High stakes in Mumbai

The upcoming BMC polls are an early indication of shifts in Maharashtra politics

Written by Kavitha Iyer | Published:January 16, 2012 2:49 am

The Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) is not just another urban civic body. With its Rs 21,000 crore annual budget,far surpassing that of some states,its projects and contracts running into several hundreds of crores and its central role in running the affairs of the megapolis,this is one powerful agency to lord over. Which is why elections to this civic body also assume the proportions of a mini assembly poll.

In 2012,the lakh-plus new voters in Mumbai are inheriting a troubled economy,uninspiring politics but have a growing awareness of democratic responsibilities. These factors that make BMC 2012 more relevant than for the combination of prosperity and power it gives victorious corporators.

Whether with its property tax laws or policies that impact real estate prices,the BMC plays an invisible role in moulding corporate India ‘s interest in staying in the financial capital. The BMC’s recently struggling finances and state politics have stifled attempts to phase out border taxes or octroi. Add to it the general perception that its administration is corruption-riddled,the decrepit roads and overflowing drains,the repeated resurgence of the chauvinistic Marathi manoos issue,and the sense that doing business in Mumbai is an ordeal. Will Mumbai voters mobilise on these issues?

It is now five years since Ward 63 in Juhu,Mumbai,elected a “citizens’ consensus” candidate,Adolf D’Souza,as corporator. Now,a new set of activists have entered the fray,enthused by the recent anti-corruption mood. One group called ‘Mumbai 227’,expecting to find a consensus candidate for each of Mumbai’s 227 wards,is now struggling to identify even 50 adequately well-received candidates. For now,with Team Anna’s campaign having all but fizzled out,the BJP expects it will be the worst hit by these independents — the Sena has its loyalists and the slum-dweller/ Muslim voter is still believed to press the button for the Congress’ palm.

Other factors will muddy the waters too. With the markets the way they are,election funding has never been more constrained,and Mumbai’s famed builder lobby is peeved at newly-introduced regulations that leave little room for manoeuverings. Reservation for women has been increased to 50 per cent or 114 of the 227 seats. But,above all,the 2012 BMC elections will be the ground on which new trends in Maharashtra’s politics play out,before the assembly elections of 2014 where the Nationalist Congress Party (which nosed ahead of the Congress in the December municipal council polls),will stake a claim to be the biggest party in the state.

The Congress and NCP have stitched up their first-ever pre-poll alliance for the BMC,and the sense on the street is that a historic win is now possible,provided the partners in Maharashtra’s uneasy coalition government put their mutual misgivings aside. The unlikely team of Chief Minister Prithviraj Chavan,Maharashtra Congress chief Manikrao Thakare and city unit chief Kripashankar Singh has much riding on the results. A win would ease the pressure each currently faces — the CM would establish that he can handle the rough and tumble of an election,Thakare’s detractors would be silenced,and Singh,who has had a series of jousts with the CBI,will find himself on firmer ground. But the alliance is based neither on trust nor ideological common ground. The NCP has its eyes set on the 2014 assembly elections — tying up with the Congress in Mumbai,where the party has negligible presence,will help them grow new roots.

The other alliance,the Shiv Sena,Bharatiya Janata Party and Ramdas Athavale’s Republican Party of India,is faring only slightly better. Even as it was formalised,the BJP took umbrage at being left out of an advertising blitzkrieg by the Sena. From full pages in newspapers to hoardings,the Sena’s latest warcry is: “We did it”,with a grave-looking Uddhav Thackeray alongside. The BJP is miffed,with even Athavale getting more attention from Uddhav right now. And at least a handful of senior BJP leaders believe that if they cast their eyes on 2014,like the NCP has,then a loss for the Shiv Sena in the BMC may be a desirable short-term goal in view of the larger mission to reboot their alliance on a footing of mutual respect.

For the Shiv Sena,this is a do-or-die election. The party derives its state-wide power solely from controlling the BMC and this time,there is more than power and prestige to be lost. Many believe that if the Sena is vanquished in the BMC,it could be the start of the end for the party.

That leaves Raj Thackeray,whose Maharashtra Navnirman Sena could prove to be kingmaker,but his gameplan is yet to be clarified.

For Mumbaiites,the promised makeover is now almost forgotten. A barrage of new promises is likely. But the big question is,will Mumbai’s sub-40 per cent voter turnout change?

kavitha.iyer@expressindia.com

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