The very day after he was appointed, Mumbai’s new Congress president Ashok (Bhai) Jagtap insisted that the party should contest the 2022 civic elections solo. His remark has come days after Maharashtra Chief Minister Uddhav Thackeray’s assertion that the Shiv Sena-NCP-Congress alliance, Maha Vikas Aghadi (MVA), would fight together in all local body elections, including the Mumbai civic poll, and after the MVA defeated the BJP in the recent Legislative Council polls.
The Congress faces a dilemma in Mumbai, the city where it was founded in 1885. Rolled over by the BJP in two successive Lok Sabha and Assembly polls and the 2017 civic polls, the Congress realises it needs to stop the BJP from dislodging Thackeray’s Shiv Sena in the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC). At the same time, it also has to ensure its own survival.
A need to rebuild
From hoisting the Congress flag in the BMC in an alliance with the Republican Party of India (Athavale) in 1992, when it won 112 of the 227 seats, the Congress slid to just 31 seats in 2017. This coincided with a rise for the BJP, which rode Narendra Modi’s popularity to win 82 seats in 2017, just two short of the Sena’s tally. While sharing power in the Assembly at that time, the BJP and the Sena had contested against each other in the BMC.
The North Indian migrant Hindu vote, once a support base of the Congress in Mumbai, has shifted largely towards the BJP. At 27%, North Indians are the second most influential vote bank in Mumbai, after the Marathi-speaking population.
The Congress now wants to “connect more” with the Marathi-speaking voters. In the elevation of Jagtap, a leader who has his roots in Mumbai’s trade union movement, it has tried to invoke Marathi asmita or regional pride.
The Congress has sensed that identity politics will be the flavour of the election. While it is the Sena has traditionally pushed the Marathi manoos cause aggressively, the BJP is hoping to dent the Sena’s Marathi vote bank and Congress’s base among Scheduled Caste communities. The Sena knows it canot afford to loosen its sway over the Marathi-speaking population while banking on transfer of some of the traditional Congress and NCP votes. The early projection of a Marathi face in Jagtap, therefore, reflects the Congress’s concerns that a high-pitch battle between the BJP and the Sena might further weaken its own support base among the Marathis.
The balancing act
While appointing a Marathi face at the helm, the Congress, which is faction-ridden in Mumbai, has also attempted to get the caste and community balance right by projecting a joint leadership model.
It has named former Mumbai Youth Congress president Charan Singh Sapra as working president, and former state Minorities Development Minister Naseem Khan as the Mumbai unit’s Campaign Committee chief. Suresh Shetty, a serving minister, is head of the Manifesto Committee, while Amarjit Manhas, the party’s vice president in Mumbai, is president of the Coordination Committee. Additionally, it has also created a new post — Maharashtra Pradesh in charge for the Mumbai unit —to accommodate former minister Chandrakant Handore, a Scheduled Caste leader.
Party leaders admit they must win back most of their North Indian support base and also woo more Marathi votes. But the party must first ensure that its own loyal vote among Muslims and Scheduled Castes remains intact. The Asaduddin Owaisi-led All India Majlis-E-Ittehadul Muslimeen has been eyeing the minority and OBC vote banks.
Alliance or not
On November 27, the eve of the first anniversary of the MVA-led coalition government, Thackeray announced that the three parties would fight the BMC elections jointly. The NCP, which has not polled more than 10% of votes in four BMC elections so far, too, is in favour of an alliance.
A majority of the sitting Congress corporators, however, opposed the idea during an internal assessment meeting, presided over by All India Congress Committee’s (Maharashtra) in-charge HK Patil.
While there have been no formal negotiations yet, sources said that the Sena is willing to leave to the Congress all the 31 seats the latter had won in 2017, and has also offered that the seats the BJP won could be shared among the allies. But most Congress leaders want the party to contest as many seats as possible. A senior corporator cited the examples of party’s alliances, made out of compulsion, in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, which only reduced the party’s footprint in those states.
At the state level, Maharashtra Congress president Balasaheb Thorat is willing to keep the alliance option open. In an interview to the Indian Express last month, Thorat said, “The three parties will sit together to evolve consensus (alliance or not) on the issue.” Another senior minister favours an alliance. But not the Mumbai Congress itself. “Contesting local polls independently won’t hurt the alliance in the state,” said Jagtap.
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