Maharashtra Politics: More than what meets the eye

The factions and their leaders have a tough Assembly fight in the making

Updated - June 17, 2024 08:20 pm IST

Published - June 17, 2024 12:15 am IST

Maharashtra Chief Minister Eknath Shinde. File

Maharashtra Chief Minister Eknath Shinde. File | Photo Credit: PTI

Lok Sabha election results sprung two surprises in Maharashtra’s politics, casting shadows on the forthcoming Assembly election.

The first unexpected development was an impressive show by Eknath Shinde-led Shiv Sena. It not only scored a much better strike rate than its allies but also defeated Uddhav Thackeray’s Shiv Sena (UBT) in seven constituencies out of the 13 contests between them. A silver lining for Mr. Thackeray’s party was the three seats it won in Mumbai and a narrow controversial defeat in the Mumbai North-West constituency.

Three inferences can be drawn from this result. One, Hindutva votes of Shiv Sena considerably remained with BJP and Shinde’s Sena. Mr. Thackeray could not carry many of these votes to the kitty of the INDIA bloc even though he galvanised the secular and anti-Modi voters in the State. Two, the issue of Marathi Asmita (pride) provided an edge for Mr. Thackeray in Mumbai but did not work well in the rest of Maharashtra. In Mumbai, Mr. Thackeray was able to forge a better combination of voters having faith in secular, democratic and federal (emphasis on linguistic and regional pride) polity. Three, Mr. Thackeray’s party lagged in proper election campaigns, including microscopic booth management, compared to strong local candidates from BJP and Shide’s Sena.

Over the years, Shiv Sena had grown with the consolidation of positions by local satraps in respective constituencies. Mr. Shinde from Thane is a prime example of this and many such Sena leaders sided with him. Many MLAs with Mr. Shinde can deliver victory in the Assembly election with the combination of their own cultivated influence in the constituency and the BJP’s loyal Hindutva votes. This has worked for Shinde’s Shiv Sena in the Lok Sabha election.

Overall, Mr. Shinde has consolidated his position as the Chief Minister and the two ambitious Deputy Chief Ministers – Devendra Fadnavis and Ajit Pawar – now have to deal with him. Ironically, Mr. Fadnavis can no longer afford to be seen hand in glove with Mr. Ajit Pawar in trying to clip Mr. Shinde’s wings. His association with Mr. Ajit Pawar is being pointed out as one of the main reasons for the BJP’s drubbing in the election.

On the other hand, Mr. Ajit Pawar must be realising how much ideology matters in politics. A large number of minorities, Dalit and women voters, who have been voting for Mr. Ajit Pawar in his Assembly constituency of Baramati, turned their back on him in the Lok Sabha election. While he would not mind returning to Sharad Pawar’s fold and the latter’s supporters are eager to welcome him back, it is unlikely to happen before the Assembly election. The octogenarian Pawar knows well that a sympathy wave for him will cease to exist if he shakes hands with Mr. Ajit Pawar. Even then, in the long term, he and his party will need Mr. Ajit Pawar to tackle a rejuvenated Congress in Maharashtra.

It is significant that Congress contested 15 seats against BJP and won 11 seats, which has reduced BJP to the miserable tally of nine seats in the State. An exceptional Congress performance can be attributed to Rahul Gandhi’s credibility and local cadre in the State. Congress has no hard-core members or activists like the communists or BJP. It has two different types of cadres. One, grassroots leaders who can mobilise voters based on caste affiliations and kinships. Two, conscious individuals who help in creating narrative at the grassroots level. When these individuals succeed in creating a narrative on the ground, the caste and kin mobilisation do not become blatant. At the same time, not having a dominant State leader provided space for sub-regional and district-level leaders to work for the Congress candidate in their own constituency or a constituency of their choice. These combinations of factors have placed Congress in a commanding position vis-a-vis the Nationalist Congress Party (SP) and Shiv Sena (UBT).

This has created an awkward situation for Mr. Thackeray. Since 2019, he has been consciously attempting to fill in the vacuum created by the retreat of Congress in the State’s politics. Now, Congress is back with a bang and Mr. Thackeray cannot return to the saffron fold due to Mr. Shinde’s strengthened position. He must continue with the chosen politics of inclusive nationalism, federalism and democratic values. Even when he has steered a mega victory for the anti-Modi alliance in the State, his own fate is still hanging in balance.

Similarly, uncertainties about Mr. Ajit Pawar in the post-Lok Sabha election scenario have complicated the State’s politics. The only certainty is that there is much more to come in Maharashtra’s politics.

(The author is an Associate Professor at MIT School of Government, Pune. Views expressed here are personal.)

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