First on new symbol, has symbolic value

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Shiv Sena (Uddhav Balaseheb Thackeray) candidate Rutuja Latke and her son after voting.

Mumbai:

The Andheri East assembly bypoll in Maharashtra may not look like much of a contest for Uddhav Thackeray’s party after the BJP withdrew its candidate, but the symbolism — quite literally — stands out. And the eye is on main prize Mumbai, where a prestige battle for the cash-rich municipal corporation is due anytime now.

The bypoll in Andheri, part of the Mumbai metropolitan area, carries two key firsts.

It’s the first poll contest after the Shiv Sena was cleaved into two as Eknath Shinde unseated Uddhav Thackeray to become Chief Minister with the BJP’s backing.

And it’s the first in decades that the Thackerays-led Sena is fighting with a new name — Shiv Sena (Uddhav Balasaheb Thackeray) — and a new symbol, the ‘mashaal’ or flaming torch. The original name and bow-and-arrow symbol remain, for now, with the Election Commission that gave Eknath Shinde’s faction, which backed the BJP candidate here, the name Balasahebanchi Shiv Sena and sword-and-shield as symbol.

One thing remains consistent: the state’s tradition of parties not fielding a candidate if the election is held because of the death of a sitting legislator, and their family is in the contest.

After Shiv Sena MLA Ramesh Latke’s death, the Thackerays have put up his wife Rutuja Latke, who is facing seven independents. She’s strengthened by the backing of the Congress and NCP, partners in the Maha Vikas Aghadi whose government fell after the Sena mutiny.

The BJP’s move to withdraw its candidate Muruji Patel, attributed to “sympathy factor”, isn’t devoid of cold calculation — to make the likely victory less sweet for Team Thackeray.

Team Thackeray’s Sanjay Raut has claimed the BJP decided to withdraw fearing defeat: “The BJP conducted a survey which predicted that its candidate (Murji Patel) would lose by at least 45,000 votes.”

The Shinde faction doesn’t have much of a presence here, meaning the BJP was mostly on its own against Team Thackeray’s loyal Marathi voter.

Even Uddhav’s estranged cousin Raj Thackeray, who too banks on the Marathi pride card, had asked the BJP to not field a candidate. “We have previously, too, not contested some of the bypolls,” state BJP chief Chandrashekhar Bawankule said after the withdrawal on “moral grounds”.

Uddhav Thackeray’s faction saw it all as “a script to save face” ahead of the big election for the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation.

The Shiv Sena has ruled the BMC — currently run by an administrator as the last term ended early this year — for 25 years. That’s where the factional fight will test who claims the legacy of Sena founder Bal Thackeray, Uddhav Thackeray’s father.

Mumbai, with its giant size, financial heft and Bollywood glamour, is seen as a “garh” or citadel of Team Thackeray. Neighbouring Thane is where Eknath Shinde draws his strength from. Uddhav Thackeray’s biggest win in the factional fight so far also had Mumbai’s iconic Shivaji Park at its centre as he managed to hold the Sena’s annual Dussehra rally here after a court battle.

The Shiv Sena does have a history of contesting on different symbols before it got bow-and-arrow in 1989 after recognition as a regional party. For 23 years before that — since inception in 1966 — it had used the flaming torch or sword-and-shield among other symbols, Newslaundry reported, quoting veteran political watchers.

In Andheri East, in the previous election, Ramesh Latke defeated Murji Patel, who contested as an independent, by over 15,000 votes. His wife Rutuja Latke — who worked in the BMC as a clerk and could file her nomination only after a court ordered the civic body to accept her resignation — will get the remaining term of less than two years if she wins.

The counting and result are scheduled for Sunday, November 6.

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