The return of social justice and ‘Marathi Asmita’

In Maharashtra, the BJP’s manipulative political strategies only helped consolidate the voter behind the INDIA bloc

Updated - June 07, 2024 12:22 am IST

Published - June 07, 2024 12:08 am IST

‘The INDIA bloc built up an impressive campaign’

‘The INDIA bloc built up an impressive campaign’ | Photo Credit: PTI

Maharashtra has played a crucial role in causing drastic changes to the Lok Sabha seat tally of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) — from 23 in the 2019 election, it plummeted to a dismal nine seats this time. The BJP is a powerful political organisation in Maharashtra, and it was expected that the popularity of Prime Minister Narendra Modi in combination with the strong rhetoric of Hindutva would get the party good political dividends in the State.

However, the BJP failed to acknowledge the growing resentment against the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) in the State. The political developments of the last two years were poorly managed by the BJP, leading to its political losses. The Indian National Developmental Inclusive Alliance, or the INDIA bloc, on the other hand, had better political rhetoric, gave a voice to anti-incumbency sentiments among farmers, Marathas and Dalits, and built an impressive campaign around Marathi Asmita and social justice.

Machiavellian moves

The BJP invited sharp criticism in 2019 when Devendra Fadnavis tried to form the government by orchestrating defections from the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP). Though Ajit Pawar’s defection at that time did not help and Mr. Fadnavis had to resign soon after, it was a political move that caused the BJP much damage — that the BJP could manipulate political leaders and indulge in political harakiri in order to grab power. In 2022, the BJP was instrumental in causing the split in the NCP and the Shiv Sena which resulted in Uddhav Thackeray being removed from the Chief Minister’s post. The BJP then formed the new government with the support of two breakaway leaders, Ajit Pawar and Eknath Shinde. The BJP exhibited cunning in order to dislodge and pressure its political opponents into joining the incumbent government. However, such Machiavellian political moves affected the traditional character of the BJP in the most negative way possible.

In the early 1990s, the BJP was celebrated in Maharashtra as a party that was led by humble social elites (mainly Brahmins), and which stood out from the ‘ruffian and violent’ character of Bal Thackeray’s Hindutva. Further, with the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) offering the BJP ‘moral’ character, the BJP was heralded as the party that would challenge the Congress’s corrupt political actions by standing for ethical values. However, under Mr. Fadnavis, this image of the BJP was transformed into that of a party that makes compromises and uses manipulative tactics in dealing with its opponents. All this damaged the party’s reputation and painted it as a party that lacked political morality.

The BJP’s strategies to dislodge a working government only ended up creating a wave of sympathy for Uddhav Thackeray and Sharad Pawar. The ‘downsizing’ of Mr. Pawar at this stage in his long political life was not well received. Mr. Pawar is a stalwart Maratha icon who has the tremendous support of the farming communities. Further, Uddhav Thackeray, when Chief Minister, was seen to be both a popular and effective administrator (especially during the COVID-19 crisis) and a reformist Hindutva leader. These images were used to rouse Marathi sentiment, leading to the BJP’s campaign around Hindutva and Mr. Modi’s leadership being strongly challenged.

The issue of reservation

One also had the BJP’s response to the demand for Maratha reservation. Its delayed reaction to the Maratha reservation agitation led by activist Manoj Jarange Patil was not taken well by the community. Further, when the government decided to endorse Mr. Patil’s demands, it evoked criticism from the Other Backward Communities (OBC). Many OBC leaders, including Chhagan Bhujbal, viewed the government’s attempt to give quota to the Marathas as the BJP offering OBC quota to the Marathas. This was enough for sections among the OBCs to vote for the INDIA bloc. The BJP was unable to control the growing tussle between the Marathas and the OBCs, which only harmed the BJP’s prospects in the Marathwada region.

Another important development was the consolidation of the Dalit vote in favour of the INDIA bloc. In the last Lok Sabha, the Vanchit Bahujan Aghadi (VBA), led by Prakash Ambedkar, got close to an eight percent vote share, which helped in the defeat of the Congress-NCP candidates in at least a dozen seats. It was expected that in 2024, Mr. Ambedkar would join the INDIA bloc to stall the BJP’s juggernaut. However, his decision to contest the elections independently was not appreciated by the VBA’s conventional Dalit votebase which was in favour of political moves that would help defeat the BJP. Dalit voters, especially in the Vidarbha region, reposed their faith in the INDIA bloc and deserted the VBA in several seats.

A strong show

The INDIA bloc fought a charged battle against the BJP by building an impressive campaign around the need to safeguard constitutional values and the pride of the region, i.e., Marathi Asmita. So, the Congress became the focus point for social justice politics, the NCP-Sharad Pawar reemerged as the protector of the interests of the agrarian communities and Uddhav Thackeray impressed voters, especially in the Mumbai region, by reemerging as the true inheritor of Bal Thackeray’s legacy and the leader of Marathi Manoos. Against such a strong movement, the BJP and its allies failed to perform and ended up losing the election.

Harish S. Wankhede is Assistant Professor, Centre for Political Studies, School of Social Sciences, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi

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