Maharashtra Elections 2019: BJP’s Prospects Hinge on a Nationalist Narrative and an Opposition in Disarray

National security and the abrogation of Article 370 are being used to garner votes for the Bharatiya Janata Party.

In the last five years, Maharashtra has witnessed drought, large-scale farmer distress, climate disasters, and also agitations for reservation by the Maratha community. The Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) recently released manifesto for the 2019 assembly elections in Maharashtra promises to generate one crore jobs for Maharashtra’s youth, a drought-free state, and also promises “50% women participation” in the state’s economic growth. However, while the manifesto attempts to focus on local issues, the rhetoric of the BJP’s campaign has been contradictory. Home Minister Amit Shah has called the state elections a “referendum” on the centre’s decision to scrap Article 370, while Narendra Modi accused National Congress Party (NCP) leader Sharad Pawar of being “pro-Pakistan.” Modi has called voting for the Devendra Fadnavis government in Maharashtra a vote to “embellish” democracy in India. 

The Congress and NCP have decided to contest the elections together, sharing 288 seats along with other coalition partners. Prakash Ambedkar, who formed the Vanchit Bahujan Aghadi (VBA) prior to the 2019 general elections to challenge the political hegemony of social elites in the state, has refused to join an alliance with the Congress, claiming that his party is able to eat into the BJP vote share—something the Congress cannot do. However, the VBA’s partner for the general elections, the All India Majilis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen (AIMIM), has pulled out of their alliance over disagreements in seat-sharing.

Further, opposition leader Raj Thackeray was summoned by the Enforcement Directorate (ED) for appropriating funds, while the ED also registered a case against Sharad Pawar for alleged money laundering. However, Pawar has used this to mobilise party members and supporters. An editorial in the EPW argues that Pawar has used attacks by the ruling party to refocus attention on state-specific issues, reminding voters of the Fadnavis government’s apathy to the agrarian crisis and natural disasters, as well as the ruling party’s failed schemes.           

This reading list surveys the current political scenario in Maharashtra, how different regional parties could affect the BJP’s vote share, and looks at the impact of a nationalist rhetoric during the state elections. 

1) Wooing the Maratha Vote 

Suhas Palshikar argues that the Congress’s defeat in the 2014 assembly elections was more than just the party losing one of its last bastions in the country—it signified the desertion of Maratha voters. With the Maratha elite, which largely comprised of the Congress and NCP, now removed from state power, Palshikar writes that the Shiv Sena and the BJP are both enticing the Maratha community. 

In terms of numbers, no party can ignore the Maratha community, which constitutes about 30% of the population in the state, the single largest bloc by caste/community. Similarly, in terms of control over resources, no party can ignore the Maratha leadership. And yet, in the last 25 years, the hegemonic status of the Maratha leadership has crumbled. The deep division caused by the attention of most Maratha leaders shifting to urban material interests was one dimension of the decline.

To tap into this voter base, Palshikar writes that the BJP may have to change its strategy in Maharashtra. 

Since the 1990s, in Maharashtra, the BJP has consistently adopted a pro-Other Backward Class (OBC) strategy. When pro-Mandal forces were making all the appropriate ideological noises, the BJP in Maharashtra presented not one but many non-Maratha and non-brahmin leaders. the BJP could instead adopt the Karnataka model; where the party slowly built – through the 1990s – its base among the Lingayat community, allowing leaders from the community to control the state unit and become major players in state politics. The BJP may be tempted to buy peace with the Marathas, but it may not still fully adopt the Karnataka model.

2) A New Lease of Life for Dalit Politics in the State

Prior to the 2019 general elections, Prakash Ambedkar launched the VBA. Harish S Wankhede writes that with Dalits now constituting an increasing portion of the middle class, the VBA in Maharashtra can revitalise the Dalit voice in the state and provide a contemporary alternative to the Hindu right. Wankhede contends that the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh and the BJP have attempted to sway Dalits by representing B R Ambedkar as a reformist Hindu icon. 

The BJP wishes to showcase that they are equally sensitive to the ideas of Ambedkar and committed to the values of social justice. On 14 April 2017, the Prime Minister Modi visited Deekshabhoomi at Nagpur and made a loud political statement by announcing various welfare measures for the Dalits. Newer monuments, cultural programmes, statues, memorials and other symbolic events are built or supplemented by the current dispensation to showcase its sincerity towards Ambedkar and his followers. Further, the BJP in Maharashtra has promoted its pro-Dalit character by building a political alliance with Ramdas Athawale-led faction of the RPI [Republic party of India].  

More importantly, Wankhede writes that the VBA has immediately become a significant player in Maharashtra politics, winning nearly 7% of the vote share in the general elections, and Wankhede argues that the party is fast becoming a political nightmare for the Congress and NCP, whose vote share is directly affected by the VBA’s emergence.

3) Impact of the ‘Other’ Sena 

Abhay Datar writes that since splitting from the Shiv Sena in 2006, the Raj Thackeray–led Maharashtra Navnirman Sena (MNS) has become a significant-enough force to challenge the Shiv Sena–BJP saffron alliance in the state. Datar argues that by following the same brand of politics as practised by the Shiv Sena, the MNS is an alternative for this alliance’s voter base.

 Its capacity to damage the opposition and bolster the ruling alliance was even more evident in the assembly elections held in late 2009. While the MNS won 13 seats, its performance managed to deprive nearly a dozen seats to the saffron combine. One can easily speculate that had the MNS not been in existence in 2009, the Congress-NCP combine would have lost power in the state. As wags put it, it was the MNS’ railway engine that pulled the UPA’s gravy train to power.

4) The Effect of a Nationalistic Narrative

Rajeshwari Deshpande and Nitin Birmal write that the 2019 Lok Sabha verdict, where the BJP won 23 out of the 25 seats it contested in the state, is an ominous sign for single-party dominance in future assembly elections. The authors, in a survey conducted post the 2019 general elections, found that state-specific matters do not seem to be of major concern to most voters. Despite issues of agrarian distress, land acquisition, and the Maratha agitation, the BJP still managed to win a majority in regions affected by these problems.

We asked voters whether/to what extent the state government was able to protect the interests of farmers? More than 50% of the farmers in the state under our sample said that the government did not protect their interests much … These somewhat negative assessments of the government vis-à-vis specific issues, however, do not hamper voters’ perceptions regarding the overall performance of the government. More than 60% of the voters in Maharashtra are satisfied with the performance of both the central and state governments.

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