Shivaji statue: BJP is turning on the heat ahead of civic polls; Shiv Sena, Congress, NCP wary

When Prime Minister Narendra Modi visits Mumbai on Saturday to lay the foundation stone of the Chhatrapati Shivaji memorial, a 192-metre structure off the coast, he would kill multiple birds with one stone. Not only would he hijack one of Maharashtra's most popular icons for the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), it was also supposed to be the most potent tool its ally Shiv Sena had in the run-up to the municipal elections next year. Moreover, he also delivers a stunning blow to the Congress-NCP combine, which had mooted the project in 2005 and used it as a poll plank for the 2009 and 2014 Assembly elections.

Though Congress and NCP are led by Maratha feudal lords who understand the tokenism and emotion of politics, they would see the BJP take credit for a 11-year-old idea they had come up with. And finally, the BJP would finally have the perfect opportunity to placate and pacify the Maratha community, currently agitating for reservations.

The Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) elections will take place early next year, and the Sena looks set to retain power. The pre-poll alliance between BJP and Shiv Sena, however, hasn't been finalised yet, and intense campaigning by the former to expose corruption in the municipal body has made the Sena jittery. If the two parties do go solo, it could well be that BJP emerges as Sena's strongest rival apart from the Congress. And if there is a fractured mandate, there might even be a post-poll alliance of the two saffron partners, similar to the one they agreed upon after the 2014 Lok Sabha elections.

 Shivaji statue: BJP is turning on the heat ahead of civic polls; Shiv Sena, Congress, NCP wary

Narendra Modi will lay the foundation stone for the Shivaji Statue on Saturday. Reuters

But BJP, high on confidence after the general and Assembly election wins from two years ago, will hold Sena on a tight leash if the two parties are to have a pre-poll tie-up. All of which mean Sena is leaving no stone unturned to consolidate its position and hold on to the home turf. The party has put up hoardings claiming credit for the Shivaji statue project, terming it as a dream the late Balasaheb Thackeray had.

On the other hand, BJP is also making no bones of politically encashing on the project. Just a day before the prime minister will inaugurate the statue, there is still no clarity on the name of the invitees. The scene is similar to the high-profile ceremony held in Dadar to mark the 125th birth anniversary of Dr BR Ambedkar in April, when even Sena chief Uddhav Thackeray wasn't invited.

The ruling party has mobilised people from across the state to carry soil from the many forts of Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj, and water from the state's major rivers, and bring it to the site of the ceremony, to ensure it becomes a pan Maharashtra event. A descendant of Shivaji, Sambhajiraje, who was nominated to the Rajya Sabha after BJP came to power, will also be present at the event, just like how Ambedkar's grandson, Prakash, was invited to the April function.

The project includes a 192-metre statue, said to be the world's tallest, to be located three kilometres from Nariman Point in the Arabian Sea. It will have a museum, auditorium, amphitheatre, library, and a temple to Goddess Tuljabhavani. The project, when announced by the Congress-NCP government, was estimated to cost around Rs 1,000 crore, but now its costs have escalated to Rs Rs 3,500 crore. There are voices of dissent against the project, including a signature campaign questioning the colossal expenditure, while fishermen have also objected to the site of the project, which is breeding spot for fish. The fact that such a huge amount of taxpayers' money is being used in the project has had people complaining, and many have said the funds could have been put to better use.

The Congress and NCP are on the defensive, especially the latter, which has seen its top leaders under investigation for graft and one of its founding members, Chhagan Bhujbal, in custody for the disproportionate assets case.

Besides, the Maratha community is on the warpath over various demands including reservation, death penalty for the Dalit accused involved in the rape and murder of a Maratha girl at Kopardi in Ahmednagar district, and for scrapping or reviewing the Prevention of Atrocities Act (POA) regarding alleged misuse by the Dalits.

The Marathas are also irked by the 'Maharashtra Bhushan' award conferred by the state government on Brahmin bard Babasaheb Purandare, which again highlights the discontent many Marathas have regarding Brahmins.

This uneasiness has grown ever since Devendra Fadnavis, a Brahmin, became the chief minister. The community has continued with its agitations even though some major demands were already taken care of. Fadnavis had already raised the maximum income limit for eligibility for economically backward class concessions for students to Rs 6 lakh per annum, filed a chargesheet in the Kopardi case demanding capital punishment, is fighting a case challenging quota for Marathas and evolving consensus on reviewing POA.

Obviously, continuation of the Maratha stir involving turnout of lakhs of people and expenditure of crores of rupees, hints at the discreet hand of Maratha elites who are uneasy. Especially over some measures initiated by the Fadnavis government, like banning tainted directors of cooperatives from contesting polls and appointing two state members on the board of directors of cooperatives. Since the Maratha elites draw their political power from cooperatives, which also serve as political hubs, their discomfort is obvious.

For the Sena, on the other hand, the upcoming civic polls are an uphill task, with the BJP a new political foe on the battleground. BJP has nothing to lose and would continue with Sena-style emotive issues for political gains, even if it means ditching an ally or playing with it as per convenience. Even if there is no alliance before the polls, the saffron partners may come together to fortify the saffron agenda. But if the Sena loses power in the BMC, it may spell its doom.

Updated Date: Dec 23, 2016 22:27:59 IST