Mumbai: Ever since Shiv Sena chief Uddhav Thackeray ended his party’s alliance with Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) for the civic polls in Maharashtra, he has made two key points at each of his public meeting. One, Shiv Sena has stagnated in its 25-year alliance with BJP. Two, the BJP now wants to finish off Shiv Sena.

Through its 50 years, Shiv Sena has aired concerns about its survival whenever it faced stiff challenges—like the one now in the form of elections to Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) on 21 February.

“It has worked to the Shiv Sena’s advantage. By raising fears about its existence, Shiv Sena connects with its most critical unit of support and sustenance—the man on the street in Mumbai. At times, these fears have been raised to appeal to the Marathi sentiment and at times, it is the Hindu voter who the Sena has reached out to for its survival," said a veteran Sena leader, requesting anonymity.

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The 2017 BMC election is perhaps Shiv Sena’s toughest political battle yet in Mumbai. It is the first civic election the party is contesting without its founder Balasaheb Thackeray. In the 2012 election, even though the senior Thackeray was not leading the campaign due to ill-health, his presence helped. Thackeray died later that year.

“It makes a huge difference to us as well," said a Mumbaj BJP leader about the senior Thackeray’s absence. “If he were around, we would have had to be restrained in our attack on Shiv Sena in deference to him. We have no such obligation now," he said.

This is also the first BMC election since 1992 which the Shiv Sena is fighting without a pre-poll alliance with the BJP. In 1992, the Congress had won the polls. The allies came together again in 1997 and won each BMC election since then as pre-poll partners.

In 1997, Shiv Sena won 103 seats and the BJP 26, and the alliance secured a simple majority in the 227-member BMC. Five years later, the alliance won 132 seats but Shiv Sena’s number slipped to 97.

In 2007, Shiv Sena was again the single largest party winning 82 seats while the BJP got 28. The allies again barely managed to retain power in 2012 winning 106 seats with the Shiv Sena tally reduced to 75.

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In these 25 years since 1992, Shiv Sena’s main rival in Mumbai has been the Congress which itself has seen a continuous drop in its fortunes in the city polls. In 1992, the Congress won 114 seats in alliance with the Republican Party of India. But in 2012, the Congress managed only 52 seats.

The 2017 election is also unique since the Shiv Sena faces an opponent in the BJP which has tried to build its campaign on development issues.

“The Shiv Sena looks to thrive when it has scope to deploy identity and emotive issues, like migration, Hindutva, language etc. With the Marathi population in the city getting reduced to only 31%, migration and nativism issues have lost pan-Mumbai fervour. The Shiv Sena cannot raise these issues because it may risk losing the Hindu (non-Marathi) vote to BJP. So, the Shiv Sena has also been forced to talk about development this time," said the BJP leader.

With the BJP as its main opponent, the game has also changed for the Sena as it is a fighting a party which can mount a stronger campaign than the Congress. “With the development-oriented image of chief minister Devendra Fadnavis and his push for so many big-ticket Mumbai infrastructure projects, Shiv Sena faces a challenge on the scale it has rarely handled before. Fadnavis is also a Marathi campaigner, has an urban image, and is considered clean. This gives the BJP a great head start.

The BJP is also raising the right issues, like corruption at BMC, Shiv Sena’s lack of an urban narrative for Mumbai, and this makes the BJP campaign positive," said non-political member of the BJP’s war room for the civic election who requested anonymity.

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