A gamble after calculations

“N a praant-waad, na jati-waad, na bhasha-waad; sirf aur sirf vikas-waad, vikas-waad, vikas-waad ,” has been a tagline Prime Minister >Narendra Modi invariably delivered at a higher pitch, in 26 rallies across Maharashtra over the last 10 days. “Say no to regionalism, caste and linguistic politics; let us only have politics of development, development, development.”

Aided by his close lieutenant and party president Amit Shah, Mr. Modi has been out to change Indian politics. By breaking the alliance with the oldest ally of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), the Shiv Sena, the Modi-Shah combine has taken a huge risk — neither blame, nor glory would be shared with anyone else.

The gamble was based on some good political calculations. “The educated people are all with Mr. Modi. It is stupid of the Congress to say that he has not done anything in five months. I will wait for three years before I say whether Mr. Modi has delivered or not,” said Chandrakant Raskar, 60-year-old owner of a motorcycle garage in Saswad, a village near Baramati, the hometown of Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) chief Sharad Pawar. Mr. Raskar, however, is planning to vote for the Sena candidate in his constituency, where he says the BJP’s candidate is weak. Even many Sena voters such as Mr. Raskar trust Mr. Modi. “He will investigate and send Congress, NCP leaders to jail.”

A Modi focus “Mr. Modi has done everything right so far. His popularity remains intact,” says Suhas Palshikar, professor of political science, Pune University.

The idea of a multi-cornered contest in Maharashtra may be restricted to sound bites.

Realising this, the Thackeray cousins — Shiv Sena (SS) chief Uddhav and Maharashtra Navnirman Sena (MNS) Raj — have focussed their campaign almost entirely on Mr. Modi, trying to portray the BJP’s Maharashtra project as a Gujarati conspiracy to take control of the State and reminiscent of the Mughal invasion of the Maratha kingdom in the 17th century. Mr. Modi’s tagline, in tune with the pan-Indian narrative that he has been creating, is an emphatic rebuttal of SS-MNS politics. “There is a strong middle class among the Marathis and Mr. Modi is more appealing to them than any Marathi sentiment,” says Prof. Palshikar.

“Pitching one linguistic group against another will not have any pan-Maharashtra appeal in any case,” points out Sudheendra Kulkarni, political analyst and Chairman, Observer Research Foundation, Mumbai.

Appeal to Marathi pride But Mr. Modi himself is aware of Marathi pride as an electoral factor and has appealed to Marathi sentiments by invoking symbols and memories that the region is associated with. The BJP’s big push is also backed up by the maturing of a project of canvassing the backward caste population — known as the “Madhav” formula, in which Malis, Dhangars and Vanjaris, three prominent Other Backward Classes (OBC) communities, were mobilised. Gopinath Munde, a Vanjari, had emerged as a pan-Maharashtra leader in the process; despite his demise recently, the process continues to galvanise the BJP. In all his speeches, Mr. Modi paid tributes to Mr. Munde.

Pushed to a corner, Uddhav Thackeray has shown an aggressive streak through the campaign, which is a sign of hope for the Shiv Sena. His predominantly young audience — unlike Mr. Modi’s that comprises a mix of all age groups — watches the leader with some curiosity and possibly a tad of scepticism, as a picture of his son Aditya Thackeray and then his father and Shiv Sena founder Bala Saheb flash on the screen behind him. In Pune city last week, he concluded his speech by invoking Bala Saheb. “You love me not because I am Uddhav, but because I am Uddhav Balasaheb Thackeray,” he said as the crowd clapped in approval. But his entire plan to moderate the Shiv Sena has been ruined, as he tries hard to challenge the BJP’s “Hindutva” credentials. “The BJP has compromised Hindutva. But we haven’t,” he repeats. The projection of his 24-year-old son as successor reinforces the narrative that Mr. Modi has woven — all other parties are corrupt and dynastic. Cousin Raj is not having an easy time as he echoes Uddhav Thackeray in his speeches. “Why is Mr. Modi starting a bullet train between Mumbai and Ahmedabad? Why not to Chennai, Delhi or Kolkata?” he asked a rally in the suburbs of Mumbai last week. From an outfit that grew by abusing Hindi-speakers, and which shared the legacy of the Sena’s campaign against South Indians, this did not sound particularly appealing. Mr. Modi has also rammed home the point that the Sena outfits have been extortionists.

Congress strategy While the Thackerays are fanning regional, linguistic emotionalism, the Congress is comforted by the fact that its 15-year rule, in >alliance with the NCP , is less of a discussion point. “With the Sena and MNS focussing on the drawbacks of the BJP and trying to rake up Marathi sentiments, anti-incumbency is no longer the primary determinant of people’s decision,” says Sanjay Nirupam, Congress spokesperson. “Mr. Modi is possibly more a liability than an asset for the BJP in Maharashtra.”

The Congress’s strategy is to keep its voter base intact, which, if it happens, can give the party some relief in a situation of a multi-cornered contest. But this calculation is based on the assumption that there is no significant anti-incumbency in the State, which is certainly not the case. The only thing working for the Congress is the fact that splitting with the NCP has helped the party recover some ground, aided by the perception that former Chief Minister Prithviraj Chavan is an honest person, and the enthusiasm generated among the cadres by the decision to contest alone. But Mr. Chavan’s “honest but ineffective” tag is akin to the image that Prime Minister Manmohan Singh had before the Lok Sabha election.

The Shah-Modi campaign Amid these self-doubting parties and their confusing campaigns, Mr. Modi has been able to consolidate a vote base for the BJP, mobilising enough majoritarian sentiment without making any controversial statements, projecting his tough cop image and promising instant development, in his characteristic sharp campaign. At a rally in Pimpri near Pune, and before his arrival, a recorded speech of Mr. Modi narrated the “killing of terrorist Ishrat Jahan” by the “effective Gujarat police.” Later, stressing the importance of a single party majority, he said: “When I went to the U.S., everyone was forced to listen because I am a Prime Minister with the complete mandate of the people. Now, I have no excuse to make for not delivering. I will deliver and when I seek your votes in 2019, I will count my achievements to you …Who says change cannot happen? Change has already begun to happen.”

Mr. Amit Shah, who has himself addressed 18 rallies, has been micromanaging the election with 55 coordinators — senior leaders of the party such as Union Minister for Petroleum and Natural Gas Dharmendra Pradhan and Bhupinder Yadav — put in charge of a cluster of 5 to 8 Assembly constituencies each. Under them are placed 280 Assembly segment level coordinators, mostly from outside the State. The entire BJP machinery that micromanaged the highly successful Uttar Pradesh parliamentary campaign has been supplanted to Maharashtra.

“The handicap of the BJP is that there is no State level leader who commands a wide appeal. But then no party has it,” says Mr. Kulkarni.

Multi-cornered? Unaware of the differentiated anti-incumbency that affects him more than the Congress, NCP leader Ajit Pawar evidently overplayed his hand, by deciding to go it alone. The public sentiment against the NCP is at play. The Thackeray cousins are peddling the regional-linguistic card with limited impact, and in any case, both cannot have the same plank for a long time into the future. The MNS and the NCP are fighting hard to postpone their extinction, and the NCP, with its deep-rooted network of mofussil interest groups that sustains it, may be more successful than the MNS in achieving that.

With two parties — the NCP and the Congress — facing strong anti-incumbency, and two others — the SS and the MNS — struggling to offer any positive narrative, Mr. Modi comes across as the only messenger of hope. That is likely to ensure that the idea of a multi-cornered contest in Maharashtra may be restricted to sound bites. The BJP’s edge over the others is not easy to miss in Maharashtra.


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Printable version | Jun 26, 2022 3:36:14 am | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/lead/A-gamble-after-calculations/article62118970.ece