MVA alliance in Maharashtra faces the civic poll test

Congress, NCP, Sena look to strengthen their base as ‘go it alone’ rhetoric gains ground

While the ideologically opposed, tripartite Maha Vikas Aghadi (MVA) alliance of the Shiv Sena, the Congress and Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) judders along in Maharashtra, voiced favouring to “go it alone” for future polls are beginning to be heard. This is true at least in the Congress and Sena.

In August this year, Maharashtra Pradesh Congress Chief (MPCC) Nana Patole said his party would be contesting future polls alone. Shiv Sena MP and spokesperson Sanjay Raut echoed this for his party while speaking last week on civic body polls due next year. He said a joint contest depends on a “respectable seat sharing arrangement”.

Observers and party sources say this rhetoric of contesting independently would be tested ahead of elections due in 10 major municipal corporations in the State next year.

“Maharashtra’s civic polls had a number of instances of traditional allies — be it the Congress or the NCP, or the Sena and the BJP — fighting independently and even on occasion, joining hands with the opposition. National or State-level coalitions have rarely dictated the alliances forged at the civic level, which are guided more by local interests than larger party concerns,” said senior political analyst Vivek Bhavsar.

The cash-rich Pune Municipal Corporation is a case in point. In what is now known as the ‘Pune Pattern’ of 2007 coalition, the NCP joined hands with Sena and BJP to keep the Congress out of power even though the NCP and the Congress were ruling partners in the State government.

Heavy impact

However, the resurgence of the BJP led by Narendra Modi at the Centre in 2014, and the BJP-Sena alliance government after the State Assembly polls that year, heavily impacted the outcome of the 2017 civic polls, especially in Mumbai, Pune and Pimpri-Chinchwad. Of the ten civic bodies which went to polls that year, the BJP swept eight of them.

For the first time, the saffron party had emerged triumphant in the Pune and Pimpri-Chinchwad civic bodies, breaking the NCP stranglehold.

The BJP swept the PMC, winning a record 100 of 162 seats while it wrested PCMC – considered Ajit Pawar’s bastion – from the NCP by winning 77 of the 128 seats. The latter civic body win was all the more startling as the NCP has wielded absolute power over the PCMC since the party was formed in 1999.

In Mumbai, the BJP put up a spirited performance as well, winning 82 of the total 227 seats second only to the Sena’s tally of 97 seats in the BMC poll.

Likewise, the BJP ousted the beleaguered Congress from its traditional citadel in the Solapur Municipal Corporation (SMC), but narrowly missed absolute majority. “The BJP’s performance in the 2017 civic body polls stunned the other parties. The Congress, which dominated the PMC till the mid-2000s, has its back to the wall. With less than 10 corporators in Pune, it faces the threat of political oblivion. So, if the party is looking for a renaissance, it will have to contest as many of the 162 seats in the PMC…and cannot abide by a seat-sharing formula in which the NCP [which has 35 corporators in the PMC] will have the upper hand,” said a senior Congress leader, requesting anonymity.

Echoing Mr. Patole’s thoughts, Pune Congress spokesperson Ramesh Iyer said contesting elections jointly with the NCP and the Sena was not in the interests of the party as it would undercut his party’s expansion in Pune and elsewhere.

“MPCC chief Nana Patole has already said that the local elections will be fought by the party on its own strength. The Congress is not keen on an alliance,” Mr. Iyer said.

According to city-based political analyst Rajendra Pandharpure, the civic polls offered an ideal testing ground for all three MVA partners seeking to expand or reclaim their lost bases after 2017.

“Ajit Pawar, in his capacity as Pune’s Guardian Minister, has already begun work to wrest back control in the Pimpri-Chinchwad Municipal Corporation’s (PCMC). It must be remembered that before PCMC polls, several of Mr. Pawar’s close aides had defected to BJP which had in turn helped the saffron party sweep the civic body. So, this time, he will be focused on rebuilding the party’s base and may not be inclined to share seats with the Congress and the Sena, both of which have no significant presence in the PCMC,” said Mr. Pandharpure.

Likewise, the Sena, which got control of the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) by a slender margin, will be going all out to re-assert its dominance there.

‘Trial by fire’

“For the Sena, retaining control of the BMC will be a trial by fire as it is the party’s lifeline, power base and its resource centre. It will be a straight fight between the Sena and the BJP, with its strong Gujarati voter base. The Sena will see no reason to share seats with the NCP, which has very little influence in Mumbai city while the Congress, which does have influence with the north Indian community, has already announced it would be fighting the BMC polls independently,” Mr. Bhavsar said.

With each of the major MVA parties seeking to revitalise their bases and lock horns with the BJP, alliances for the upcoming civic polls point towards unpredictability.

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