Thursday, February 23, 2017

A Fadnavis Wave

Typically, municipal elections don't get much national coverage - the issues are hyper-local, the candidates unknown outside their wards, and the larger impact limited. But in one of India's most urbanized states, Maharashtra, and the city government of one of Asia's richest metropolises, Mumbai, rarely have municipal elections become so big. The reason? Things are changing in the state.

Today's municipal results in the state can be described as the culmination of two simultaneous and connected waves - a wave in favor of Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis, who many in the right wing see as a worthy future successor to Prime Minister Narendra Modi once he chooses to leave public life; and a pro-saffron wave that decimated the so-called "secular" bandwagon led by the Congress and NCP. For those two parties, which ruled the state for 15 years until they were unseated in the Modi wave of 2014, the results today come as a reminder of just how much ground they have ceded.

Consider first the Fadnavis wave. Less than 5 years ago, the BJP was a bit-player in Maharashtra, with only some influence in Vidharbha because of the influence of the RSS. Since 2014, Fadnavis has used political tactics together with a strong development plank (no doubt borrowed from Modi himself) to decimate the NCP which, unlike the Congress, used to have a fairly loyal and strong voter base. On top of that, he had reduced the Shiv Sena to the second pole of the state, with the BJP now the biggest party, controlling a plurality of local bodies, not to mention being the senior coalition partner in the State Government. The results are for all to see - in Mumbai, once a Sena bastion, the BJP has come second on its own, and first if you count pro-BJP independents. True, the BMC is now hung and there is going to be a major tussle for the post of Mayor of Mumbai, but the fact is that this was considered impossible a few years ago. Nothing says it like numbers: the Sena offered the BJP all of 60 seats to contest in an alliance; Fadnavis refused and broke the alliance, and won 82 seats.

Which brings me to the saffron wave. Although the BJP and Shiv Sena are clearly at loggerheads, with the latter threatening to pull down Fadnavis' government (their threat to pull out of the Central Government is mere symbolism, because the BJP has a blackmail-proof absolute majority of its own in the Lok Sabha), the fact is that they both represent the same general space in Indian politics (which is why they are fighting in the first place). As one tweet put it so well - it is center-right versus far-right in Maharashtra. Between them, the BJP and Shiv Sena control a strong majority of local bodies in the state as well as the state government itself. The NCP has been severely weakened by Fadnavis' policies regarding APMC markets and his successful Jalayukt Shivir program, not to mentioned Sharad Pawar's retirement from active politics (his daughter is more a Rahul Gandhi-image). And the Congress is and has been on a national meltdown since the 2013 round of assembly elections - the party is actually the biggest loser in Maharashtra (after the MNS, but that is a story of its own).

Will these elections have national reverberations? Highly unlikely - not even Mumbai has that much clout. However, they will have one immediate impact on the ongoing elections in UP, which is proving to be difficult for all the three major groups fighting there. Prime Minister Modi, in an election rally, brought up his party's strong performance in Odisha  local polls in a bid to convince UP voters (and this may work, because as FiveFortyThree rightly says, Indian voters tend to have a winner-take-all psyche). No doubt he will do the same with Maharashtra - and remember, the vast number of migrants from UP in Mumbai, all enabled with Whatsapp, can be a potent force-multiplier.

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