minister of Maharashtra has staked his prestige on the local civic elections, which were held all over the state on Thursday. And he is banking on the alliance he has forged with the Nationalist Congress Party for the crucial Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation poll, so as to ease out the Shiv Sena from the cash-rich body.
This is also the first major political initiative by Prithviraj Chavan since he took over as CM, and if he succeeds, it will help him establish his political leadership in the state.
Like the five assembly polls underway, the February 16 municipal corporation and Zilla Parishad elections, being held in Maharashtra are expected to affect many a political fortune.
The Congress-NCP alliance is the brainchild of Chavan, who felt that if the two allies could join hands in the Lok Sabha and the assembly elections, why not in the local body elections? Particularly as these polls could weaken the Shiv Sena, which derives its economic power from the BMC whose annual budget of Rs 23,000 crore is more than the budgets of 17 states in India.
The CM campaigned extensively through the state, addressing ward-level meetings, and the BMC polls are not seen as a cakewalk for the Shiv Sena this time.
Though known for his integrity, his grasp of complex issues, political, economic and scientific, and despite having the ear of both Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and 10, Janpath, Chavan had tread cautiously in Maharashtra. Having taken over after successive scams in the state, decision-making in Mumbai must have been a minefield for someone coming to the state from the Centre.
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For Cong, upswing in Maharashtra can give a fillip in UP polls
Chavan had the support of the high command in Delhi to forge the alliance for the BMC poll. For the Congress, any good news of a party on the upswing anywhere -- the Maharashtra results would be known on February 17-- could help give it a fillip in the ongoing elections in Uttar Pradesh.
In the last BMC elections five years ago, the tie-up between the Congress and the NCP was attempted but it did not go through because of differences on seats. As a result, the Congress had notched up 71 seats in the BMC out of 227 and the NCP only 14. But if the vote share of both parties was to be added, it was equivalent to their winning 132 seats, and the logic of these numbers was not lost on Chavan.
What is significant this time is that the alliance happened without too many glitches, probably because both sides really wanted it, given the dividends it could yield for both the Congress and the NCP.
Clearly, Sharad Pawar was also keen and did not let quibbling over a few seats affect the larger picture. His nephew and Deputy Chief Minister Ajit Pawar has worked very hard to get the better of not just the Sena and the BJP but also the Congress in the Zilla Parishad polls, which had become a NCP versus Congress fight.
Ajit Pawar's goal would be to outnumber the Congress in 2014
Ajit Pawar is clearly laying the groundwork for the bigger battle in 2014, when state elections will be held along with the general elections. Though Ajit Pawar has the reputation of being abrasive and has had a running battle going with several Congress leaders, he has acquired the reputation of being a "doer" and someone who "delivers".
Ajit 'dada' has worked systematically not just in the NCP strongholds, he has also zeroed in on areas, which have been the strongholds of the Congress, and not hesitated to snap up Congressmen disenchanted with their party.
Many believe that Ajit Pawar is getting ready to make a bid for chief ministership in 2014. And that the NCP, if it does well in the ZP polls this time, may prefer to fight on its own in 2014, than go with the Congress. It may pitch for such a high number of seats that it would be difficult for the Congress to agree. Ajit Pawar's goal would be to outnumber the Congress in 2014 -- and go for only a post poll tie-up -- so as to emerge as the candidate for chief minister ship.
He is drawn to the Mamata Banerjee model and has been heard telling colleagues that if the Trinamool Congress can take the place of the parent Congress in West Bengal, there was no reason why the NCP should not do the same in Maharashtra.
Sharad Pawar and Ajit Pawar would have calculated that an alliance with the Congress in some of the corporations -- it is in place in Mumbai, Thane and Nashik -- might give the party a fillip in some of the big corporations, besides the ZPs, making a it a force to contend with in 2014. They would also stand to gain the most from a weakening of the Sena.
MNS responsible for Cong-NCP victory in last assembly elections
If the Shiv Sena is ousted from the BMC, which it has held for 16 years, there will be serious implications for the party. It may even start to erode at the seams, if not break, with people gravitating to the NCP, the Maharashtra Navnirman Sena and the Congress.
As it is, Raj Thackeray's break with the Sena has damaged the party irretrievably, and the MNS he launched was really responsible for the Congress-NCP victory in the last assembly elections. In the 2012 local elections, Raj Thackeray was unusually quiet to begin with, and this triggered off speculation whether Balasaheb Thackeray's overtures could soften him, but he picked up momentum towards the end, ruling out any truck with cousin Uddhav.
If BJP loses in Nagpur, it will be a personal setback for Gadkari
As for the Bharatiya Janata Party, it is hardly in the picture this time. In the Nagpur corporation it is a fight between the BJP and the Congress. If the BJP loses here also, it will be a personal setback for BJP chief Nitin Gadkari, who hopes to contest from Nagpur in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections.
The BJP faces a leadership crisis in Maharashtra today. It hardly has any state-level faces, except for Gopinath Munde. There was a time last year when Munde almost joined the Congress, and this would have brought a backward leader of substance into the Congress. But the Congress let the opportunity slip out of its hands and did not give Munde a berth in the Union cabinet as desired.
In sum, the February 16 battle for the Maharashtra ZPs and corporations is clearly a precursor for the Big Fight in 2014.