Ashok Chavan after the Congress’s victory in the Nanded municipal polls on Thursday. (Express Photo: Prashant Nadkar)
In a significant morale-booster ahead of the crucial assembly polls in Gujarat and Himachal Pradesh, the Congress Thursday swept the municipal polls in Maharashtra’s Nanded, defeating the ruling BJP in a keenly contested battle. While the Congress has been in power in the civic body for nearly two decades now, and Nanded had remained loyal to the Congress even during the 2014 Lok Sabha and assembly polls, the shot in the arm for the party came from the magnitude of Thursday’s win.
The Congress won 71 out of a total 81 seats in the Nanded-Waghala municipal corporation, improving its previous tally of 41. The BJP, which had two corporators in the previous House, stood a distant second winning five.
In another significant development, the Asaduddin Owaisi-led All India Majlis-e-Muslimeen (AIMIM), which had bagged 11 seats in minority-dominated areas the last time, failed to win a single seat this time around. “Muslims have understood that the AIMIM cannot be an option to the BJP. They voted for the Congress,” said Maharashtra Congress President and former chief minister Ashok Chavan, the architect behind the party’s impressive victory.
Incidentally, almost all sitting corporators of the AIMIM who had switched over to the Congress just before the elections, retained their seats. Another indicator that the traditional ‘secular vote bank’ is veering towards the Congress, the Sharad Pawar-led Nationalist Congress Party, which had fought the election independently, too failed to open its account. The party had won seven seats last time.
With both the Congress and the BJP putting in all their might in the election battle, the latter’s warring ally, the Shiv Sena, which enjoys a better grassroot presence in the region, could win just two seats as compared to 12 victories the last time around. Incidentally, sitting Sena MLA Pratap Chikhlikar, who is seen as Chavan’s bitter rival, had openly backed the BJP’s bid to unseat Chavan’s hold over the municipality.
Following the landslide performance, a beaming and relieved Ashok Chavan did not miss the opportunity to fire barbs at the BJP. “The BJP is on a downslide. It has started from Maharashtra and will now be felt in other states too,” he said. While thanking “Nandedkars” for the “big win for the Congress in trying times”, Chavan said, “Recent local body polls in Parbhani, Malegaon and Bhiwandi have also seen the Congress come up on top.” Incidentally, these regions too have a sizeable Muslim population.
Chavan added that the growing unrest against the policies of the Narendra Modi government in the Centre and the Devendra Fadnavis government in Maharashtra had added to the magnitude of Thursday’s victory. “There is palpable unrest among the middle class over the rise in petrol and diesel prices. While the Centre tried to undercut it by lowering taxes two days before the election, voters did not fall prey to the gimmick.”
Nanded has a sizeable trader community population. And Chavan felt that the discomfort over the implementation of the new GST regime also played a role. “There is noticeable dissent against the Fadnavis government over the farm loan waiver issue,” he said. Accusing the BJP of a negative poll campaign, Chavan added, “People have rejected BJP’s communal brand of politics.”
He questioned Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis’s “misleading” claims that the BJP had fared best in the first phase of the gram panchayat polls. While the rural body polls aren’t fought on a party symbol, Chavan contended the Congress had come ahead in those elections too.
Meanwhile, independent political analysts were questioning Fadnavis’s move to raise the stakes for Nanded very high — more than 10 cabinet ministers had campaigned for the civic polls. The CM too was part of a couple of election rallies. Labour Minister Shivajirao Patil Nilangekar, a close aide of Fadnavis, had been camping in Nanded for a month.
On its own, the BJP had secured just 3.5 per cent of the vote share in the last civic elections in Nanded. Raising the stake this time around, it had engineered a massive exodus of sitting corporators from the Congress and the Shiv Sena. But while 13 sitting corporators from the Congress had defected to the BJP, none of them could retain their seats. “The manner in which the BJP fought this election was rejected by the people. It is clear from the verdict that its ploy to engineer an exodus in other parties had backfired,” said Chavan, adding, “I’m told that even loyal workers of the BJP and the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh were upset that a Shiv Sena MLA and a former bureaucrat were calling the shots in the BJP.”
Thursday’s outcome has also consolidated Ashok Chavan’s position within the Maharashtra Congress. Even though Chavan is among the party’s two MPs in Maharashtra, a section of state leaders had earlier challenged his leadership skills. Narayan Rane, who recently quit the Congress, had attacked Chavan for “doing nothing for a Congress win”. A senior party leader said, “With Thursday’s win, Chavan has proved his credentials again. He is the only party leader in the state who has withstood the BJP’s charges, and consistently notched up election wins in his constituency since 2014.”
After being forced to quit the CM post in 2010 after his name cropped up in the Adarsh housing society scam, Chavan has quietly consolidated his base in the backward Marathwada region and within the party.
The BJP sought solace in bypolls wins it notched up in four seats (one each in Mumbai, Pune, Kolhapur and Nagpur) in other urban local bodies in the state. While Fadnavis was away in Sweden, BJP president Raosaheb Danve said, “We respect the people’s verdict in Nanded. We will introspect on the reasons for the loss at the party forum. But one cannot forget that the vote share for the party rose from 3.81 per cent last time to 24.64 per cent this time.” He opted to remind the Congress that it had suffered successive defeats in urban, local and assembly polls in the state since 2014.