MUMBAI: The ensuing elections to municipal councils and nagar panchayats across Maharashtra will be a major test for the two-year-old Devendra Fadnavis government, in the backdrop of caste polarisation triggered by campaigns of different communities, including influential Marathas in pursuance of their various demands.
Political observers here are of the view that all parties may feel the heat of the Maratha campaign, pressing for reservations in jobs and education, and the counter movements by Dalits, OBCs and Muslims in the state. Even though these campaigns have so far refrained from targeting each other, undercurrents of caste tensions have been palpable, they point out.
Some of them feel that the BJP-led government has not taken these morchas seriously and made efforts to defuse the caste tensions slowly building up. There is a distinct possibility that voters around the state, especially in rural areas, will take the civic polls as a referendum on the performance of the Fadnavis regime, they said.
Law and order issue, spurt in crime against women and farmers' distress and suicides are also to figure prominently in the elections, they said. The government is yet to declare Minimum Support Price for soyabean, cotton, paddy, sugarcane and has not taken a decision on starting procurement centres, they observed.
While ruling partners BJP and Shiv Sena have struck a deal to contest the polls together, the Congress and NCP, who control majority of municipal bodies, have left the decision of alliance to their local leadership. NCP has 1,300 seats while Congress 1,293. BJP has 437, Sena 454 and MNS 61. There are over 400 independents as well.
Dismissing suggestion that the Maratha campaign could hit the BJP, party spokesman Madhav Bhandari said Congress and NCP are to be blamed for the caste polarisation. "Maratha leadership of both these parties have ruled the state throughout.
They did nothing for uplift of the community. It is only after Devendra Fadnavis became CM, the community feels it is backward," he said. "If large morchas are taken out by the dominant community, naturally the non-Marathas will get insecure and the marches organised by them are a result of this insecurity," Bhandari said.
The Congress and NCP have accused the BJP of inducting people with criminal background in different parts of the state to use muscle power ahead of the polls, which the saffron party rejected as totally baseless. "Never before muscle power was used in Maharashtra politics," NCP spokesman Nawab Malik said.
Congress spokesman Ratnakar Mahajan said local issues of towns at talukas and big villages on the outskirts will be the key in deciding voters' preferences. "BJP should not think that it can win at municipal level since it is in power at the Centre and the state.
This will have no bearing on the voting at taluka level," he said. Earlier, not all seats in local bodies were contested on party symbol. Congress used to align with local outfits for the municipal council and nagar panchayat polls. But with BJP taking the lead in ensuring that its party symbol reaches every nook and corner, all parties are likely to follow suit.
Much to the dismay of others, BJP and Shiv Sena have clinched a pact well ahead of the polls. In contrast, the Congress and NCP are yet to work out a broad arrangement to fight the polls together and still blame each other for it.
"NCP cannot dictate terms for seat adjustments and alliance," Mahajan said, even as he did not rule out informal alliance between the two parties at the local level. He said social polarisation may result in increase in caste-based voting.
"One will have to wait and watch who would benefit and be at loss," Mahajan added. The polls to 212 municipal councils and nagar panchayats in Maharashtra will be held in four phases from November 27 to January 8.