The Shiv Sena on Friday started back-channel talks with the Congress to explore an attempt to checkmate the BJP in the race for control over the Mumbai municipal corporation, the country’s richest civic body.
Top sources confirmed that Uddhav Thackeray’s emissaries had approached the Congress with a “proposal” for backing Shiv Sena’s claim for the city Mayor’s post. They said the Congress, which suffered a drubbing in the polls, is considering the option of extending “outside support” to the Shiv Sena. Sources said the Shiv Sena has offered the Deputy Mayor’s post to the Congress in lieu of its support.
Civic officials said the Mayor’s election will be held on March 9. The floor test for the post is by a show of hands.
Maharashtra Congress chief Ashok Chavan convened a meeting of senior party leaders where the Sena’s option is said to have been discussed. Former Chief Ministers Sushilkumar Shinde and Narayan Rane; Mumbai Congress chief Sanjay Nirupam; MP Hussain Dalwai and former Maharashtra ministers Naseem Khan and Balasaheb Thorat attended the meeting.
Earlier in the day, Congress MLA Abdul Sattar, who is seen as Ashok Chavan’s close aide, had set the ball rolling.
“The party will take a call on extending support after receiving a formal proposal from the Shiv Sena. Since the BJP is our principal rival, the party’s state unit will submit a formal proposal to the high command on supporting the Shiv Sena not only in the BMC but in other civic bodies and Zilla Parishads across the state.”
Thursday’s election results had thrown up a hung verdict. The Shiv Sena won 84 seats in the 227-member corporation while the BJP was a close second with 82 — an almost three-fold surge. While both the Shiv Sena and the BJP are reaching out to Independents to pad their numbers, they are aware that neither can reach the magic mark of 114 without Congress’s support.
The Congress won 31 seats (down from 52), the Nationalist Congress Party 9, Maharashtra Navnirman Sena 7, the All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen won two, and Arun Gawli’s Akhil Bharatiya Sena (ABS) one. Five Independents were also elected to the house. So far the Shiv Sena has received support from two Independents while the BJP has managed one. The ABS is expected to back the Shiv Sena.
While the easier option of the Shiv Sena and the BJP burying their differences and coming back together remains open, Thackeray’s party has dropped hints that it’s not averse to exercising the more improbable option of taking Congress support.
On the face of it, both the Shiv Sena and the Congress remained non-committal. “We are celebrating today. We have come to power for the fifth consecutive time in Mumbai. I haven’t through of anything else right now,” said Uddhav Thackeray today when asked about who will decide Mumbai’s next Mayor. Prodded further, he said, “Discussions are on,” while opting not to reveal with whom.
On Thursday after the poll outcome, Thackeray announced that the party would win the Mayoral poll but didn’t elaborate.
Chavan, too, adopted a wait-and-watch stance. “The SS and the BJP continue to coexist in an alliance in the state and the Centre. It is for them to first take a call on the fate of their alliance. Only after that can we decide our position. Right now we are a third party,” he said.
However, a senior Sena leader, who wished not to be named, tried to justify the move. “In the past, we had broken from NDA ranks to extend support to Congress’s nominees Pratibha Patil and Pranab Mukherjee for the President’s post. We see no reason why the Congress can’t extend us support to keep the BJP at bay,” he said.
Shiv Sena sources said the party was also in talks with the NCP. “We are banking on support from the MNS. The SP and the MIM can abstain or remain neutral during the vote for the Mayor to see us through,” another leader said.
During the meeting of senior Congress leaders, sources confirmed that some spoke in favour of backing the Shiv Sena. But others were wary of the “negative signal” this would send to the party’s loyal minority voters.
Some senior Congress leaders argued that the Sena had sent a Muslim candidate to the house from Bandra’s Behrampada which is minority-dominated. They said that the party’s central leadership had been apprised of the Sena’s proposal and word was awaited. There is another section in the party which feels that extending support formally to the Shiv Sena would impact the party’s poll prospects in Uttar Pradesh.
An alternate option of indirectly helping the Sena by abstaining from voting for the Mayor’s post was also discussed. When contacted, Nirupam said: “Our mandate is to sit in opposition,” he said. But he reiterated Chavan’s stance that it was up to the Sena and the BJP to take a call on their alliance first.
While the BJP camp is yet to formally reach out to Thackeray, Union Minister Nitin Gadkari pushed for an alliance. “The situation is such that both parties (BJP and Sena) have to come together,” Gadkari said adding that a final decision would be taken by Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis and Uddhav Thackeray.
“Both of them are mature. They are good friends,” Gadkari told a local TV channel.
Thackeray has called a meeting of his senior leaders and newly elected corporators on Saturday.
Meanwhile, in the wake of huge strides made by the BJP in elections for Zilla Parishads, Chavan announced on Friday that the Congress and the NCP will forge post-poll pacts for staking claim to power in 12 ZPs.
While the Congress and NCP have traditionally dominated the state’s rural politics, the BJP trumped the two in most of the ZPs on Thursday. “The NCP had approached us with a formal proposal for a post-poll pact. We have agreed to it,” Chavan said.