Political compulsions appear to have compelled the Shiv Sena and BJP to jointly contest the upcoming polls to municipal councils and nagar panchayats in Maharashtra. In spite of criticising and lampooning the BJP for months, the Sena seems to have admitted that it needs to ally with it to fight the local body polls. Similarly, the BJP’s decision to extend its hand to the Sena betrays a lack of confidence in the party in going it alone. Local bodies hold the key to the rural and hinterland politics and economy in Maharashtra and the two parties seem unwilling to take chances. However, convincing warring cadres fed on a diet of confrontational rhetoric in both parties to present a united front to voters will not be an easy task.
In recent times, the two parties have led a schizophrenic existence as coalition partners in Maharashtra. They fought the assembly election last year as rivals and the Sena, which considers itself to be the flag-bearer of the Hindu right in the state, finished behind the BJP. Forced into a post-poll coalition with the BJP, the Sena has found itself in a tricky situation. With its sibling, the Maharashtra Navnirman Sena (MNS), competing for the party’s core agenda of ethnic chauvinism and the BJP attracting the Hindutva vote, the Sena’s political space is shrinking. Also, the BJP is reported to have used the MNS to checkmate the Sena’s ambition. As a party of government, the Sena cannot claim to speak for the opposition though it has often assumed such a posture. That the alliance will continue in local bodies is a clear indication that the Sena’s policy has not succeeded. The backdrop to the Sena-BJP tensions is formed by the churn in small-town and rural Maharashtra following successive droughts and the economic downturn, which has led to new forms of identity assertion. The ongoing Maratha mobilisation demanding reservations in education and employment, though rooted in the socio-economic distress in the state, has a distinct anti-government edge and could benefit the NCP and the Congress. The ruling alliance will need to do well in the local body elections since its outcome is likely to be read as a vote on the record of the Devendra Fadnavis government.
Interestingly, the Sena-BJP leadership has been silent on the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) election, which is to be held by February next year. Power in the cash-rich BMC is crucial to the Sena’s fortunes, and the BJP will also want to test its influence in the urban conglomeration. For now, irrespective of their outcome, the local body elections will have a significant impact on state politics in the foreseeable future.