MUMBAI ~ After a month of bickering over seat sharing, the Congress and Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) have sealed a pact to fight the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) elections together. It took them many rounds of meetings, heated discussions, threats to contest against each other and finally Sonia Gandhi’s stamp of approval to arrive at their decision to forge unity. There are 227 wards at stake in the polls.
Though the pre-poll alliance between the two is a done deal now, members of neither party are celebrating. Senior leaders of both parties are yet to reveal ward allocations—an exercise that will definitely see many disgruntled partymen looking to go elsewhere to further their political ambitions.
Bickering over seat allocation is not new to the Congress-NCP alliance. They have done it in every election, wasting valuable campaign time and creating more disgruntled partymen than happy ones. Ever since the day the two parties forged a post-poll alliance after the 1999 Assembly election, each has been suspicious of the other. Though partners in government, both in the state and at the Centre, the Congress and NCP continue treat each other as rivals. Each has tried to scuttle the growth of the other, and despite a no-poaching agreement between the two, party hopping is rampant. So it is essentially a case of two uncomfortable, mistrustful partners that have come together to work jointly in an effort to win the elections.
The bickering is still not over; it will continue even during campaigning. After all, each perceives itself as the stronger—the Congress thinks it has more support, as does the NCP. Despite all the cold vibes from senior leaders within their parties, both Chief Minister Prithviraj Chavan and his deputy Ajit Pawar were extremely keen to work out a pre-poll alliance. This is the first time both parties will contest as partners—they’d failed to arrive at an understanding for the two previous BMC polls (in 2002 and 2007).
This time too, both bargained hard. The NCP, with 13 corporators in the outgoing house, demanded 65 seats. The Congress wanted to give the NCP only 45 and finally gave away 58, keeping 169 seats. The Congress has 70 corporators and a strong anti-incumbency factor against it.
The Shiv Sena-BJP alliance has held on to power in the BMC for 17 years. The Congress-NCP alliance is looking to change that. Victory in these polls is crucial to the Congress, which is dealing with widespread disillusionment with the party. Besides, it has more at stake than the NCP, which has only a small presence in the financial capital of the country.
Though the Shiv Sena is fast losing its base in rural parts of the state, this has not resulted in any gains for the Congress. Results of the recently concluded polls to 196 municipal councils threw up a surprise—the NCP emerged on top, spreading its presence across more municipalities than the Congress. The Sena came in a poor third. The NCP is expected to do well in the forthcoming zila parishad polls too, a scenario that should sound alarm bells for the Congress. Hence, it is imperative that the Congress consolidate its position in urban areas through victories in municipal corporation polls. For the Shiv Sena, control over the BMC has become a matter of survival. Faced with steadily declining Marathi heft the city, and the loss of its own support base to Raj Thackeray’s Maharashtra Navnirman Sena, these elections will be extremely tough for Bal Thackeray’s Shiv Sena.
Both the Congress and NCP, despite winning all six Lok Sabha seats in Mumbai, know that neither party can go it alone for the BMC polls. An alliance is not just a compulsion, but an extreme necessity. If they win the BMC, they will be able to keep the Shiv Sena in check.
But while most Congressmen are seen to be mere poster heroes, the Shiv Sena continues to hold on to its wards through its network of shakhas. Its ‘people connect’ programmes, like street corner reading centres and free crèches, have kept it in touch with voters in Mumbai.
Even with a relatively weakened Shiv Sena and a pre-poll alliance under its belt, it is unlikely to be easygoing for the Congress-NCP combine in the BMC polls. Both parties are going to have a huge problem on their hands in trying to contain the disgruntlement of partymen in their ranks. Both parties are likely lose more seats to this factor than to the electorate’s prevailing mood.