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BJP's Assertive Pitch

Panipat of Marathi Asmita?

Mahesh Gavaskar (mgavaskar@rediffmail.com) is a social and political commentator based in Mumbai. 

The Bharatiya Janata Party’s decision to go alone in Maharashtra has opened up the political field and forced the traditional champions of Marathi pride to rethink their political strategy. Will this gambit by Modi’s resurgent BJP work, or will it be defeated by a reassertion of Marathi asmita?

When Raj Thackeray parted ways with Shiv Sena in 2006, the split in the Marathi votes of Mumbai was a foregone conclusion. As both battled for the Marathi vote in Mumbai – with at times Raj’s Maharashtra Navnirman Sena (MNS) securing an upper hand in state assembly elections, and at times the Sena retaining its hold over the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) with the help of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) -- it was never prognosticated that a day will arrive when the BJP would wriggle itself free from playing the subordinate role to both the Senas and stake an independent claim to the political mantle of Maharashtra . While the BJP’s decision to be on its own in the assembly electoral fray has state-wide repercussions, it is expected to have a peculiar fallout in Mumbai too, which has more than 10% of the total assembly seats. It is obvious that, on the one hand, an assertive BJP post its Lok Sabha victory and an evidently divided Marathi vote-bank, on the other, has propelled the state party, with the blessings of its central leadership, to strike when the iron is hot.

Political Disarray

Once the break-up of the BJP-Sena alliance became official the satellite parties in their Mahayuti (alliance) hung on to the coat tails of the BJP apparently in return for crumbs of central and state-level patronage. The Shiv Sena , suddenly jolted to the reality of its electoral loneliness, was forced to remind the non-Marathi communities of Mumbai, especially the Gujaratis and the north Indians, that it was Bal Thackery’s protective shield that had ensured their security all these years. The “integrationist”, alliance-building “national plank” of Hindutva was not available anymore to differentiate itself, so the hamstrung Sena had no option but to fall back upon its regional legacy under Bal Thackery. Even though some splinter groups of Dalits and Muslims have scampered to its canopy, the Shiv Sena leadership is faced with the stark prospect of not being in Mantralaya (the state government’s secretariat) in a post poll alliance. The Sena, aping the BJP’s Lok Sabha campaign, had launched its mission 150 and projected Uddhav Thackery as the prospective chief minister (CM). But with the BJP pulling the rug beneath the Sena’s feet precisely to prevent it from pre-determining the CM in a post-poll scenario, the Sena’s forward march has been abruptly thrown into disarray.

With alliances crumbling on both sides, the MNS, otherwise going through a miserable phase, is desperately hoping to recover from its electoral sick bed.  Known for its aggressive tactics in order to remain one step ahead of the Shiv Sena, the MNS has come up with a predictable blue-print demanding state autonomy that it expects will polarise the electoral campaign and deliver it maximum mileage. It is another story that this very MNS is holding on to the crutches supplied by the Sharad Pawar led Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) to run  the Nashik Municipal Corporation. The MNS has always championed the cause of the regional capitalists that seek direct connection with global capital flows. An economically advanced Maharashtra, in relative terms, comes handy to push images of its self-contained progress, unconnected to national policies. The MNS’s agitprop for federalism is least bothered about the need for equitable sharing of surplus, resources and responsibilities; it is obsessively concerned with seeking an escape route for local capitalists to court global capital without needing to enmesh themselves with the centre.

Ghosts of the Past

Ever since the defeat at the third battle of Panipat (1761) the Marathi mentality has never gained a collective self-confidence that can leave behind a national imprint; in fact, “Panipat” is often used as a verb in Marathi to indicate calamitous loss. Its violent brush with the centre during the Samyukta Maharashtra movement after Independence also left behind another bitter taste on both sides. Ever since then the  Congress’ central leadership seems to have remained suspicious of Marathi state leadership’s ambitions and has regularly cut down to size any leadership — whether of Yeshwantrao Chavan or Sharad Pawar — which sought to leverage its political experience to gain national clout.

In this internecine struggle, the NCP and the Congress were ever eager to go for each other’s neck, and the state’s development always came a poor second to this priority, even in their “tranquil” moments.  It was the rampaging Hindutva brigade that succeeded, from time to time, in channelising discontent against their nebulous secular front and forced these warring factions to close ranks. But with the opposition alliance falling into disrepair, the NCP was presented with an opportunity it was desperately looking for, to sever its ties with the Congress. Freed at last from subservience of 15 years to the Congress,  Ajit Pawar leaves no opportunity to announce that he is in the CM’s race. Now as he and Prithviraj Chavan (the Congress appointed CM till recently) freely volley charges of corruption and inefficiency against each other in an effort to ward off the fallout of anti-incumbency, it underlines another tale of a relationship gone sour between the centre and the state, between the region and the nation for the Marathi asmita (self respect).

No wonder, against these “treacheries” and “humiliations” that Maharashtra endured under the Congress regime, Bal Thackeray’s celebrations of local affiliations to sustain his anti-outsider and anti-centre politics gave a certain self-assurance too many a distraught Maharashtrian. Though Uddhav Thackeray makes it a point to remind Modi that the senior Thackeray had strongly backed him in the immediate aftermath of the Gujarat riots of 2002, he conveniently forgets to mention that the same Thackeray increasingly became wary of the rising graph of Modi’s popularity, as he emerged triumphant elections after elections in neighbouring Gujarat. Hence his shrewd ploy, in his last years, to back a non-threatening Sushma Swaraj in the race within the BJP for the prospective prime minister post and thus ward off Modi’s resurgent Hindutva from flooding Maharashtra’s plains.

A Risky Gambit

It was certainly to the chagrin of the vociferous champions of the Marathi manoos (people) to see a regional leader, who till the other day was harping on Gujarati asmita, suddenly fly and perch himself on the top-most national pedestal.  With a clear majority at the centre in three decades, it comes as no surprise that the BJP should start entertaining similar grand standalone visions at regional levels.  With the untimely demise of Gopinath Munde, an OBC (Other Backward Class) face from the backward region of Marathawada, Modi remains the only ace in the BJP’s otherwise desultory pack of cards.

By dumping the Shiv Sena, the BJP and Modi have exposed themselves to the charge of being anti-Marathi. But the Marathi camp itself stands divided. In such a situation, by throwing the field wide open and triggering off multi-cornered contests among more or less evenly matched contestants, the BJP attempts to frame the election not on the basis of which party has the CM’s face, but by unleashing a struggle for the survival of the fittest. No one, not even the politically aggressive Modi, can foretell whether their strategy of going it alone in the electoral battle will prove to be a “Panipat” for those who claim to be the champions of the Marathi manoos.

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