Tripping Over Caste Lines

Page 1 of 1
The Maharashtra BJP’s internal caste politics will do nothing to win the party votes in a state where its influence is steadily diminishing

A fortnight ago, the Maharashtra unit of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) got a new president. The announcement, made sans fanfare, has led to an eerie silence when there should have been jubilation. The appointment of hardcore RSS member Devendra Fadnavis as the state BJP president has failed to rejuvenate the party as its workers are unsure of the capability of this man to lead the BJP to success in the 2014 Lok Sabha and Assembly elections.

Fadnavis, a 42-year-old party MLA from the Vidarbha region, is an unknown figure in other parts of the state. An articulate member within the confines of the state Assembly, he is a regular participant in TV debates and is not someone who courts controversy.

His biggest achievement has been his weight loss—from 120 kg to his current 75 kg. A proponent of bariatric surgery, Fadnavis has been able to convince many members of the BJP, including former party president Nitin Gadkari, to go under the surgeon’s scalpel and cut away excess flab.

Fadnavis’ sway ends there. His appointment was unexpected. In the days since he has occupied the president’s chamber in the BJP’s regional office near Mantralaya, the state’s administrative headquarters, Fadnavis has lost many friends, one of them being Gadkari. His appointment is not a shrewd move; it is an attempt by BJP President Rajnath Singh to mollify Gopinath Munde, the only mass leader the party has in Maharashtra.

Munde, brother-in-law of the late Pramod Mahajan, has been at loggerheads with Gadkari, who has never missed an opportunity to cut the former down to size. During Gadkari’s tenure as the state BJP chief and later as its national president, he has wielded every weapon he could to ensure that Munde stayed on the sidelines. So much so that Munde—a heavyweight from the Marathwada region—had even contemplated quitting the BJP and joining either the Congress or NCP. As the Brahmin (Gadkari) versus OBC (Munde) fight played out in Maharashtra, the party dropped in strength due to negligence and a lack of willpower to reverse poor decisions.

About 30 per cent of Maharashtra’s population constitutes Other Backward Castes (OBCs). Unlike in Uttar Pradesh, Gujarat and Madhya Pradesh, this population is not united. They tend to support a wide spectrum of political parties. Recently, the NCP has been demanding reservation for Marathas and their inclusion in the OBC category. This has caused restlessness among those classified as OBCs, who feel that Marathas should not be included in this bracket.

This vote bank is up for grabs and the BJP is keen on luring it. But Fadnavis is certainly not the man to help draw OBCs into the BJP fold.

Gadkari’s downfall has brought added bonuses for Munde, like a considerable gain in his bargaining power with Singh, who also seems keen on reducing the Gadkari effect on the Maharashtra wing of the BJP. Munde’s first demand when Singh took charge was for a change of guard in Maharashtra. Since Sudhir Mungantiwar, an OBC Gadkari supporter and the state BJP chief, did not accord Munde the status he expected, Munde wanted him out. Munde’s threat to stay away from the BJP’s election campaign in Maharashtra had Singh eating out of his hands.

The BJP needs Munde; without him, campaigning for the Assembly polls would be a tough challenge. Munde wanted Fadnavis appointed, and Singh obliged. Fadnavis’ appointment has created another power centre in Vidarbha, which in all likelihood will challenge Gadkari and diminish his clout. Fadnavis will try to move out of the former BJP chief’s heavy shadow, and in doing so will ruffle many feathers.

While Fadnavis, like Gadkari, is a Brahmin, he will be putty in Munde’s hands, as on his own, will find it difficult to make new friends. He is not a mass leader and Brahmins represent a mere 3.5 per cent of the state’s population. This is a caste group that does not have much say in the politics of Maharashtra. Within the BJP, his anointment has caused more forehead-slapping than clapping.

In the caste-ridden politics of Maharashtra, the upper caste-obsessed BJP will have a tough time winning crucial votes of OBCs, who constitute an increasing vote bank. Other states have prominent OBC leaders such as Narendra Modi, Shivraj Chouhan and Uma Bharati who have been at the helm and developed durable vote banks—this is not the case in Maharashtra. While the Congress, NCP and even the Shiv Sena have been wooing the OBC vote through ‘politically correct’ appointments, the BJP has erred in its choice of leaders.

Fadnavis’ appointment is the latest in a series of gaffes in which personal animosities have emerged as being dominant over party politics. The BJP needs OBC votes, but the upper caste Fadnavis will not be able to deliver them, and mere tokenism will not draw Brahmin votes to the party’s kitty. Munde may be popular with the masses, but he is not so with a majority of the upper-caste dominated Maharashtra BJP.

If the party is to survive a complete wipeout post the 2014 elections, its leaders have to bury their differences and stay focused on winning. They have to work in tandem with each other instead of at cross purposes. The erosion of the BJP’s base is a direct fallout of the political ambitions of its leaders. Installing a BJP chief minister in the state would be a tough task, hence many dreams will stay just that. The over two-decade-long alliance with the Shiv Sena has not been kind to the BJP, which has been unable to expand into uncharted territories. Its areas of dominance have remained unchanged over the years. In fact, the party has lost seats to the Congress and NCP.

Of the 288 seats in the Maharashtra Assembly, the BJP is contesting 117 seats, 54 fewer than the Sena’s 171. BJP leaders are well aware that a reversal of fortunes, wherein a BJP leader would head a Shiv Sena-BJP coalition in the event that they win power in the 2014 polls, is unlikely. Therefore, there is not much eagerness to promote the BJP’s cause in Maharashtra among its own leaders.

Fadnavis is not the party’s man of the moment. There haven’t been many visitors to the BJP’s office in Mumbai since he took his post. On most days it bears a deserted look, certainly not good news for a party that is trying to attain power in Delhi.

Munde may have won round one. But it is certainly not a victory for the BJP.