Maharashtra: Battle lines sharpen ahead of key civic body polls early next year

The Rane-Sena showdown and his arrest Tuesday have raised the stakes, with the Sena claiming that Rane’s utterances against Chief Minister Uddhav Thackeray have galvanised its cadres, and the BJP maintaining that Sena vandalism on the streets is only going to work to its advantage.

When the BJP asked Union Minister Narayan Rane to tour Mumbai, its satellite cities and areas of the Konkan region, it was the start of a mission to prepare the ground for civic body elections due next February and to take the battle to Shiv Sena strongholds, including the Sena-controlled Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation.

The Rane-Sena showdown and his arrest Tuesday have raised the stakes, with the Sena claiming that Rane’s utterances against Chief Minister Uddhav Thackeray have galvanised its cadres, and the BJP maintaining that Sena vandalism on the streets is only going to work to its advantage.

While the street battles across the state showed that the Sena could still mobilise, it was clear that the party heading the Maha Vikas Aghadi government was having its way by getting Rane arrested.

State BJP leaders, including former Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis who was instrumental in bringing Rane into the party fold in 2019, rallied behind him though they distanced themselves from his remarks.

The arrest is another chapter in the continuing feud between Rane and Thackeray. Rane, who spent close to three decades in the Shiv Sena, left the party in 2005 after a fallout with Thackeray. He has since then been targeting Thackeray, both during his stint in the Congress and in his new role as a Union minister in the BJP government. Rane joined the BJP during the run-up to the Lok Sabha elections.

From the start of the Jan Ashirwad Yatra last week, Rane made his agenda clear. As he set off from Mumbai airport to woo Sena constituencies in Mumbai, Palghar, Raigad, Ratnagiri and Sindhudurg in the Konkan, he declared: “BJP will return to power. We will ensure the end of three decades of the Shiv Sena regime in BMC”.

Elections for 10 municipal corporations including Mumbai and Thane, and 25 Zilla Parishads are due early next year. Parties are calling these polls “mini-assembly” elections given that these will take place around the time MVA is half-way into its innings.

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Sena cadres had been itching to take on Rane from Day 1 of his Yatra when he paid a visit to the Bal Thackeray Memorial in Shivaji Park, a Sena stronghold. The event passed off peacefully after Sena leaders said they would ignore Rane, but some of the party’s old guard did a “shuddhikaran” (purification) of the memorial after Rane’s departure.

“Street protests and agitations are very typical of the Sena and Shiv Sainiks are used to it. Sena politics has always been based on emotive issues… This controversy has given our cadre the chance to mobilise in large numbers across Mumbai and Maharashtra and stand together against the BJP,” a Sena leader said.

Another Sena leader claimed Rane will have no impact on the ground in the BMC polls. “In 2015, Rane contested the assembly bypoll for the Bandra (East) seat and was defeated by the Sena. We have shown him his place,” the leader said

Sources in the BJP said 69-year-old Rane, known for his blunt-speak against Thackeray, was entrusted with a single mission – keep targeting Matoshree and the Thackerays.

“When it comes to personal attacks against the Thackerays, there is nobody in the BJP who can do this with conviction. Given his long association with the Shiv Sena, Rane knows the organisation inside out,” a BJP source said, adding that the party wants to project him as its face in the Konkan region to make inroads in the Sena fiefdom ahead of the civic body polls.

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