Maharashtra: On a High

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With the near eclipse of Congress and NCP in Maharashtra, BJP sets its sights on a bigger score in the forthcoming Assembly elections

BY MOST EXPECTATIONS, Maharashtra was going to be much more evenly contested than the last 2014 Lok Sabha election. Both alliances had more in common than they would care to admit. If there was infighting and factionalism within the ranks of the Congress and Nationalist Congress Party (NCP), then there were, until a few months before the polls, daily snipes between the Bharatiya Janta Party (BJP) and Shiv Sena. Both alliances recruited or benefited from characters whose ideologies were closer to their opponents. If there was Raj Thackeray to push the Maratha vote towards the NCP and Congress, then there was the Prakash Ambedkar-led Vanchit Bahujan Aghadi (VBA), an alliance between Ambedkar’s Bharip Bahujan Mahasangh and Asaduddin Owaisi’s Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen, which was going to cut the backward caste and Muslim votes of the NCP and Congress. Both the NCP and Congress claim Ambedkar was working on the behest of the BJP, a charge he denies. And if the BJP and Sena had Modi to fall back on, the rivals had a host of local issues, from agrarian distress to discontentment in Maratha and Dalit communities. Congress’ Mumbai chief Milind Deora claimed that the last time round, people across Maharashtra, especially in Mumbai, held their noses and voted for candidates they did not like simply to get Narendra Modi elected as Prime Minister. This time, he said, it was going to be different. It wasn’t and he lost his seat again.

By most estimates, irrespective of the voting patterns in other states, Maharashtra was going to throw up something of a fractured mandate, the 48 seats being carved up almost half for each of the two big alliances. Senior journalist and political commentator Kumar Ketkar, also a Congress-nominated Rajya Sabha member, claims he was more circumspect then. “I thought at most, Congress and NCP would win between 14 and 16 seats,” he says. “I didn’t see them doing very well… The Congress, for instance, lacked a campaign in places like Mumbai.”

The results went against all the conventional predictions. The BJP and Shiv Sena won a total of 41 seats, same as they did last year. “We were really taken aback with the results. I will tell you with real honesty. [Congress was] expecting a much better result,” says Sachin Sawant, a general secretary in the Maharasthra Pradesh Congress Committee. “I don’t know what went wrong,” he says when asked if their message of developmental issues in Maharashtra didn’t stick or they weren’t able to communicate it better. According to Ketkar, the election result reflects a deeper entrenchment of the Hindutva ideology in Maharashtra. Moreover, he points out, Maharashtra has been changing rapidly. Several smaller centres in the state are becoming more modernised and urban and with it more people entering the middle class, which tends to gravitate towards the BJP. “You have to remember Maharashtra has more cities and urban areas than any other state in India,” he says. “[Maharashtra has] the largest middle class. And these areas are moving quickly from semi-urban to metropolitan.”

The results indicate an important moment in Maharashtra’s politics. Until the last state election, in 2014, where the BJP acquired the largest majority, bigger even than the Shiv Sena, and a brief period in 1995, right after the Babri Masjid demolition and the Ram Mandir movement, when the Sena and BJP formed the state government, the state has usually been under the control of the Congress, and later under its alliance with the NCP.

The two parties controlled the state’s influential sugar co-operatives, credit unions and other cooperative organisations such as dairy and vegetable producers. It is from Maharashtra, as Ketkar describes, that “the so-called Congress system, with its ties with unions and cooperatives” came to be. But since 2014, the BJP—until a few years ago, the smallest of the four major parties in Maharashtra—has begun to grow at the cost of all others. One can argue the Shiv Sena, by dint of an alliance, wasn’t quite impacted in this election. But the Congress and NCP are now close to near decimation —the former won just one seat, and the latter, four in this election. And along with this rise of the BJP has come the decline of several of Maharashtra’s big political families. Ashok Chavan, a former chief minister, lost Nanded, considered his bastion, to a relatively little-known BJP candidate (Prataprao Chikhalikar) this time. Sushilkumar Shinde, another former chief minister, lost in Solapur. Nilesh Rane, the son of Narayan Rane, another former chief minister, lost Sindhudurg-Ratnagiri for a second time in a row. Even the Deshmukhs, who once controlled all power in Latur, from the zilla parishads to the Lok Sabha, are losing their grip on this region since Vilasrao Deshmukh’s death in 2012. The Congress lost Latur both in 2014 and 2019 Lok Sabha elections.

But the biggest fish who finds himself out of the waters in this election is Sharad Pawar. The reputation of the much-vaunted Maratha leader, the man always perennially on the cusp of becoming prime minister, a weathercock who, it was said, could always gauge which way the political winds are blowing took a beating this time. For the first time, a Pawar family member lost an election. That ignominious record goes to Parth Pawar, the son of Sharad Pawar’s nephew Ajit Pawar for whom the senior Pawar stepped back from contesting polls this time. Pawar’s daughter Supriya Sule won Baramati, but here too in some parts of the region her competitor had a better showing. Sule campaigned tirelessly in Baramati. This is far from previous times, when it used to be said Baramati was such a safe seat for the NCP that Sharad Pawar would visit the constituency only twice, once to launch his campaign and on the final permitted day of campaigning. He would spend the rest of the time campaigning for other party candidates.

The biggest fish who finds himself out of the waters is Sharad Pawar, the much vaunted Maratha leader perennially on the cusp of becoming Prime Minister

The NCP won only four seats, losing even Maratha strongholds such as Kolhapur and Madha. “There is a crisis going on at the NCP,” Ketkar says, referring to the rumoured power struggle in the party with Ajit Pawar trying to usurp control. “I think everyone is waiting for Sharad Pawar to pass away. The party will just implode then. And the BJP will be in the best position to pick its leaders one by one.”

One could see Pawar’s signature throughout this election in Maharashtra. He is believed to have been the strategist behind several of the alliance’s big decisions in the state. He signed up Raj Thackeray to unofficially campaign for the candidates of the two parties. (According to rumours, he wanted Thackeray’s Maharashtra Navnirman Sena (MNS) to be a part of the alliance but the Congress did not give in.) Sawant says this ploy came a cropper, as none of the constituencies which Thackeray addressed resulted in any wins for the alliance. Pawar was also leading rallies, resolving party disputes, moving around in Punjab, and, according to reports, working the phone lines to reach out to Naveen Patnaik, K Chandrasekhar Rao and the YSR Congress Party (YSRCP). He was expected to pull the strings of power at the Centre if the BJP could not muster enough numbers. Many experts surmise the NCP cannot survive without power for long.

Nawab Malik, a former state minister from the NCP, rubbishes this talk of crisis in the party. “Yes, the results are demoralising. And we are looking into the reasons. Let people say what they want to say about [Sharad Pawar]. We don’t agree with it,” he says. Pawar will be holding a meeting of all NCP district heads and candidates in a few days, he claims, where he will take stock of why the party performed so miserably.

When pressed further for a reason for their setback, he blames the Congress. “Look, there is never one cause. But the truth is the Congress in Maharashtra did not enter this election united. There was infighting right from ticket distribution onwards,” he says.

What about the NCP’s poor performance? “We are going to bounce back,” he says by way of explanation. “We turn it around in the state elections.” Pawar, as he points out, is already working on it, spending the last few days touring several drought-hit areas in Maharashtra.

The Congress and NCP also blame the VBA for their big loss. Both Sawant and Malik claim the NCP-Congress alliance lost anywhere between eight to 12 seats because VBA candidates diverted the votes. According to Ambedkar, they had no choice but to contest independently because the Congress was unwilling to offer enough seats to them. Sawant however claims Ambedkar was never interested in an alliance. Quite colourfully, he says, “They were sponsored by the BJP. The BJP gave supaari [contract] to them to do a ‘fidayeen’ attack on us.”

The big test for all these parties will now take place a few months from now in the state elections. According to Devendra Fadnavis, as claimed in a recent interview, the BJP-Sena will build on their victory in the state to claim over 220 seats. (The two currently control 185 seats.) If one goes by the Lok Sabha results, this claim does look possible. Within the 48 Lok Sabha constituencies in the state, which tally up to 288 Assembly seats, as media reports have pointed out, the BJP-Sena alliance led in 229 of them.

BUT THERE ARE other questions too. Will the VBA contest, either with the Congress-NCP or independently again? What of Raj Thackeray and the MNS? The issue of Maratha reservation also hasn’t stemmed. According to Vinod Pokharkar, one of the convenors of the Maratha Kranti Morcha (MKM), the group which led a series of silent marches in Maharashtra a few years ago, the community did not vote for the Congress-NCP because their leaders had done nothing for the community when they were in power for several decades. “We have given the BJP and Sena a chance by voting for them this time. But our anger is far from over,” he says. Pokharkar was one of four MKM members who unsuccessfully contested the Lok Sabha elections. According to him, they stood for elections knowing they wouldn’t win, only for symbolic reasons so that a message is sent that they can pose an electoral challenge if the current ruling party does not pursue their demands seriously. “[The MKM] did not issue any directives telling Marathas not to vote for the BJP. Even though we knew they were upset with [the state government].” The group will now meet in the next few weeks to decide on their future course of action leading to the Assembly elections and to decide whether the current government needs to be supported or not. This is likely to be a crucial issue.

Then there is also the small issue of the past friction between the BJP and Sena. With the BJP winning such huge numbers at the Centre, Ketkar points out that the Sena will have little option but to remain with the BJP. Will the BJP share the chief minister’s chair if both parties contest in an alliance and win an equal number of seats? The two may be ideological cousins, but which among them is the superior, or as the euphemism goes, the elder?

When the results began to trickle in on May 23rd and the BJP and Sena, assured of a large victory, held a press conference, a TV reporter slyly asked the question. Thackeray seemed displeased. “What is there for you to worry?” he asked. “You just come to the same venue after the Assembly results to eat sweets.” Fadnavis said, “I will only say, my elder brother is Uddhav Thackeray, and his elder brother is Modiji.”

Which all means, at least in the state, the question is still far from decided.