Rahul Gandhi addresses supporters after winning the presidency of Congress party in December 2017. Photo: Reuters

India’s commercial capital, Mumbai, is abuzz with heavy political activity. Campaigning has peaked and strategists are working into the night to understand their opponents’ moves as the city prepares for polling on April 29 as part of the country’s general elections.

Mumbai and the coastal Konkan region traditionally have been swept by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), or the other way around, with all 12 parliamentary constituencies showing a similar voting preference. If the last two polls are anything to go by, the alliance that wins the financial capital may well win the most seats in Maharashtra.

The Narendra Modi-led National Democratic Alliance government now holds all 12 seats in Mumbai and the coastal region. Those account for a quarter of the seats in Maharashtra, to the rue of the Congress and the Nationalist Congress Party. (NCP defected from Congress in 1999 but is its alliance partner.)

Of the 12 seats, BJP occupies five: North Central Mumbai, North Mumbai, North East Mumbai, Palghar and Bhiwandi. Its alliance mate Shiv Sena, the regional Hindu nationalist party, has seven: South Mumbai, South Central Mumbai, North West Mumbai, Thane, Kalyan, Ratnagiri-Sindhudurg and Raigad.

Maharastra parliamentary seats. Photo: ElectionsinIndia

In the upcoming general elections, BJP is contesting four and Shiv Sena eight seats. Congress and NCP are contesting eight and three seats in the region respectively.

Among the state’s 48 parliamentary seats, the BJP-Shiv Sena alliance won 41 last time, whereas the Congress-NCP combination bagged only six seats together.

Key factors

The question ahead of April 29, when Mumbai goes to the polls, is whether it is willing to give Prime Minister Narendra Modi another term or will opt for a change.

For the coastal region, it faces a range of complex issues resulting from rapid urbanization – overburdened civic infrastructure, rising property prices, and encroachment upon mangroves, salt flats and forest areas. Demonetization has also hit medium- and small-scale industries in the region. But politicians are largely ignoring such issues in favor of focusing on what working politicians would call the nuts and bolts of winning contests.

“The election debates are focused on non-issues” such as Hindutva (“Hindu-ness”) and patriotism, complained Dr Tushar Jagtap, a dermatologist and social activist.

Religious minorities (Muslims, Buddhists, Jains) will affect the outcomes in most of the Mumbai seats. Linguistic minorities such as Hindi-speaking north Indians, Gujarati and Marathi are also crucial, for the Congress, BJP and Shiv Sena, respectively.

The BJP banks heavily on the urban middle class which emerged as his biggest supporter in 2014. Urban slum dwellers, who make up 40% of the city’s population, traditionally have been split between Shiv Sena and Congress, although the BJP has made inroads there as well.

Smoothed out

The region has had a love-hate relationship with the Congress. The long-dominant party was wiped out from Mumbai following the 1992 Babri mosque demolition in Ayodhya and the widespread riots that ensued. Congress made a comeback in the following decade. In 2004 polls, it won five out of six seats in Mumbai again. The lone holdout went to Shiv Sena. In 2009, Congress (5) and ally NCP (1) shut out Hindutva players – Hindu nationalists – in Mumbai. But in 2014, Congress-NCP fell to the “Modi wave.”

Congress and NCP, which fought the last parliamentary elections together, parted ways ahead of the state assembly elections in October 2014. But they have joined hands again for the 2019 parliamentary elections.

Similarly, BJP and Shiv Sena had also contested the last general elections together and called off their alliance for assembly elections. However, they remained together in the governments at the center and in Maharashtra following the elections. After a turbulent alliance with the BJP for four and half years, Shiv Sena eventually decided to contest the 2019 elections alongside the BJP.

Thus, the political battle in Maharashtra has smoothed out, making the contest basically two-way. That could help the opposition consolidate the anti-incumbency votes – although some seats will witness triangular contests thanks to the emergence of a third alliance headed by Prakash Ambedkar’s Bahujan Vanchit Aghadi.

Hindutva wave?  

With staunch Hindutva advocates Amit Shah and Uddhav Thackeray as the party chiefs, the BJP-Shiv Sena alliance hopes to repeat its 2014 success emphasizing patriotism.

“Not only Mumbai,” Mumbai BJP vice-president Krishna Hegde says – “we will sweep entire Maharashtra. The Balakot strike, which shows the Modi government’s aggressive stand against Pakistan, has struck a chord with the people. We have committed cadres. Over three-quarters of the MLAs and two-thirds of corporators [members of the Legislative Assembly and elected members of municipal corporations, respectively] of Mumbai belong to Shiv Sena-BJP.”

However, Congress argues that it has potential game changers in widespread feelings of anti-incumbency and its “basic minimum income” pledge to guarantee Rs 6,000 in monthly payments and 500-square-foot homes to the poorest 20%.

Sachin Sawant, the Congress spokesperson, said: “Don’t go by the results of 2014 Lok Sabha [lower house of parliament] or 2017 civic [municipal] polls. We shall be back again because the Modi government’s failure on economy, employment and farm issues has disappointed the people. Our people-friendly policies such as basic minimum income and 500-square-foot houses will win over the mandate.”

“Mumbai’s potential is hampered by Shiv Sena, which badly rules the municipal corporation and plays divisive politics,” alleged Milind Deora, who has replaced Sanjay Nirupam recently as Mumbai Congress’ chief.

But not everyone shares the enthusiasm of Deora and Sawant. Congress suffers from infighting, defections and a lack of leaders of national stature who can take on BJP-Sena, sources from within the party said. Adding to the party’s woes, a section of its vote bank – North Indians – shifted loyalties to Hindu nationalist parties in 2014.

The BJP’s Prem Shukla countered the opposition claims. saying that if anti-incumbency were a major force his alliance would not have won elections for local bodies. He predicted his group would “increase our tally in the state.”

Analyst Surendra Jondhale argued that both of the alliances are in difficult circumstances. “National security seems to be the BJP-Sena’s poll agenda but it won’t help much,” he predicted, citing the precedent of the 1999 Kargil war against Pakistan, which failed to bring the Hindu nationalists to power in 2004. “On the other hand, Congress didn’t forge a broader alliance including regional players who seek to defeat BJP- Shiv Sena. This would have curbed division of votes.”

In the absence of a Modi wave and an atmosphere of rising anti-incumbency coupled with anger among Dalits [lower caste members in the Hindu hierarchy] and Muslims, the contests for all 12 seats will be tricky. Observers believe that it could be a mixed bag for both the alliances this time. Some speculate that the NDA might sweep the Konkan region with Shiv Sena retaining its five seats and BJP just one.

Tomorrow: Vidarbha  farmers say BJP fooled them, BJP denies it

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