Did Shiv Sena win its fight against the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)? Did the BJP succumb to the pressure from the Sena? Was there any ‘behind the curtain’ dialogue between Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis and Sena Chief Uddhav Thackeray before the stunning decision to withdraw from the race was announced by Fadnavis? These and many more questions arise and one will have to wait for some time before finding answers for any of them. However, now that the BJP has given the green signal to the Sena to elect its Mayor to run the business of the Mumbai Municipal Corporation, now the ball is in Sena’s court to ensure that Mumbaikars get efficient and ‘corruption-free’ civic administration for the next five years. Else, the BJP that has declared its role of being a ‘watchdog’ to oversee the transparency in the administration on one hand and the ensuing appointment of an Up-Lokayukta (Ombudsman) will make life miserable for the Sena and Uddhav.
The general elections for the richest civic body of the nation having its annual budget of over Rs 37 thousand crore held on 21st of the last month produced a fractured verdict. The Sena elected its 84 members and the BJP followed close with 82. This made both sides nearly impossible to elect their own Mayor without taking active help from other opponents like the Congress, the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) and Maharashtra Navnirman Sena (MNS) apart from other smaller groups. When horse-trading was seen as inevitable, Fadnavis held a press conference just a couple of hours before the closure of filing of nominations to announce the party decision to pull out of not only the Mayoral election but refused to accept Deputy Mayor’s post or chairmanship of any committee including the all-powerful Standing and Improvement Committees. He also declared that the BJP would not sit on Opposition Benches but while supporting the Sena on its decisions of public interest, will act as ‘watch dog’ to ensure transparency of working. On the surface, it looks like decks are being cleared for the Sena to rule the civic body but actually Uddhav has more to worry than being happy after Fadnavis hit the masterstroke.
Fadnavis hit many targets by a single bullet. He allowed the Sena to rule the BMC but with many unwritten conditions. Now that the BJP would not get any office of power neither would it sit in the opposition, the party would act as a ‘real’ and ‘powerful’ pressure group. Going by the tally of the elected members, the BJP and the Sena would have equal representation on all committees. It means that the BJP would be in a position to take on the ruling Sena at every corner and would make every attempt to stall their intentions and would also malign them in public. In addition Fadnavis declared that an Ombudsman especially for Mumbai affairs would be appointed to keep a check on the civic affairs. This must have come as a bolt from the blue for Uddhav and his team.
By taking this action, Fadnavis also ensured that the Sena would go back from its threat to withdraw its support to the Fadnavis Government in the state and pull back its ministers from the cabinet. Considering that the BJP is falling short of 22 seats to have simple majority in the 28-member Maharashtra Assembly, the Chief Minister is forced to keep the Sena in good humour unless a faction within the Sena defects and resigns from the membership. By allowing the Sena to rule the BMC, Fadnavis has naturally softened Sena’s stance and will now force it to toe the BJP line in the Assembly and in turn all over the state.
Another aspect that must have figured in Fadnavis’s decision is the fact that the election for the post of the President of India is fast approaching. The fact that the BJP will need support from many other parties, support from the Sena would surely come handy. If the Sena remains part of the Maharashtra Government and continues to have its share in the Centre also, the BJP can bank on its active support in the Presidential election. The decision to pull back from the fray in BMC has also served this purpose. Moreover, the BJP will need the Sena support in half a dozen Zilla Parishads to rule districts. Now the Sena has no other alternative but to support and ally with the BJP.
Fadnavis has been talking about bringing in transparency in the public life. By allowing the Sena to go ahead and elect its Mayor without opposition means that the Chief Minister and his party truly believe in the principles of transparency in public life. He has now won more confidence of the masses at large and that would surely reflect in the 2019 Lok Sabha and State Assembly elections. After emerging as the Single largest party in the State Assembly in 2014, Fadnavis emerged as the unchallengeable leader of the state after the party came out with flying colours in all the subsequent elections from Village Panchayats to BMC. He also proved that the media and opposition party propaganda about the so-called plight of the poor masses due to the demonetisation was unfounded. If the trend continues, there would be a little doubt that by 2019 Fadnavis would strengthen his position even further.
On the other hand, now the Sena and its leadership is left with no choice but to adhere to the principles of transparency and thus keep a control on the rampant and ugly corruption that resulted in ruining all public utility services like road building and maintenance, sewage system, gardens and playgrounds and water supply projects. This is a herculean task for Sena’s city fathers.
It only means that Fadnavis has posed a bigger challenge to the Sena than its victory. The Sena might think that it has won the battle against the BJP in the election of the Mumbai Mayor. But what happens to the war ahead?