Elections to local bodies have recently drawn attention, be it in Gujarat, Odisha or now Maharashtra. Increasingly, these are seen as more organically connected to state level politics, as in West Bengal or Kerala. This is mainly because of the increasingly competitive nature of the party system at the state level. Local elections are now seen as an indicator of the possible power equations at the state level. As a result, everywhere, the local and the state level is getting mixed up; local issues are getting sidetracked in favour of state level leadership issues and new political configurations are rising on the political horizon. It would be interesting to watch how the BJP that relies so heavily on national level personalised leadership manages to balance the top-down structure and the pressures emerging from the local power structures that it is now cultivating.
This week, Maharashtra completed its major round of local elections to most of its district councils (zilla parishads or ZPs) and panchayat samitis (block level bodies) along with 10 key municipal corporations, including the most keenly fought Mumbai city corporation. The BJP has, on the whole, posted a decent performance in continuation of its rise as the largest party in the assembly elections of 2014. This is in contrast to its lacklustre performance in local bodies when it was in power earlier in 1997. In that sense, the victory of the BJP draws attention to the deeper change in the state’s competitive politics.
Since the 2014 assembly election, Maharashtra has been witnessing an odd situation. The Congress and the NCP were wiped out in that election. The Shiv Sena, ally of the BJP for over a quarter century, snapped the coalition and contested assembly elections independently. It emerged as the main opposition party but under pressure to grab power, entered into an alliance with the BJP to form the government. The alliance has been quite acerbic for the past two years and became even more acrimonious during this round of local elections on the question of Mumbai. The Shiv Sena has been keen to keep control of the city’s treasury in its hands and refused to share power with the BJP. Mumbai thus became the centre of the deeply troublesome ties between the two parties, so much so that the coalition government appeared on the brink of a break.
There are, of course, limits to the brinkmanship. For the Shiv Sena, the role of an opposition is not very alluring because sections of the party appear keen on enjoying governmental power rather than work for the party’s expansion the hard way. The state BJP might like to dump the Shiv Sena, but in view of the possible utility of the party in a post-2019 scenario, the Sena may be crucial for the BJP’s central leadership and therefore, the uncomfortable coalition could trudge along.
But besides the Sena-BJP face-off, the election had other key aspects. One being the massive resources poured by the BJP into its entire campaign. Another was the singular focus on the chief minister, sidelining most other leaders of the BJP. The third was the BJP’s open-door policy not only for workers from across the political spectrum but also for suspects, the accused and supposedly anti-social elements. In fact, the BJP made light of this by arguing that it would ensure that all such undesirable elements would be reformed once they joined the party and also resorting to the “ends-justify-means” argument, saying that in this epic fight the Pandavas needed to join hands with all sorts of elements to defeat the Kauravas! In the process, several loyal party workers were given short shrift. Short-term political gains thus trumped politics in the larger sense. As the “Congressisation” of the BJP becomes more evident, it is also clear that the party is emerging as a truly formidable force in the state.
In the earlier round some months ago, when many municipal councils went to polls, the BJP was fairly successful but it shared success with other parties including the Congress and NCP. The latest round is remarkable for the ascendance of the BJP in a more determined manner. Except Thane, it has done very well in most other urban centres and would be controlling the money bags in these cities. That control would also allow the BJP to cater to the newly emerging aspirational urban middle classes. But more impressively, the BJP has made inroads into the rural areas. Though the outcomes in ZP elections are not as one-sided as in large cities, the BJP will have sufficient base in rural areas to take off from there.
Till the 1990s, Maharashtra was seen as a Congress fortress. While during the past 25 years, the Congress (later, alongwith the NCP) managed to retain power, its hold over the public had already waned. Since 2003-04, sections from Congress and NCP had indulged in transparent caste politics by provoking the Maratha community. These caste-based provocations played a crucial role in the rise of the massive Maratha mobilisations during much of last year over the issues of reservations and the handling of the atrocities act. For the time being, that mobilisation has failed to benefit the “original” pro-Maratha politicians. The BJP in Maharashtra has clearly emerged victorious not only in local elections, but in the deeper game of social engineering.
Moreover, the BJP has also succeeded in setting the political agenda in the state. However empty the rhetoric of development may now seem in post-election analyses and however ironical his insistence on clean politics may appear, the fact remains that Fadnavis pitched the battle on questions of clean government and the state’s development and the Congress and NCP were clueless about how to respond to this political agenda. This is because of the aimless existence of these two parties since their defeat in 2014. They have no agenda, no leadership, no organisation, and above all, no willingness to reconnect to the masses on the issues their opponents raise.
Consequently, the local body elections in Maharashtra have underlined the decimation of the Congress and NCP in the state, opening the doors for a restructuring of political competition. If the Shiv Sena continues to be a prisoner of compulsions of governmental power, then the restructuring would get postponed. However, a careful reading of outcomes in urban and rural bodies suggests that while a new dominant force has almost emerged in the state, there is also an oppositional space. The new-born dominance of the BJP has many cracks but there is no political player willing and able to occupy the space in the state.