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BJP Replaces the Congress in Maharashtra

Rajeshwari Deshpande ( teaches political science at the Savitribai Phule Pune University, Pune. Nitin Birmal ( teaches political science at Dr Ambedkar College, Pune. Both authors are part of the Lokniti network and co-ordinated the NES in Maharashtra.


Long known for its Congress system, Maharashtra is transiting into a new party system under the leadership of the Bharatiya Janata Party. The second consecutive victory for the BJP–Shiv Sena alliance in the Lok Sabha elections in 2019 attributes a leading role to the BJP in the politics of the state. With the help of the National Election Studies 2019 data, this article tries to decipher the aspects of the still unfolding political dominance of the BJP and comments on the prospects of the state politics in the context of upcoming state assembly elections.

Despite its decline in the electoral politics at the national level, the Congress party had somehow survived in Maharashtra till recently and had therefore remained the main frame of reference for analyses of the politics of the state (Palshikar et al 2014). The frame cracked when the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)–Shiv Sena alliance reported their first substantial victory in Lok Sabha and state assembly elections five years ago. If the 2014 elections marked a demise of the much dilapidated Congress system in the state politics (Deshpande and Birmal 2017; Palshikar and Birmal 2015), the recent electoral outcome seems to have confirmed the arrival of a new party system in which the BJP is likely to replace the Congress as the dominant player. These developments are in tune with the arrival of what Palshikar (2017) terms as the “second dominant party system” at the all-India level under BJP’s leadership in the post-2014 phase. And yet, just like the Congress system of yesteryears, the regional variations of the yet unfolding patterns of dominance of the BJP would be an interesting aspect of study for the students of Indian politics in the coming days. As far as the extended West is concerned, the states of Rajasthan and Gujarat were already known as BJP strongholds. Gujarat became invincible when the support base of the Congress party there depleted fast. Rajasthan, on the other hand, has still been able to maintain a somewhat competitive two-party system. After two consecutive victories of the BJP–Shiv Sena alliance, Maharashtra presents yet another variety of BJP dominance in the western region.

In Maharashtra, it is still a somewhat shaky dominance for the BJP that will soon be tested in the upcoming assembly elections scheduled later in the year. At the same time, the 2019 Lok Sabha election outcome in Maharashtra provides enough indications to the BJP’s leading role in the politics of the state hereafter. The party’s prominence in electoral politics is obviously visible in its consecutive electoral victories. Along with that, other factors like its prudent management of the pro-incumbency sentiment during the five years of its rule, clever manipulations of the long-term association with the Shiv Sena, and its ability to diffuse the potential opposition emerging as an outcome of myriad versions of identity politics in the state also contribute to the BJP’s political success. The BJP is also trying hard to establish new social equations in the state’s politics in order to challenge the Maratha dominance—a trademark of the earlier Congress system. At the same time, the party has also been trying to win over sections of Maratha leadership by accommodating local leaders of the two Congress parties within its fold and in that sense too is all set to replace the Congress!

The post-Congress regional polity in Maharashtra is still a vibrant multinodal party system that has witnessed proliferation of many small parties in recent times. The formation of these parties was an outcome of multiple factors like weakening of the Congress dominance (Nationalist Congress Party [NCP]), crisis of leadership (Maharashtra Navnirman Sena [MNS], Republican Party of India factions) and also the material and political frustrations of different social groups (Swabhimani Paksha, All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen[AIMIM]) among others. The fact that the BJP could use the presence of these small parties to its advantage during the recent Lok Sabha elections has strengthened its politics in the state for now. And yet, it remains an open question as to how these multiple political contestations unfold during the next few months ahead of the Vidhan Sabha elections.

The Lok Sabha Verdict

The Lok Sabha election outcome in 2019 saw consolidation of the strength of the BJP–Shiv Sena alliance. It was an exact replica of their success in 2014 as they maintained the winning tally of 41 out of 48 Lok Sabha seats (23 for BJP and 18 for Shiv Sena—again a repetition of 2014) and claimed more than half of the vote share (51%; Table 1). The Congress could win only one seat (Chandrapur in Vidarbha region) and there too the party candidate was “imported” from Shiv Sena. TheNCP, led by Sharad Pawar, was hoping to reclaim the western Maharashtra region which has been its stronghold since its establishment. The party could win only four seats in all, three of which came from the western Maharashtra region. Compared to 2014, the NCP increased its electoral support among the Marathas of this region in 2019. However, the “Pawar clan” faced a major defeat on its home turf when one of its young family members lost the election to a Shiv Sena veteran. In Vidarbha, Navneet Rana, a popular Telugu film star won the Amravati seat as an independent candidate supported by the NCP. The AIMIM won its maiden seat from the state when it defeated a Shiv Sena veteran in Aurangabad, Marathwada by a slim margin. However, the party, in alliance with the newly formed Vanchit Bahujan Aghadi (VBA—literally meaning the deprived majority front) led by Prakash Ambedkar, did play spoiler for the Congress–NCP alliance in some key constituencies.

Other than these stray exceptions, the saffron alliance exhibited its complete hold across regions of the state during the 2019 Lok Sabha elections (Table 2).

The mostly rural regions of Vidarbha and north Maharashtra have always been strongholds of the BJP for many elections now. Even in the more urban and somewhat more cosmopolitan Mumbai–Thane region the vote share of the saffron alliance shot up to almost 60% this time. The increased support for the BJP (and Shiv Sena) in this region was mainly at the expense of Raj Thackeray’s MNS that had refrained from contesting Lok Sabha elections this time, but campaigned against the BJP–Sena. In all other regions of the state, the vote share of the saffron alliance shifted only marginally since 2014. In terms of their overall vote share, the BJP gained only slightly—in decimal points over its vote share in 2014 (from 27.32 to 27.59). Shiv Sena, on the other hand, benefited by 3% (from 20.63 to 23.69) mainly in the Mumbai–Thane region. The vote share of the Congress depleted further (from 18.13 to 16.27), whereas the NCP could hold on to its limited support base (15.97 in 2014 and 15.52 in 2019). A major chunk of votes in the Marathwada region moved to the other smaller parties (mainly AIMIM and VBA) to cause marginal loss to both the Congress and the BJP alliance. The BJP–Shiv Sena alliance also lost some of its support in the Vidarbha region since the previous elections. But it gained more support in the coastal region of Konkan. As far as the regional distribution of votes is concerned, all the regions except that of Mumbai and western Maharashtra witnessed a multi-cornered election where the smaller parties and independents could claim a reasonable share of votes, though not seats. In terms of votes the effective number of parties was 5.369 in Maharashtra whereas in terms of gain of seats the figure came down to 2.645 (calculated by the Lokniti data unit).1 These figures indicate the presence of competitiveness in Maharashtra’s politics despite the rising dominance of the BJP. If one indulges in sheer arithmetic calculations on the basis of the Lok Sabha victories, the BJP–Shiv Sena alliance seems to have advantage in nearly 230 (out of 288) Vidhan Sabha constituencies of the state at the moment. At the same time, the same arithmetic also tells us how the newly formed VBA (with its nearly 7% votes in the Lok Sabha elections) holds key to a sizeable number of state assembly constituencies.

Context and the Campaign

The electoral success of the BJP–Shiv Sena alliance in 2019 is mostly about the pro-incumbency sentiment that prevailed among voters and resonated well with the national mood. Like in many other states, it seems that in Maharashtra too, the state-specific context of elections did not matter much for the voters. As a result, the BJP could pull off its success in spite of a deepening agrarian crisis, the simmering crisis of the Marathas and a comparatively weak regional party organisation. After their collective victory in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, the BJP–Shiv Sena alliance had split during the state assembly elections in the same year. They reunited to form the government when none of the two parties could win a clear majority in those elections. Since then, the BJP had to face a constant “opposition” from the Shiv Sena which played a double role in state politics both as a ruling and an oppositional party. These survival strategies of the Sena had internally fractured the saffron alliance before the elections and local level infighting was rampant. However, at least as far as the Lok Sabha elections are concerned the BJP was able to successfully dodge these issues.

We reported the urban turn as a major factor in Maharashtra politics in our analysis of the 2014 elections (Deshpande and Birmal 2017) which had proved beneficial to the BJP. At present, the BJP controls more than 80% of the urban local self-government units in the state and nearly 60% of the fully urban Vidhan Sabha constituencies. During the past five years of its rule, the BJP-led government encouraged large-scale investments in urban centres—including the ambitious project of super communication, the Maharashtra Samruddhi Mahamarga—linking Mumbai and Nagpur. These investments were highlighted by the ruling party during its campaign and are likely to have benefited it. Despite the dismal rates of unemployment and growing inequalities, Maharashtra did not witness any organised politics of urban dissent over the past five years. The rural Maharashtra, on the other hand, saw significant mobilisations of farmers over issues related to minimum support price of agricultural products and also over the acquisition of land for developmental projects. However, these issues did not affect the prospects of the ruling parties in the 2019 elections. Instead, the BJP’s campaign focused on schemes like loan waivers for farmers; gas connections to families under Ujjwala and income tax rebates offered by the government. The government had also invested substantial resources for water conservation works in rural parts. It is estimated that these investments might have benefited the local contractors, and the BJP cadre, and boosted the support for the party. So far, Maharashtra’s record of implementation of the welfare schemes is not extraordinary. However, the BJP tried hard to use the welfare schemes to its political advantage. It made systematic efforts to reach to the beneficiaries with the help of its local cadre.

The Maratha crisis in Maharashtra had aggravated over the past five years when the issue of recognition of their backward status by the state remained unresolved (Deshpande 2014). The BJP–Sena government tried to resolve it ahead of the Lok Sabha elections through its decision to extend the benefits of reservation policy to the Marathas with an allocation of additional quota for them beyond the already existing reservations to different social groups. Similarly, it also tried to pacify the Dhangar (shepherd) community by granting them certain benefits on par with the tribals without the official recognition to their tribal status. Looking at the trends of the NES data, we get a hint whether and how these measures contributed to the electoral success of the BJP.

Outcome Explained

As suggested in Table 3, generally, it is the pro-incumbency sentiment among the voters that help us explain the second consecutive victory of the BJP–Shiv Sena alliance to a large extent. The sentiment is not only about voters’ hope in the national-level leadership of the party but also consists of positive assessment of the state government and of the overall developmental agenda.

For more than half of the voters in Maharashtra, party is the most important consideration for vote and more than one-third of voters had finalised their voting decision even before the campaign began. These trends, as revealed in the NES 2019 data, clearly point to the overall positive assessment of the government and the ruling parties by the voters in Maharashtra. These assessments combined with the support of different social sections of voters to the party resulted in the successful electoral performance of the BJP–Shiv Sena alliance.

At times, the assessments are at odds with voters’ perceptions of specific economic and political issues. 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. In its electoral campaign, the ruling party had publicised its welfare schemes for farmers a great deal. However, our survey did not depict many farmer beneficiaries of these schemes. Just about 3% of voters reported to have benefited from the income support scheme for farmers and around 5% from the agricultural loan waiver scheme. Even in the case of other welfare schemes, that did not target the farmers specifically, Maharashtra reported only a moderate reach. At the same time, 6% more farmers than non-farmers (Table 4) have voted for the National Democratic Alliance (NDA). We also asked respondents if the state government protected the interests of their community. Nearly 54% of voters felt that it did not. Such a negative assessment of the government is not as strong among the Marathas, though this is probably a result of the announcements of a special quota and other special measures for them by the ruling regime.

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 as reported in Table 3. Their satisfaction contributes to the pro-incumbency mood that helped BJP win the elections in Maharashtra and elsewhere.

The BJP’s support came from a range of social groups and the overall support for the two Congress parties has been shrinking. And yet, as presented in Table 4, the Congress in Maharashtra retains at least to some extent its character as a party of the poor and marginalised social sections. More women than men and more poor than the rich vote for the Congress parties. The Congress alliance also keeps intact its support among the Adivasis of the state, although a sizeable section from among them favours the BJP and its allies. Despite the entry of the AIMIM in the politics of the state, the Congress alliance remains a popular choice among the Muslims.

The AIMIM support is concentrated only in one Lok Sabha constituency where it probably benefits from the Dalit votes. Growing internal differentiation within the Dalit votes of the state is more evident in the NES this time. The polarisation of Dalit voters along caste and religious identities was witnessed in the past elections as well. This time, with the entry of the VBA the internal divisions among Dalit voters surface clearly. The (neo) Buddhist voters predominantly vote for non-Congress, non-BJP parties, whereas the other Dalit castes have moved away from the Congress and vote for the NDA. Along with the Dalits, the saffron alliance also gets significant gains among the OBCs. In the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, around 60% of OBC voters had favoured the BJP–Shiv Sena alliance. This support has increased by more than 20% in 2019. Earlier, we had reported how class rather than caste matters in the electoral choices increasingly (Deshpande and Birmal 2017). At the same time, the dominant political discourse in the state and at the national level celebrates caste and remains entangled in the caste-based patterns of identity politics. As a result, caste–community alignments seem to have regained a foothold in the politics of elections in the state.

In Maharashtra the caste politics interaction is most evident in the case of the Marathas. This erstwhile dominant caste of the state is in the grip of multiple existential crises over the past two decades (Deshpande and Palshikar 2017) and as a result has witnessed a continuous internal fragmentation of its votes. The fragmentation continues even in these elections as more Marathas vote for the BJP–Shiv Sena alliance than the Congress parties. Between the two partners of the alliance, Shiv Sena benefits more among the Marathas and so does the NCP from the Congress fold. Fourteen out of Shiv Sena’s 23 candidates for the Lok Sabha were Marathas and 12 of them won the elections. The BJP, on the other hand, mobilised OBCs when it provided candidature to major caste communities from among the OBCs. As stated earlier, the BJP along with Shiv Sena is trying to establish a new social equation in Maharashtra’s politics that challenges the Maratha dominance but also tries to accommodate them within it in a non-threatening manner. The data on social support base of the two main alliances presented here indicates the success of these efforts on part of the BJP. At the same time, the overall weak nature of regional party organisation across parties, keeps the social coalitions more tentative in nature.

The tentative nature of social coalitions and the element of competitiveness in the regional party system in Maharashtra keeps the BJP’s aspirations to acquire a dominant role in Maharashtra’s politics in check. The outcome of the Lok Sabha elections has set in motion a transition in Maharashtra that establishes the state firmly within the BJP fold. But, as the Vidhan Sabha elections approach, it still remains a challenge for the BJP to establish and retain its complete dominance in the politics of the state.


1 Political competition is often better understood in terms of the number of relevant or really effective parties in a system. Taagepera and Shugart develop a measure of effective parties. In their calculation, the number of effective parties is calculated separately for their relevance in terms of votes and seats. For further details see Taagepera and Shugart (1989: 77–91). For a detailed discussion on Maharashtra’s changing party system see Palshikar and Deshpande (forthcoming).


Deshpande, Rajeshwari (2014): “Seeking OBC Status: Political Strategies of Two Dominant Castes, Studies in Indian Politics, Vol 2, No 2, June–December, pp 169–83.

Deshpande, Rajeshwari and Nitin Birmal (2017): “Beyond the Congress System in Maharashtra,” Electoral Politics in India: Resurgence of the BJP, Palshikar et al (ed), London/New Delhi, Routledge.

Deshpande, Rajeshwari and Suhas Palshikar (2017): “Political Economy of a Dominant Caste,” Political Economy of Contemporary India, Nagraj R and S Motiram (eds), Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, pp 77–97.

Palshikar, Suhas (2017): “India’s Second Dominant Party System,” Economic & Political Weekly, Vol 52, No 12, 25 March, pp 12–15.

Palshikar, Suhas, Rajeshwari Deshpande and Nitin Birmal (2014): “Survival in the Midst of Decline: A Decade of Congress Rule in Maharashtra,” Party Competition in Indian States: Electoral Politics in the Post-Congress Polity, Suhas Palshikar, K C Suri and Yogendra Yadav (eds), New Delhi: Oxford University Press, pp 431–50.

Palshikar, Suhas and Rajeshwari Deshpande (forthcoming): The Last Fortress of Congress Dominance: Maharashtra since the 1990s, New Delhi: Sage.

Palshikar, Suhas and Nitin Birmal (2015): “Maharashtra: Congress’ Dramatic Decline,” India’s 2014 Elections: A Modi Led BJP Sweep, Paul Wallace (ed), New Delhi: Sage, pp 284–304.

Taagepera, R and M S Shugart (1989): “Seats and Votes: The Effects and Determinants of Electoral Systems,” Economic & Political Weekly, New Heaven: Yale University Press.

Updated On : 9th Aug, 2019


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