This is about 1985, when Mumbai was without flyovers, the average Mumbaikar was not rich enough to afford designer clothes, cars were a luxury, local trains more comfortable and the city’s residents were truly connected with their political surroundings though not much interested in voting. Local political leaders, MLAs and municipal councillors could be seen travelling in public transport not luxury cars or SUVs.
The reason I remember these details is that my father was contesting his first election to get elected to the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) and he won with merely 300 votes, defeating his nearest contender from the Shiv Sena.
That was a time when he spent around Rs 10,000 as election expenses; and not just him but even his opponents didn’t spend beyond Rs 50,000 because none of them had that kind of money. The whole campaign was door-to-door - the plan was to put a prominent local person whom everyone knew as a candidate for the local election – and corner meetings with a megaphone. All big leaders including Bal Thackeray and George Fernandes addressed rallies in the small bylanes of Mumbai, as large campaign grounds were unaffordable.
Party workers used to spend nights selecting and marking walls of buildings so they could write slogans supporting their candidate, small pamphlets used to be distributed giving the biodata of the candidate and you will be surprised that lawyers, teachers, doctors and even professionals used to be selected as candidates. Most importantly, money was never an issue as the supporters used to spend from their own pocket.
The BMC elections of 1985 changed the track of Maharashtra politics. They were the elections that brought the Shiv Sena to power in the civic body on its own, and the reason for the party’s victory was the lowest voting turnout, around 25 per cent then. From then onwards, the Shiv Sena undoubtedly started dominating the political scene in Mumbai and the state.
More than 30 years later, in 2017, the scenario has changed in the city. The middle class Mumbaikar prefers to drive around in his own car or an Ola or Uber, is hardly aware who the candidate for the BMC elections is, and the political leaders are never seen in public transport.
Also, even if you have Rs 10 lakh (the maximum amount you can spend on a campaign), you can’t be sure of contesting as you end up spending much more and your supporters do not come for free; this is coupled with the fact that political identities have faded and it will be pleasant surprise to see a candidate who has earned a graduate degree.
Signs of this change were visible during the high-pitched campaign, seen never before in the BMC elections.
The voter was being convinced to vote for the party than the candidate; rather than local door-to-door canvassing, parties such as the Shiv Sena and BJP had put up huge commercial hoardings across Mumbai, and most of the works being projected hardly had anything to do with the BMC’s primary responsibilities.
To top that, party leaders were involved in big rallies as if it was the Lok Sabha or Assembly election and almost all big signboards, radio station ad breaks and newspaper front pages were booked for poll advertisements by the parties.
Instead of the civic body elections being left to local city leaders (as was the norm earlier), this year’s poll was seen as a power-packed contest between the Sena and the BJP, with party leaders trading verbal blows. The Shiv Sena went a step further and put the state BJP government (which it supports) on notice period and the BJP responded by putting the onus of corruption in the BMC on the Sena.
Most importantly, this year’s election will show the emergence of a stronger BJP in Mumbai – a party which was never the city’s taste. The reason for that might be the voting percentage, which has passed the 50 per cent mark and can be termed the highest for the BMC poll.
Though the Sena has managed to keep its support base intact, the new face of the BMC will not be a good sign for the party.
In the last 30 years, the image and presence of Shiv Sena councillors among the new middle class has definitely taken a hit, and people are turning more towards the BJP. The local connect of the councillors is now confined to the lower middle class and to slum areas.
The high-rise middle class public does not need BMC councillors as they just can’t relate with them; they are more willing to trust high-placed hoardings with the face of Maharashtra’s BJP chief minister Devendra Fadnavis, giving his word on the development of Mumbai.
The over 100-year-old independent status of the BMC, which was doing well with or without support from the state government, will surely be affected.