Maharashtra: High stakes in Mumbai’s Municipal Corporation results

The talk in Mumbai is that builders, road contractors and industrialists are awaiting results of the city’s Municipal Corporation polls as keenly as political parties; counting is on February 23

Photo by Rajanish Kakade /Hindustan Times via Getty Images
Photo by Rajanish Kakade /Hindustan Times via Getty Images
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NH Political Bureau

On Saturday, February 18, Maharashtra’s Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis had serious cause for concern. Despite a high octane BJP campaign across the state for elections to 10 municipal corporations and several zila parishads and panchayat samitis, there was not even a single occupant after the first few rows of chairs— about 20,000 of them laid out for his public meeting— at Sadashiv Peth, a BJP bastion, in Pune.


Reportedly, he waited nearly 30 minutes behind the dais but even passersby who saw him waiting were not motivated to walk across and join his meeting. Fadnavis walked off in a huff. To counter photos in the media of the empty chairs at Sadashiv Peth, the BJP has been posting pictures of Fadnavis’ meetings later that day, hoping people will forget the embarrassment—though they publicly maintain that since Sadashiv Peth is a BJP bastion, they did not need people to come and listen to the CM, all the voters here have already made up their minds and will vote for the BJP.


Within the party office, though, poll strategists are wondering what has gone wrong. The BJP has run a highly visible campaign across Maharashtra and Mumbai, where party leaders hope to defeat troublesome ally Shiv Sena, has been in sharp focus. The city is plastered with posters and hoardings. But, not unlike Narendra Modi’s 2014 Lok Sabha campaign, the BJP has made maximum use of television spots to reach every home and edged out the Shiv Sena as well as the Congress in terms of visibility.


So why did Fadnavis still face empty chairs in Sadashiv Peth? Ganesh Mali, a voter from Chembur in Mumbai says, “The BJP has more money and television presence. But the Shiv Sena has more dedicated cadres who are visiting door to door and will surely bring the people out on voting day.’’


But the question arises, post demonetisation, where have such huge funds come from? Ashok Chavan, president of the Maharashtra Pradesh Congress Committee, claims the BJP has spent around ₹100 crore on these civic elections. "Did they spend in cash, were their donations received by cheque, or debit cards and credit cards? What about the transparency they talk about all the time? We must know," said Chavan.


But a senior journalist who has watched civic polls for decades is of the view that ₹100 crore is a vastly modest estimate, claiming “They would have spent almost ₹60 to ₹70 crore on Fadnavis’s campaign alone, all hoardings and other materials would have cost double that figure."


The Shiv Sena, on the other hand, appears to have spent far less. It activated even its old time supporters, late party founder Bal Thackeray’s contemporaries, who were earlier hostile to Uddhav Thackeray but now seem to have decided to throw in their lot with the younger man. Even these elderly cadres campaigned door to door for the party and many of them used their own vehicles, or simply walked. A profusion of Shiv Sena candidates on raths (chariots) were seen across Mumbai, accompanied by youngsters riding pillion on two-wheelers, holding Sena standards aloft and making impassioned appeals to residents and passersby to vote for their candidate.


The Congress spent the least amount of money to contest these polls. “I was promised by some builders but they backed out due to demonetisation woes,’’ says Sanjay Nirupam, the president of the Mumbai Congress.

THE STAKES—LAND, ROADS, RAIL, RAIGAD

Builders. That is the one of the three key words why this election is important to all political parties, particularly the Shiv Sena and BJP, currently ruling the BMC. According to an expert who wished to remain anonymous, “Each must grab the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation—land is at a premium in Mumbai and builders will go to any extent to get the allotments.’’


But there is one more key element influencing the race to the municipal corporation—road contractors. According to former Congress MP Milind Deora, it could be these contractors rather than builders who are more interested in seeing the Shiv Sena come to power in the civic body. The Congress has been crying hoarse about these pot-holed roads in the city and even the BJP has been assailing the Sena on this issue. It’s an old rumour in Mumbai that the ruling parties are not interested in giving Mumbai smooth roads that would last five to 10 years without throwing up potholes each monsoon, else they would not be able to tender again for repairs.


But there is also now a lot of talk about some industrialists—the third key factor—funnelling funds into the poll campaign with an eye to planned infrastructure development in the city. The previous Congress government in Maharashtra had begun an ambitious plan to build metro and mono rails in Mumbai and a coastal road to relieve traffic movements. Now there is talk of a major plan under the BJP-led government to extend the limits of the city to Raigad district to the south. Homes will come up and there’ll be a mass rapid transport system to connect them to Mumbai and also build schools, hospitals and other infrastructure to make it attractive for people to shift there from Mumbai and relieve the pressure on facilities in the city.


Such huge infrastructure projects can only be undertaken by huge conglomerates and it is important for them to have influence with the Standing Committee of the BMC to get plans passed without obstacles. The talk is that these industrialists see the BJP as more reasonable than the Shiv Sena, which is wont to be driven by parochial concerns and could go back on its word if any leader sees a threat to their Marathi manoos base. The Sena would certainly not wish to shift their voters to the neighbouring Raigad district—they do have some presence in the region but have no absolute control with both the Congress and the NCP having reasonable presence in the district.


So the talk in Mumbai has been that between these three—builders, road contractors and industrialists—both the Shiv Sena and the BJP are believed to have been flush with funds with the BJP better off than most. But as Fadnavis’s empty meetings illustrate, money may not be the only key to these civic polls across Maharashtra.

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