The Shiv Sena-BJP combine is fighting the Congress-NCP alliance to win fourth term in the Greater Mumbai municipal corporation.

Mumbai's roads came up for dishonourable mention in the Bombay High Court last Friday when a Division Bench said their condition was “unbearable.” The last year saw the worst of the potholes; even deaths were attributed to them. Parts of Mumbai resemble decaying space stations as the metro construction drags on interminably. The city, with one of Asia's largest and richest municipal corporations, has not resolved the eternal crisis of water supply, transport or garbage disposal. With another civic election on February 16, Mumbaikars gripped by déjà vu are being courted with dreams of a more liveable “international” city.

Huge budget

The Holy Grail of the February 16 election for the Municipal Corporation of Greater Mumbai is the Rs.21,000-crore plus annual budget of the corporation. After three consecutive terms by the Shiv Sena-Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) alliance, the Congress is desperate for victory.

The attraction of presiding over such a vast sum has even brought the Congress and Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) together for the first time in this civic poll in an attempt to consolidate the secular votes. Indeed, the Congress Chief Minister Prithviraj Chavan prefers to see the election in a national context, as mirroring the wider ideological war between the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) and the National Democratic Alliance (NDA), and declares that a “fascist” party like the Sena must not rule the city.

For their part, Mumbaikars expect little to change. Not even half the eligible voters came out to vote in the last two elections. A senior lawyer says he is more clued in to the Uttar Pradesh polls: “What does any corporation do other than b***** our roads?” On the other hand, for people living on the edge of survival in this city, in its acres of slums, the corporation is a behemoth that makes them homeless from time to time, and delivers little by way of civic facilities. Mumbai has 12.47 million people, squashed into an area of 480.24 sq. km. Most of the city lives in slums, unable to afford decent housing. On the other hand there are flats which cost Rs.100 crore each. The average price of a home, according to some estimates, is around Rs.1.91 crore. Land from over 50 mills in the city, one-third of which should have gone for housing the poor, was given away to build sprawling malls and offices in central Mumbai. When asked about its important achievements in the past five years, pat came Shiv Sena leader Uddhav Thackeray's reply: “The Olympic size swimming pool and public parks.” The Sena's 107-page glossy booklet outlines these and other such achievements, but uncleared garbage, overflowing nallahs, poor air quality, bad roads, traffic snarls, and the contortion of flyovers and skywalks belie the party's claims.

Manoos and Asmita

Such issues have taken a backseat. The joint Sena-BJP manifesto focuses on basic amenities; it also contains a promise of upholding Marathi pride. Though it is silent on the migrants' issue, hoping to wean some North Indian votes away from the Congress, quite clearly, the Shiv Sena is depending on “Marathi manoos” and Marathi asmita (pride) sentiments to retain power. There is no doubt the Marathi vote will play a crucial role in the election. Mr. Thackeray has infused new blood in the Sena's local units or shakhas; nearly 60 per cent of the Sena candidates are women, above the now mandatory 50 per cent enforced by the Maharashtra government.

Though Mr. Chavan and NCP president Sharad Pawar are determined to break the stranglehold of the Sena, it may be easier said than done. The undying charisma of Bal Thackeray among the Marathi manoos is also an important weapon in the Shiv Sena armoury.

The bonus for the Sena is the support of the Republican Party of India (RPI) (Athavale). However, the clear ideological differences between the two have upset Ramdas Athavale's followers. Despite this, even if sections of Dalits voted for the saffron alliance, that would help Sena's fortunes.

Road shows, door to door visits and meetings have marked a rather low key campaign so far. The Congress–NCP alliance was shocked that its first rally was a damp squib while Uddhav Thackeray's street meetings are attended by modest, cheering crowds. The BJP is hoping to cash in on its campaign song, a take on the popular “Kolaveri Di” number, with a slurred voice urging voters to put their stamp on the lotus. Raj Thackeray is miffed that the Supreme Court turned down the holding of his rally at Shivaji Park (it has been declared a silent zone), but his road show drew huge crowds. If only this were to translate into real votes for his Maharashtra Navnirman Sena (MNS), the Shiv Sena would lose out as it did in the 2009 Lok Sabha and Assembly elections. The MNS contested the civic polls the first time in 2007 and won seven seats. But even though it has 226 candidates this time, it has not really distinguished itself.

Independent candidates

NGOs too have stepped up their efforts, inspired by Anna Hazare's campaign against corruption. Akshay Shah, 30, head of iWeb Technology Solutions, from India Against Corruption (IAC), is among the 57 chosen by Mumbai 227, a platform for independent candidates. He went through a rigorous selection procedure with interviews by a professional human resources firm. He is up against strong Congress and BJP contenders but remains optimistic that “the tables can turn.”

The Congress campaign accuses the Sena of massive fraud and “misrule.” Its manifesto promises protection to slum dwellers until the cut-off date of December 31, 2000. Confident of the Muslim vote, but wary of a setback due to Mr. Athavale, the Congress has allied with another Dalit party. In 2007, the Congress won 71 seats, NCP 14, BJP 28 and Sena 84. The low voter turnout — just 45 per cent — helped the Sena. At 43.25 per cent it was even lower in 2002. There is no doubt that Maximum City needs a great leap forward in administration and infrastructure. A hoarding says, “Neta sevak hai, janta malak hai (political leaders are servants, people are the masters).” Mumbai can only hope that this dialogue will hold true even after the elections are over.

meena@thehindu.co.in