Behind this is a long-term strategy to consolidate the gains the BJP has made across Maharashtra in successive elections since 2014, restrict Shiv Sena to Mumbai, buy stability for the BJP-led government in Maharashtra, and lay the foundation for a BJP victory in the 2022 BMC election, BJP functionaries said.
The mayor will be elected on 8 March and the victory of the Shiv Sena nominee is now a mere formality. Fadnavis said on Saturday that the BJP will support Shiv Sena on issues and even vote for the Sena nominee if required. The BJP will not be an opposition party in the BMC either, he clarified, adding BJP corporators would be the guardians of transparency.
“It is a very deft attempt to position BJP as the central force in BMC. We will not be in power, so there is no direct responsibility of running civic administration. If Shiv Sena makes mistakes which it most certainly will, we will not be complicit. We will not be in opposition also, yet we will be free to criticise Shiv Sena. We will support Shiv Sena on issues which means they will have to be careful. This positioning makes BJP the party with multiple options and helps it occupy maximum space in Mumbai’s civic politics," said a top BJP leader, one of the architects of this strategy, requesting anonymity. “This position will help us in the next three elections, Lok Sabha and assembly in 2019, and Mumbai in 2022," he added.
The BJP leadership also took into account the stability of the Fadnavis government. “The results gave us confidence that if mid-term polls are held today, we will win simple majority. But no political party is ready for mid-term polls. The central leadership does not want a big state like Maharashtra to go in for mid-term polls because the next two-and-a-half years are important for the Modi government. We are just out of the tough Uttar Pradesh election. We saw wisdom in granting BMC to Sena if that earned us stability for the state government," this leader said. “It is a Big Brother move. BJP has shown that it is not interested in smaller turf battles like Shiv Sena. We have made Shiv Sena look like a petty local party with no state-wide vision," he added.
The BJP is confident that this strategy will force Sena to revisit its plans in the state. “Shiv Sena cannot hope to win more seats than it already has if mid-term polls are held. So, pulling out of the government will have to be a careful decision. It gets undivided power in BMC; so now, it has to govern and deliver. In the state government, Sena ministers have to focus on work and stop playing opposition," said a Mumbai BJP leader, requesting anonymity.
He said this was possibly the “best takeaway" for the BJP after a civic election which delivered a divided mandate. In the 227-member BMC, 114 is the majority mark but the Sena won 84 and BJP 82. With the Congress getting 31, NCP 9, and MNS 7, there is no majority for anyone.
“Contesting the mayoral election would not only have put our alliance with Sena under extra stress, but would have made us look silly. By taking a grand exit, we have not only granted Sena its wish to have its mayor but also made it entirely accountable for the civic governance. We have come out of this tricky situation with our head held high," said this BJP leader.
BJP strategists say the state and the central leadership were in agreement over this plan for long-term objectives. A BJP minister said on condition of anonymity that the results of elections to municipal councils and corporations show “the big picture of a tremendous BJP surge all over the state."
“We have become the only party of power in Maharashtra. The results are an endorsement of the performance of Modi and Fadnavis governments, but we cannot get complacent. The message for us in this mandate is that we need to consolidate our position further with the Lok Sabha and assembly elections two to three years away. We are not contesting mayoral polls but we have not given up on Mumbai," he said.
“One point on which the Centre and state leadership were absolutely clear is that we should not get preoccupied with BMC and lose the sight of the big picture. The rise in BJP’s total seats in all cities and districts is nearly three times our 2012 tally but Shiv Sena has risen only 20-odd seats. If you look at the results more closely, you will find that Sena has in fact done badly in several cities and districts. By allowing Sena to have its mayor in Mumbai, we are in effect limiting Sena to Mumbai, by forcing it to concentrate on BMC. Our 82 seats in Mumbai will pose a formidable challenge to Shiv Sena as it rules BMC," he said.
Political analyst and former IAS officer Avinash Dharmadhikari thinks Fadnavis had shown “political maturity" by showing willingness to end the fight with Shiv Sena. “I think Fadnavis has taken a mature decision to not contest the mayoral poll in Mumbai. This should signal end to the political sniping between BJP and Sena, and these two partners in government should now get down to the serious business of governance in state as well as the BMC," Dharmadhikari said, adding, “No decision in democratic politics is devoid of politics."
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