The BJP has emerged a clear winner in the Maharashtra civic elections, becoming the single largest party in eight of the 10 municipal corporations in the state. It has come a close second to the Shiv Sena in Mumbai, the richest civic body in the country, while gaining cities like Pune, Pimpri-Chinchwad and Solapur in Western Maharashtra, which have been strongholds of the Congress and NCP. The decline of the Congress in urban Maharashtra is complete with the party failing to win a single corporation and finishing third in most urban civic bodies. The NCP’s fate is no better since it has lost Pune and Pimpri-Chinchwad, two municipal corporations which form the core of its political base. The Sena managed to stay ahead of the BJP in Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC), which it ruled for over two decades, and retained Thane, but evidence suggests that it has lost ground to the BJP.
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The BJP owes its success in large measure to the leadership of Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis, who spearheaded the campaign in the state. With this election, Fadnavis, who does not have the advantage of political lineage or the backing of a numerically influential caste, has emerged as a pan-Maharashtrian leader. An important factor that has aided the growth of the BJP across Maharashtra is the failure of the Congress to script an alternative political narrative. In fact, the Sena, a partner of the BJP in the central and state governments as well as the BMC, has been the most vocal opposition in Maharashtra. The two parties parted ways bitterly before the civic elections, but the opposition failed to capitalise on the public spat between the long-standing allies. While the Sena tried to reinvent itself by moderating its nativist agenda and showcasing its achievements in administration, the Congress remained listless. Inner-party squabbles, the absence of dynamic leaders and a crumbling organisation have all contributed to the decline of the Congress in Maharashtra, a state that had been a stronghold at the worst of times for the party. That the grand old party lags behind the BJP, Sena and the NCP in terms of total number of corporators in the state illustrates the magnitude of Congress decline.
If it wants to stay relevant in Maharashtra and elsewhere, the Congress will need an imaginative political strategy and narrative. The reliance on a moribund model of patronage politics has cost the party its organisational base, but despite successive defeats, the party doesn’t seem to realise that the ground is slipping beneath its feet.