Uddhav Thackeray’s party may already have won public perception battle for Mumbai by-election

There are signs that the BJP is looking to back out of the Andheri (East) by-election in Mumbai and that Eknath Shinde, who has little traction in the city, is unwilling to contest it

Uddhav Thackeray (File photo)
Uddhav Thackeray (File photo)

Sujata Anandan

The Andheri (East) by-election in Mumbai, scheduled for November 3, should have been the first test of electoral strength between the two Shiv Sena factions in Maharashtra.

But now it seems that while the Shiv Sena (Uddhav Balasaheb Thackeray) is girding its loins and is, in all likelihood, best-placed to win the seat, the BJP, which had earlier announced a candidate for the by-poll, is having second thoughts about it.

It is attempting to arm-twist the Balasaheb's Shiv Sena (BSS) led by Eknath Shinde to now contest the poll amid allegations that SS (UBT) candidate Rutuja Latkar is being pressurised to join the BSS to contest as its candidate.

Rutuja Latkar is the widow of the sitting MLA Ramesh Latke who died in May earlier this year, necessitating the by-election.

She is an employee of the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) and amid allegations that municipal administrator Iqbal Singh Chahal was trying to stall the acceptance of her resignation under government pressure, she moved the Bombay High Court for permission to resign and contest the poll, the process for which begins on October 14. The court ordered her release and she will file her nomination tomorrow. 

Rutuja has issued a Facebook post in which she says that she firmly stands by Uddhav Thackeray and has no intention of jumping ship to either the BSS or the BJP.

So now, whoever contests must find its own candidate and come up against not just the sympathy factor for both Rutuja and Uddhav but also an attempt to victimise her – the day she sought release from BMC, October 12, the authorities came up with a bribery charge against her. Obviously, neither was she cowed, nor did it hold much water in the court.

However, the muddling of the issue days ahead of the polls also seems to have created much heartburn in the BJP wherein Murji Patel’s candidature for the seat was declared by the party’s Mumbai president Ashish Shelar, with deputy chief minister Devendra Fadnavis now claiming that Patel is an inappropriate candidate for this election.

This has not only immediately affected his chances in the Sena stronghold but also humiliated both Shelar and Patel, bringing to fore divisions in the state unit of the BJP.

The confusion has happened essentially because of the Supreme Court’s delay in recognising which party is the 'real' Shiv Sena. But now that both parties have been given their individual symbols and names by the Election Commission, logically, the BSS should take on the SSUBT in this election and put an end to doubts about which faction is the ‘real’ Shiv Sena.

However, there are many factors that are leading to both the BSS and BJP balking at taking on the SSUBT. The October 5 Dussehra rallies by both groups proved that much of Uddhav Thackeray’s support base is in Mumbai – people from the city, its suburbs and nearby areas had walked to his rally at Shivaji Park.

Eknath Shinde had to bus in his crowds from different parts of the state and suffered much ridicule as social media handles from ‘Karachi, India’ (sic!) and Thailand were tweeting in his support in English, while Uddhav Thackeray seemed to have the backing of people tweeting in Marathi, the Sena’s traditional base of Marathi manoos. 

Then, again, Shinde’s party is now known as Balasaheb’s Shiv Sena which has brought forth the question, “Which Balasaheb?” There are at least four well known political Balasahebs, a common name in Maharashtra. The most prominent Balasaheb in state politics today is Congress leader and former revenue minister in the Maha Vikas Aghadi government, Balasaheb Thorat. He has demanded a royalty from Shinde for use of his name on the party. Even if that comment was made in jest, it has set in motion a lot of ridicule being heaped on Shinde, with memes on social media showing Shinde and ‘Balasaheb’ in the same frame.

It also reinforced Uddhav Thackeray’s taunt that Shinde doesn’t have the guts to contest in the name of his own father but must now appropriate his (Uddhav’s).

Some legal experts have opined that the use of a person’s name by a political party requires permission from that person’s heirs and survivors –that could create complications for Shinde in case there is a legal challenge to the same. 

With both the Congress and Nationalist Congress Party officially declaring support to SSUBT for the by-poll and a large section of Muslim voters in the constituency now rooting for Uddhav Thackeray, whose government had made them feel safe and secure, there is little doubt why the BJP is backing out of the polls and Shinde, with little traction in Mumbai, is unwilling to contest.

With nominations opening tomorrow, there is little time for the BSS and BJP to sort out the issue. The public perception, however, might already have decided the outcome of the election.

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