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Piecing together the Maharashtra mandate

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Missteps by the ruling alliance rejuvenated a moribund Opposition; a maze of social identities are now resurgent

The Legislative Assembly elections in Maharashtra this year took place in the shadow of the Lok Sabha election held less than six months ago. The alliance of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the Shiv Sena swept the Lok Sabha election, with the Indian National Congress being practically decimated and the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) barely managing to save its skin. As late as last month, it appeared as if the results of the Lok Sabha election would be repeated in the Assembly elections.

This perception was further strengthened by continuing waves of political defections from the Congress and NCP to the ruling alliance — of course engineered by the BJP, and aided by the disarray that the Congress found itself in. In the meantime, the deft handling of the Maratha reservation agitation, the discontent generated by the agrarian crisis as well as other issues had created an aura of invincible astuteness around the State BJP leadership, particularly the Chief Minister, Devendra Fadnavis. The ruling alliance began to speak confidently of winning more than 200 of the 289 seats in the Maharashtra Assembly.

Gains for the NCP

However, a series of missteps not only rejuvenated the moribund Opposition but also exposed the dissidence within the BJP. Initially the Congress and the NCP were running a lacklustre campaign despite having forged an alliance. The Enforcement Directorate’s notice to NCP’s party chief, Sharad Pawar, was an act that actually helped the party gain a second wind rather than putting the Opposition on the backfoot. The sight of Mr. Pawar, a septuagenarian leader energetically campaigning across the State might not have attracted many voters but certainly bolstered the morale of party workers. Mr. Pawar also ensured that the alliance with the Congress worked smoothly. The NCP also gained from the departure of many a powerful dynast from within its ranks. At some places, the party utilised this space to promote a new crop of leaders. Moreover, the NCP also introduced newer and younger faces in its electoral campaigning which also contributed to the party fortunes — it surpassed the Congress to secure the third position in terms of seats won.

The Congress too marginally improved its performance, something that must have astonished even its party leaders. There was no State-wide vigorous campaign, and only Rahul Gandhi addressed public meetings at a few places. But a closer look suggests the district-level leaders got their act together to win their own seats. These cumulative factors ensured that the Congress survived. But numerous challenges still remain. The defection of numerous dynasts from the party has not led it to look for and cultivate a newer generation of leaders. It is still dependent on old war-horses for its politics.

The Vanchit factor

The Vanchit Bahujan Aghadi (VBA), knit together by the veteran leader, Prakash Ambedkar, and which inflicted serious damage on the Congress-NCP combine in the Lok Sabha election, contested a large number of seats in this election. This renewed accusations that the VBA was merely the “B-team” of the BJP. Though it drew a blank, statistics suggest that it ensured the defeat of candidates of the Congress-NCP in at least a dozen seats. Conversely, the fact that the VBA came second in many constituencies implies that it has developed a strong social base of its own. It can be convincingly argued that in these constituencies the presence of the Congress-NCP candidates actually benefited the ruling alliance, and harmed the VBA.

But more significantly, Mr. Ambedkar’s long-standing argument that a handful among the elite castes have monopolised material resources and political power in the State to the detriment of Other Backward Classes (OBCs) and Dalits has been receiving increasing response. How the four principal parties deal with it and the manner in which the VBA itself capitalises on it in the future will determine the direction of politics in the State.

It is the Shiv Sena which has emerged the real beneficiary of these elections. Despite being a partner, albeit a junior one, in the State government, the party found itself outmanoeuvred by the BJP on all counts. In their political alliance, it lost the senior position to the BJP. The Sena had to perforce contest a much lesser number of seats this time than what had been customary. Yet, it managed to marginally improve its tally, thus giving it much needed breathing space and bargaining power vis-à-vis the BJP.

Dents for the BJP

The BJP was confident of increasing its seat tally on the basis of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s popularity and its message of muscular nationalism. State-specific issues were talked about sporadically. Welfare schemes which had a focus on individual beneficiaries were also not highlighted. The party could have positioned itself as the best placed to tackle the agrarian crisis which deepened in the wake of unseasonal rains during the election campaign. Instead it choose not to do so.

A multitude of micro-factors also had an impact on the BJP’s fortunes. If a poor selection of candidates cost it some seats, backroom manoeuvring also had a negative impact. Reduced victory margins in a few urban seats, particularly in Pune, was an indication that the party’s traditional voters are not willing to let themselves be taken for granted. In many constituencies, BJP activists rebelled against the Shiv Sena’s candidates, and as a result, the Opposition won. Indeed, there was talk of these BJP rebels being actively supported from the top order in order to defeat the Sena.

Furthermore, there were also barely perceptible ominous signs for the BJP. The party had long cultivated leaders from OBC backgrounds in order to rise against a Maratha-dominated Congress and NCP. Indeed, it seemed that the BJP was building a social alliance of non-Maratha communities, albeit with a sprinkling of leaders from the Maratha community. The decision to make Mr. Fadnavis, who is a Brahmin, one which has never really been central to recent electoral politics in the State, was regarded as part of this strategy. The near-resolution of the Maratha reservation issue was presumed to have neutralised the Maratha opposition to the BJP.

But the rhetoric of the Opposition campaign seems to have concentrated on these very points, turning them into weaknesses for the BJP. There appears to have been a reassertion of the political sentiments of the Maratha community.

The Opposition also pointed out that the BJP-Sena, with its predominantly urban leadership, does not comprehend issues related to the agricultural sector. There was also a latent focus on the Chief Minister’s social background, implying that he did not have the right social credentials to lead the State. These factors could have led to a setback for the BJP.

What the results portend for the near future in Maharashtra will depend on how the political parties tackle the agrarian crisis and the maze of resurgent and assertive social identities.

Abhay Datar is Assistant Professor, Department of Political Science, People’s College, Nanded, Maharashtra

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Printable version | Dec 11, 2019 8:59:17 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/lead/piecing-together-the-maharashtra-mandate/article29826131.ece

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