Ideas and Action for a Better India
By Sayli Udas Mankikar
Last week, the Brihanmumbai Municipal corporation’s (BMC’s) historic central hall saw high-decibel drama with the Shiv Sena getting its mayoral candidate elected. Sena party chief Uddhav Thackeray accompanied by his wife and power centre of the party Rashmi Thackeray and son Aaditya raised their fists and congratulated new mayor Vishwanath Mahadeshwar as he took the high chair. But deep inside all, three of them know that they have to brace for what is going to be their toughest term in 25 years of ruling the BMC.
What followed was 82 BJP corporators chanting “Modi, Modi!”, as if to boo Uddhav. This was countered by 84 Sena corporators shouting slogans praising late Sena chief Bal Thackeray. The 31 Congress corporators, with the party’s lowest-ever tally, looked helpless as though they have been forced to play the role of a scathing Opposition, and their bargaining power is going south. This is more of a worry for the Shiv Sena with the Congress no longer in a position to give it the tacit support it did over the past two decades in the BMC.
During the past four terms, Congress was the party with the second-largest strength in the 227-member House, which meant it had significant representation in civic committees — mainly the standing committee and improvements committe — that control a major portion of the body’s Rs 37,000-crore budget. The tacit support was so brazen that in 2006, late Congress chief minister Vilasrao Deshmukh had famously punned saying how the standing committee of the BMC was in fact an ‘understanding committee’ — aiming jibes at the Shiv Sena and his own party members. In turn, the Thackerays returned the favour by offering their support to Congress presidential candidates like Pratibha Patil and Pranab Mukherjee. They also helped Congress leader Sunil Dutt when he fell on bad times.
And with the BJP declaring that it would stay out of committee chairmanships, it has played a masterstroke that the Sena and Congress will need to counter cleverly. Also, the move of the BJP-run state government to introduce a deputy lokayukta — a watchdog to monitor the BMC’s functioning — has put them in a further fix. The standing committee is the most powerful statutory committee in the BMC as it is responsible for clearing all civic contracts above Rs 10 lakh. The representation in the 26-member standing and improvements committees depends on a party’s strength in the corporation.
With the new numbers, Shiv Sena will have 11 members — of which one is the chairman and can’t vote. The BJP will have 10, the Congress three, and the MNS, NCP and Samajwadi Party will have one each. To get any contract cleared, the Sena-led committee will need to have a majority, which is 14 votes. With 10 members of its own, and if the BJP doesn’t support a proposal, it is left with no option but to rely on the Congress for the magic figure. But the Congress in the current situation, wants to be careful and does not wish to be seen as a partner of the Sena.
The situation is no different with the improvements committee which decides on all improvements of municipal properties. This involves multi-crore land deals including acquisitions, redevelopment, transfers, and reservation of plots. The composition here is the same as that of the standing committee. A Mumbai BJP MLA who was on the standing committee a decade ago, reminisces how his party would never be in the reckoning back then with only two or three members, and contracts would get cleared without their nod.
“I had then asked the Sena chairman why they don’t even consider our opinion while passing a proposal when we have helped them win seats in the election. He had said after winning, it is the committee strength that matters. Today, that’s changed with our numbers becoming almost equal to Sena’s,” the MLA said on condition of anonymity. In a rally before the BMC elections, Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis had alleged how the BJP was sidelined while clearing major contracts in the standing committee, while putting out a case for transparency. A classic example of this is former Shiv Sena standing committee chairman Yashodhar Phanse who approved 71 expenditure proposals amounting to around Rs 1,000 crore within 40 minutes on 21 December, 2016, the last day before the code of conduct came into force. All this without a word of opposition from the Congress.
The Mumbai Congress president said his party has clearly put out a message that it is against the Shiv Sena. “The very fact that we had a Congress candidate contesting elections has made it clear that we are not supporting the Sena in any way, direct or indirect,” said Bhai Jagtap. Surendra Jondhale, political analyst and professor, Political Science from Mumbai University, said that although the BJP helped the Sena get the mayor of its choice, this is only on paper and the real game will be played on the floor of the standing committee, which is BMC’s money-making machine. “The Congress, with its current performance and the BJP’s hawkish nature, has been forced to play the Opposition role. The term ought to be a difficult one for the Sena since everyone will be turning against the party,” Jondhale said.
(The writer is a Research Fellow at Observer Research Foundation, Mumbai. Views expressed in this commentary are personal. Twitter handle: @saylitweets)
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This article was originally published by Firstpost.