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Maharashtra Assembly Elections 2019

Local versus ‘National’ Issues

Dhaval Kulkarni (dhaval.kulkarni@gmail.com) is a journalist and author of The Cousins Thackeray: Uddhav, Raj and the Shadows of Their Senas.

 

The results of the Maharashtra state assembly elections held in October 2019 were assumed to be a foregone conclusion with the Bharatiya Janata Party–Shiv Sena ruling alliance set to sweep the polls. However, the Nationalist Congress Party led by Sharad Pawar won a large haul of seats and its ally Congress too improved upon its previous tally. The run-up to the polls as well as the immediate aftermath has been anything but smooth between and for the BJP–Shiv Sena alliance.

Like in John Godfrey Saxe’s poem, the outcomes of the assembly elections in Maharashtra do not lend themselves to simple explanations. Even the most seasoned political pundits and analysts were left surprised by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and Shiv Sena securing an almost pyrrhic victory in a battle, which was dominated by many undercurrents that were competing with each other.

The BJP may have emerged as the single largest party with 105 seats, down from 122 in 2014, but is a depleted force belying the confidence of most of its party leaders.

After the Lok Sabha elections in May 2019, where the BJP–Shiv Sena alliance defied predictions to sweep 42 of the 48 seats, the BJP had managed to wean away several regional and subregional satraps into their fold. With the opposition, Congress and Nationalist Congress Party (NCP), believed to be a spent force, the return of Devendra Fadnavis, the incumbent chief minister (the first after Vasantrao Naik to complete a full tenure in the post) with a larger mandate, almost seemed imminent.

Though factors vary for each assembly seat, the results of the assembly elections also present a question that require greater analysis and empirical insight—the differing behaviour of voters in Lok Sabha, state assembly and local body polls and the reasons for the same.

Fadnavis, who emerged from the ranks to elbow out veterans like Nitin Gadkari and Eknath Khadse, to become the chief minister in 2014, also cemented his hold over the party by ensuring that leaders like Khadse and Prakash Mehta were denied renominations.

Though there are chances that he may become the chief minister again, Fadnavis may have truncated authority, with his opponents within the party and ally Shiv Sena snapping at his heels. The latter witnessed its bench strength in the assembly slipping from 63 to 56 seats. Chandrakant Patil, who fought and won his maiden assembly election from Kothrud in Pune, and Sudhir Mungantiwar (both ministers in the Fadnavis cabinet) may pose a potent challenge for Fadnavis as he struggles to hold his own. Patil, who hails from Kolhapur, is said to be close to BJP president and union home minister Amit Shah, whose wife hails from the town. Shah and Patil (a Maratha), have also worked together in the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) student wing Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP). Patil’s eventual promotion in the state may be a precursor to Fadnavis shifting to the centre.

Like in Haryana, the BJP’s gambit of selecting a leader from a non-dominant caste, that too one lacking mass appeal, as the chief minister, affected them. Fadnavis, who hails from Nagpur, is a Brahmin. The Brahmins, despite their social and cultural influence, account for just between 3% and 8% of the population. Marathas (Kshatriyas/warriors) and Kunbis (tillers), who form an endogamous and non-endogamous caste cluster, form about 31%, and are the dominant community with their sway over politics and the cooperative sector.

Like the Congress in the 1980s, the BJP may have chosen a non-Maratha (and a Brahmin to boot) to play a new social equation by ensuring a pliant chief minister who would be beholden to the leadership for his position. Moreover, by displacing the dominant Marathas from the top rung of the power matrix, this could also lead to the consolidation of groups like other backward and smaller communities in the BJP’s favour due to the divide between Marathas and non-Marathas. Though this strategy worked during the local body elections, especially after the social polarisation caused in the wake of the Maratha quota protests, the Marathas seem to have coalesced behind the Sharad Pawar-led NCP in areas like western Maharashtra, helping it soar to 54 seats, higher than its tally of 41 in 2014.

This time around the situation will be a far cry from Fadnavis’s previous stint helming the strongest chief minister’s office (CMO) since the 1990s, dominating his cabinet colleagues and driving policy across portfolios.

Changing Scenario

Indeed, BJP leaders claim that Fadnavis’s bureaucrat-driven style of administration, which ensured top-down communication with little feedback from the ground, is responsible for the current state of affairs. The perception that Fadnavis had surrounded himself with a clique of politicians (some of whom had switched over from the NCP), babus, and selected journalists, and was unable to reach out to those beyond this circle, also hurt.

This disaffection among the people did not percolate into the hallowed corridors of the sixth floor in the Mantralaya (where the CMO is situated), which was surrounded by a near impenetrable iron curtain. In 2018, a farmer from Dhule, Dharma Patil, committed suicide outside the CMO as he was aggrieved with the paltry compensation in lieu of his land being acquired for a solar power project.

While the government waxed eloquent about schemes like the farm loan waiver, Jalyukt Shivar (water conservation), and the Aaple Sarkar (our government) grievance redressal portal, which were hailed as panaceas for all woes, the results made it clear that their performance on the ground was only subpar. While Fadnavis and the BJP’s spin doctors often claimed their government was free from graft charges, ministers like Khadse, Pankaja Munde, Prakash Mehta and Babanrao Lonikar had been accused of corruption and impropriety.

Incidentally, Khadse and Munde were seen as Fadnavis’s rivals for the chief minister’s post. Like his predecessor, Prithviraj Chavan of the Congress, machinations by Fadnavis against his rivals within the party are said to have affected the party’s performance at the hustings.

Khadse, who held multiple portfolios like revenue, minority welfare, and agriculture had to quit the cabinet in 2016 after allegations of impropriety in a land deal. While Khadse, who made no bones about his marginalisation in the party, was denied nomination from his Muktainagar constituency in Jalgaon, his daughter Rohini, who replaced him, faced a shocking defeat at the hands of the Shiv Sena rebel Chandrakant Patil (not to be confused with his BJP namesake).

Pankaja, daughter of the late Gopinath Munde, who is lauded for broadbasing the BJP in sections like the Other Backward Classes (OBCs), lost to her estranged cousin and NCP leader Dhananjay Munde from the family pocket-borough of Parli in Beed district in Marathwada.

Marginalisation of a Bahujan leader like Khadse, who belongs to the powerful Leva Patil community, with strong pockets in north Maharashtra, and denial of a renomination to Chandrashekhar Bavankule, who hails from the OBC Teli community, which is influential in Vidarbha, may have hurt the BJP in some seats. In addition, the influx of Congress and NCP leaders into the BJP and the positions of prominence given to them, is said to have angered old-time party loyalists and the RSS cadre.

Ground-level Issues

The BJP, as most admit, has been done in by its sense of hubris and overconfidence. Attempts by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, the BJP national president and union home minister Shah, and Fadnavis, to use issues like national security and the repeal of Article 370 as the poll planks, failed to cut ice with Maharashtra’s electorate despite the state’s martial history.

This was because local issues like the agrarian distress, downturn in sectors like industry due to demonetisation, tardy implementation of the goods and services tax (GST), worsening law and order, and general frustration at the lack of change on the ground, proved to be more relevant.

The defeat of several BJP and Shiv Sena leaders in districts of western Maharashtra is a pointer to how local issues such as the floods in districts like Kolhapur, Sangli and parts of Satara were more effective in influencing poll outcomes in a region, which has a large number of people in the armed forces. In Kolhapur and Sangli, the saffron alliance was virtually decimated as incumbent legislators lost their seats to the Congress, NCP, and in some cases,
to independent candidates. For example, agriculture minister Anil Bonde lost to a little-known farmer leader called Devendra Bhuyar of the Swabhimaani Paksha, from the orange capital of Morshi in Amravati.

Indeed, while the Congress, despite being the principal opposition, had a meltdown, the image of the 79-year-old Sharad Pawar addressing a rally at Satara in pouring rains, created an enduring image of a man past the prime of his life, in a formidable fight against the ruling BJP.

The Enforcement Directorate notice to Pawar in a money-laundering case in the Maharashtra State Co-operative Bank (MSCB) on the eve of the polls, created a wave of sympathy for the veteran politician. Though an aggressive Pawar forced the Enforcement Directorate to relent, it gave rise to a sentiment that the BJP-led government was out to target him.

This led to Pawar emerging as the face of opposition to the BJP in Maharashtra, as he toured the state addressing rallies and planning strategies. However, much of Pawar’s initiative could be attributed to the simmering anger against the party’s second rung and nephew, Ajit Pawar, deputy chief minister in the previous Congress–NCP dispensation.

In 2014, when the four principal parties, the Congress, NCP, BJP and Shiv Sena contested the elections on their own merit, with the BJP emerging as the single-largest party yet short of a majority, the NCP’s Praful Patel offered unconditional support to the BJP in the interests of a “stable government.” Modi had also been effusive with his praise for Pawar, but the relationship between the two gradually began to sour later.

The NCP and Congress had seen many senior leaders and legislators quit to join the saffron alliance, and this may have helped the opposition parties to promote a second rung on those seats. This may explain the defeats of “turncoats” like Dilip Sopal (Barshi), Vaibhav Pichad (Akole), and Harshavardhan Patil (Indapur).

Forced to Adapt

The Shiv Sena, which underwent a major leadership transition, also saw its numbers slip in the assembly, but was largely able to hold its own. The Shiv Sena, which has a much broader social and political base than the BJP, was in an alliance with the latter since 1989. Shiv Sena chief, the late Bal Thackeray, would always emphasise his party’s pre-eminence as the senior ally of the BJP in the state. However, the tables were gradually turned on the Sena after the patriarch’s death in 2012 and the emergence of Modi on the national stage.

After the runaway success of the BJP–Sena alliance in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, and a seat-sharing tussle between the allies for the assembly polls, the BJP snapped ties with Shiv Sena and overcame its status as a minnow. The NCP’s offer of unconditional support to the BJP reduced Shiv Sena’s bargaining power. Faced with prospects of desertions from the ranks, the party had little to no option but to join the Fadnavis government after a brief stint on the opposition benches.

Unable to reconcile itself to its junior role in the alliance and the overarching influence of the CMO in departments held by it, the Shiv Sena continued to play-act the role of an opposition party despite being in power. Just before the Lok Sabha elections, the Shiv Sena dumped its resolve to go alone and allied with the BJP on a premise that the latter would end up with lesser seats than in 2014, giving greater elbow room to regional allies like them and the Janata Dal (United).

However, these postulations were belied as the BJP won a stronger mandate due to factors like the Balakot air strikes and the resultant upsurge of muscular nationalism. A cornered Shiv Sena was forced to accede to unequal seat-sharing terms as against the previous announcement that the two would share the 288 seats in the assembly equally.

Five years of bad blood and sniping between the allies led to a situation where one party fielded rebels against the other. Most of the 13 independent legislators are Shiv Sena or BJP leaders, who were elected against official nominees of either party.

The polls also revealed cracks in the once monolithic Shiv Sena, with incumbent Member of the Legislative Assembly (MLA) from Vandre (Bandra) East Trupti Sawant, rebelling reportedly with the aid of a powerful party faction. This led to the defeat of mayor Vishwanath Mahadeshwar, who was the official Shiv Sena nominee for the seat, where the Shiv Sena’s first family, the Thackerays, reside. Zeeshan Siddique, son of former Congress minister Baba Siddique, won Vandre East in a five-cornered fight.

The Shiv Sena is now seeking that its newly-elected MLA from Worli in Mumbai, Aaditya Thackeray (29), the son of party Sena president Uddhav Thackeray, be nominated as the chief minister. Aaditya, who heads the Yuva Sena, and was launched by his late grandfather in politics in 2010, is the first Thackeray to seek public office. So far, no member of the Thackeray family had fought an election, in what differentiated them from other political dynasties like the Yadavs of Uttar Pradesh and the Abdullahs of Kashmir.

When the erstwhile Shiv Sena–BJP government came to power in 1995, Bal Thackeray had chosen to keep away from being a part of it, instead nominating Manohar Joshi and later, Narayan Rane, to become the chief ministers. However, Rane, who is now with the BJP after a stint with the Congress and experimenting with his own outfit, developed aspirations of his own and quit the Shiv Sena in 2005 after a leadership tussle with Uddhav Thackeray. This made it obvious that the diarchy of power between the party and the legislative wing would not work well.

Hence, Aaditya Thackeray’s political foray marks a significant watershed in the history of Shiv Sena as it lays down the line of electoral succession and sends out a clear message to the party’s ambitious grassroots leaders that there is no vacancy for the top slot in the government.

However, getting elected from a seat, which had significant party booths on the ground, was the least of Aaditya Thackeray’s challenges. The biggest challenge for the party would be to counter the BJP, which aims at wresting control over the cash-rich Mumbai civic body from it, and reaching out to an auxiliary constituency beyond its core “Marathi manoos” base. This may have to include sections like dry-land farmers, unorganised sector workers and tribals, if the Shiv Sena has to expand in the state beyond the traditional Mumbai–Thane belt.

As far as the Congress is concerned, it did not even put up a pretence of a fight, with party president Sonia Gandhi missing from action. The party, however, ended up netting 44 seats.

It is indeed ironic that when senior party leader and former Congress president Rahul Gandhi addressed a rally at Dharavi in Mumbai, he chose to focus on the Rafale fighter aircraft purchase rather than bread-and-butter issues that plague the constituency. For instance, Dharavi’s leather industry, which provides direct and indirect employment to a large number of its residents, suffered due to the state government’s 2015 decision to ban the slaughter of bullocks (cow slaughter has been banned since 1976).

The informal sector, which has a strong presence in what was once known as Asia’s largest slum, and has outgrown this reputation to emerge as an industrial powerhouse, was also affected by demonetisation and the present economic downturn.

Though the Congress lost its position as the principal opposition to the NCP, it belied all speculations to marginally improve its previous tally of 42, indicating that its core voters, namely sections like the Dalits and minorities, had stuck to it through thick and thin. The inroads among lower and lower-middle class Marathi-speaking voters (traditional Sena supporters) made by Zeeshan Siddique in Vandre East, show the latent anti-incumbency among the electorate that the opposition was unable to tap at a macro level.

Role of the VBA

In the Lok Sabha elections, the Prakash Ambedkar-led Vanchit Bahujan Aghadi (VBA), which had allied with the All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen (AIMIM) led by the Owaisi brothers from Hyderabad, spoilt the plot for the Congress–NCP, engineering their defeat in seven constituencies.

Fadnavis had claimed that in these elections, the VBA would overtake the Congress–NCP to become the principal opposition in Maharashtra.

Though the AIMIM and VBA parted ways for the assembly elections, the outcry that they were the “B-team” of the Shiv Sena and BJP, seemed to have cut little ice with voters. While the VBA failed to win a seat, losing the only assembly segment that it held, it hobbled the Congress–NCP’s victory in 32 constituencies. The AIMIM won two seats five years ago affecting the opposition in nine more.

The votes polled by the VBA and AIMIM, despite them contesting solo, hold many lessons for established parties. For one, many of these votes were “protest votes,” and the VBA’s moves to give microscopic minorities and hitherto unrepresented social sections like the Vadars representation in the electoral process helped swing support their way.

In the 1990s, Prakash Ambedkar had evolved a social engineering pattern in Akola called the “Akola pattern,” wherein smaller and political neglected castes and social groups were unified similarly. Ambedkar, the grandson of B R Ambedkar, went on to represent the Akola seat in Parliament for two consecutive terms in 1998 and 1999 and controlled the local zilla parishad. Perhaps a similar statewide replication of this experiment will help the VBA remain relevant in the coming years.

The Maharashtra Navnirman Sena (MNS) led by Raj Thackeray, who has the power of charisma but lacks the virtue called consistency, scored an upset over Shiv Sena, with its nominee Pramod (Raju) Patil wresting the Kalyan Rural seat. He is the sole MNS representative in the assembly, a sharp decline from the 13 legislators that the party could get elected in 2009.

A new government may soon be in place in Maharashtra, but the moot question remains: Does it make a larger difference to the people on the ground like marginal, dry-land farmers, contract workers, those below the poverty line—the Daridranarayan—as M K Gandhi referred to them?

The general fatigue with the electoral process due to a change in political regimes not being accompanied by sweeping or incremental reforms in the administrative system and gradual erosion of trust in institutions rings a warning bell.

In Latur rural, where Dhiraj Deshmukh (Congress), and Palus-Kadegaon, where party colleague Vishwajit Kadam won, the runner-up was not a candidate of any political party, but the none of the above option.

This revealed the disillusionment in electors about the political process in general, which must serve as food for thought for all political parties for whom the sole conviction is gaining power and holding on to it.

Updated On : 8th Nov, 2019

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