Mumbai civic polls: A toss up between overlords and underdogs

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Never before in all the decades that I have reported on elections, have any civic polls carried such high stakes for all political parties as the one due on February 21. Generally, they have come and gone without much notice but this year the futures of all the main political parties in Maharashtra are at stake — each one could be wiped out or, at least, their futures imperilled if they fail to do well in the Brihanmumbai, Nashik and Pune municipal corporations.

Mumbai civic polls: A toss up between overlords and underdogs

The BJP, as the ruling party, should be the overlords at these elections given their good showing at the first round of local self-government polls in November last year. But suddenly it seems to have shot itself in the foot in Nashik with videos emerging – and going viral across the nation – of local party functionaries demanding between Rs2 lakh to Rs10 lakh for party tickets.

Also, the party is facing the problem of plenty with workers from most of the other parties shifting allegiance to one they see as a winner. Obviously there has been a premium on candidatures from the BJP and its minor functionaries now seem to have put both Narendra Modi and Devendra Fadnavis to a good deal of embarrassment.

After the alliance between the BJP and the Shiv Sena was called off, Fadnavis had made transparency and clean governance his party’s chief poll plank. Already there were taunts from Uddhav Thackeray about the lack of transparency in the BJP administration but now it will have to work hard to live down the joke among its rivals that it is truly transparent when it makes no attempts to hide its misdemeanours from being captured on video cameras, like the one in Nashik.

While the Shiv Sena might have escaped such ignominy, there has been much farce in its process of ticket distribution as well. Amazingly, whole families have demanded tickets from the party and had been dashing between the BJP and the Shiv Sena offices, blackmailing one and striking deals with the other up to the eleventh hour, even roughing up party functionaries, necessitating summons from Uddhav to explain – or else.

The Maharashtra Navnirman Sena, which has seen it stables almost empty in the weeks before the ticket distribution and could be vanquished in case of a poor showing seems to be the only one with a semblance of discipline. It mopped up the disappointed souls from both the Shiv Sena and the BJP, who could not accommodate all the defectors from other parties, and ended up annoying their long time party workers.

 

Unlike the MNS, however, Sharad Pawar’s party has not been able to attract even the stragglers at these polls and Pune will determine if it lives to tell the tale. But, clearly, it is the Congress, which started out as the underdog in this race, which seems to have done the best job in putting its act together.

The party is going solo in the BMC – it turned down a request from the NCP for an alliance here – but its carefully picked list of 228 candidates, for the first time in decades, gives it the best shot at winning a decent number of seats. I am told that city party president Sanjay Nirupam, who is the shortest on resources to contest these polls and simply has no funds for even campaign material, such as posters and hoardings, etc., as potential sponsors went back on their promises after suffering due to the demonetisation, then decided his best bet was to look for, not loyalists or supporters, but winners who could take care of themselves.

There are many fierce opponents of Nirupam in the Congress list who could win the polls. For this, the party cut the tickets of `likely to lose’ supporters of its local satraps almost overnight and by stealth to maximise their wins. It is a departure from the past practice of pleasing leaders at the cost of workers and has raised many eyebrows.

Many local stalwarts are sure to try and outdo their non-supporters — that’s how the Congress has always operated, after all. But this time round, the tables could be turned on them for without these ticket holders none of the potential MPs and MLAs can hope to win their elections in 2019. They may just choose not to cut their nose to spite their face.

Will this work? The bickering between the Sena and the BJP is being billed as the fight between two Big Cats. Who then, according to legend, runs away with the cheese? Anything is possible.

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