The recently announced results of the local body elections in Maharashtra have come as a shock for opposition parties who were hoping the tide would turn against the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) that has been on a winning streak in the state since 2014. They were hopeful the inconvenience faced by the people because of demonetisation and the resentment in rural areas would reflect in the election results, declared on February 21. Much to their dismay, on the contrary, the results have shown that the BJP has established complete domination in cities and strong presence in rural areas.
It either won majority seats or emerged as largest party in 8 out of 10 civic bodies. In Mumbai, it has won just two seats less than the Shiv Sena, which somehow managed to emerge as the largest party. The BJP also won maximum seats in 10 ZPs that handle rural governance and polled sizeable number of votes in other 15.
This is a hat-trick of wins for the BJP in Maharashtra. In 2014, it won 42 (including one by its ally Raju Shetti) out of 48 Lok Sabha seats. Six months later, it tripled its strength in the assembly to bag 122 seats and won power. Now it has dominated the local self-government elections. For a party that struggled, not too long ago, to make inroads into the state, which was often seen as a Congress bastion, this is a major achievement. And the way the opposition Congress and the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) are struggling, the big question in the political circles is: Will the BJP turn Maharashtra into its another stronghold like neighbouring Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh?
The early years in Maharashtra
The BJP, a post-emergency offshoot of the Bharatiya Jana Sagha, was born in Mumbai in 1980. But even a decade after its inception, the party was not a strong political force in the state. It was BJP leader late Vasantrao Bhagwat who made the first serious attempt to make it a mass-based party. He coined the term ‘MADHAVAM,’ the Marathi acronym is the combination of initials of non-Bramhin castes — Mali (gardeners), Dhangar (shephards), Vanjari and Maratha. Three of the communities are from the Other Backward Classes while Maratha is the politically dominant caste. Accordingly, the BJP promoted leaders such as Gopinath Munde (Vanjari), N S Pharande (Mali), Anna Dange (Dhangar) and late Suryabhan Vahadane. It yielded results as the BJP established itself among the OBCs, who were unhappy with the Congress which promoted Marathas, Muslims and Dalits. The party first managed to do well electorally in the 1990 assembly elections in alliance with the Shiv Sena. It was late Pramod Mahajan who understood the significance of joining hands with the Shiv Sena to expand the party’s base.
The rise of BJP
The Shiv Sena got first test of BJP’s ambitions in 1991 when its leader Chhagan Bhujbal defected to the Congress with a group of legislators, shrinking the party’s tally in the assembly. The BJP became the bigger opposition party. Munde then spent no time in approaching the assembly speaker to stake claim on the opposition leader’s post. He used the post to the advantage of the party by launching an aggressive campaign over corruption and criminalization of politics targeting then chief minister Sharad Pawar. The Ram Mandir agitation followed by Mumbai communal riots led to polarisation of votes that helped the BJP-Sena to win power for the first time in the state. At that time the Sena was big brother in terms of seats in assembly and the BJP had to play role of a junior partner. Following a split in the Congress that saw Sharad Pawar floating his Nationalist Congress Party, Mahajan convinced Bal Thackeray to go for elections along with the Lok Sabha in 1999. Mahajan’s plan was to take advantage of the split in Congress and get the NCP on board to form a government. Pawar, however, chose to go with the Congress.
The Modi effect
Like elsewhere, the BJP in Maharashtra owes its dramatic rise largely to Prime Minister Narendra Modi. During the Lok Sabha elections, the party won 42 of the 48 parliamentary seats. Six months later, it reaped the benefit of the Modi wave again to increase its tally from 46 to 122 in the assembly elections. It was just 23 short of simple majority in the house of 288. The party has managed to run a government comfortably after getting the Sena on board. The party has managed to retain its hold in the state so far as has been manifested in the recent election results. In addition to Modi factor, Fadnavis (chief minister Devendra Fadnavis) factor too has helped the BJP in recent elections.
Building on the 2014 victory
Fadnavis, BJP’s young state unit president, was picked by Modi for the chief minister’s job. He has lived up to the expectation of his boss. In past two years, he managed to create a positive narrative in support of his government by pushing several infrastructure projects, which were stuck during the previous Congress-NCP regime. His clean image too helped the party. The only doubt the BJP top brass initially had was whether Fadnavis could win elections for the party.
Between November 2016 to February 2017, elections to199 municipal councils, 25 ZPs and 10 municipal corporations in Maharashtra were held. These elections covered more than 80% of the state population and as such were regarded as mini-assembly elections. Since the Fadnavis-led government is reaching its mid-term, these elections were also seen as a referendum on its performance. Ideally, this would have been a good opportunity for the opposition Congress and NCP to bounce back after their crushing defeat in 2014 Lok Sabha and assembly elections. However, it seems the opposition parties did not plan well or didn’t take these elections seriously. According to some opposition leaders, they were under the impression that the people would vote against the BJP because of the inconvenience caused to them due to scrapping of high-value banknotes. In rural areas, there were visible signs of unhappiness over the agriculture polices of the Centre as well as the state government. However, they were proven wrong.
Fadnavis and his team worked out a proper strategy to fight the elections. It strategies included carefully portraying an image of a performing government through social media and advertisement, effective communication with the people through mass media, using resources cleverly for election management, getting winnable candidates from other parties if there were no strong BJP workers in a particular area and a campaign based on a series of surveys conducted in several cities including Mumbai. The opposition Congress and NCP were clearly outsmarted.
“Currently, the BJP seems to be riding the high horse. The party, especially the CM, has managed to connect well with the people in the past two years. Its victory, however, is more to do with the inaction of the Congress-NCP combine. The Congress is in war with itself,” remarks B Venkatesh Kumar, a Mumbai based political analyst.
“The BJP has managed to convince the people that Congress-NCP means corruption. We were expecting negative impact of demonetization, but the results showed Modi has succeeded in convincing the people that the step was indeed in their interest,” opines a key NCP leader and former minister.
Too much trouble for the opposition
The main opposition party, the Congress has failed to stop its downward slide that started in 2014. It could not win a single civic body in February 21 elections. Its vote share in districts fell to 19.43% from 26.84% in 2012. In cities, it decreased to 13.14% from 19.70% in 2012. On the other hand, the BJP’s vote share increased to 24.91% from 11.77% in rural area and 35.36% from 13.29% in cities. The NCP saw a marginal drop of 4 to 6 percent in its vote share. The Congress is clearly a party that appears directionless as of now. Its senior leaders like Gurudas Kamat and Narayan Rane were openly criticising party’s city or state level chiefs. Its campaign was lackluster. In fact, in past two years it was not seen as a party that could take on the BJP.
The NCP, on the other hand, is still unable to make up its mind on whether to be with the opposition or to continue hobnobbing with the ruling party.
So far, the BJP and the Sena were seen primarily as urban parties. The BJP has busted that myth with the latest results. This can now set the tone for the grand battle in 2019. As of now, the Fadnavis-led BJP seems to have an upper hand.