How the BJP's path to power in Maharashtra became a tale of strategic missteps - Hindustan Times
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How the BJP's path to power in Maharashtra became a tale of strategic missteps

Apr 21, 2024 02:18 AM IST

While the BJP successfully engineered splits in parties, its internal challenges and disconnect with grassroots issues may have left it in a precarious position

expIn 2014, riding on the Narendra Modi wave and thanks to the growing popularity of the party in Maharashtra, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) recorded an iconic victory in the Lok Sabha and state assembly elections. In keeping with its national success that year, the BJP also became the single largest party in Maharashtra and formed a government in the state. Its rising clout increased the confidence of its cadres and it was evident from Devendra Fadnavis’s iconic speech in the state assembly ahead of the 2019 polls wherein he recited a few lines in a poetic rendition “mi punha yein, mi punha yein!” (I will come back again and again) hinting towards the fact that the party was confident of a comfortable victory for years to come in the state.

Nanded, Apr 20 (ANI): Prime Minister Narendra Modi waves to the crowd during a public gathering in Nanded, Maharashtra on Saturday. Maharashtra Chief Minister Eknath Shinde and BJP MP Ashok Chavan also seen. (ANI Photo)(BJP media) PREMIUM
Nanded, Apr 20 (ANI): Prime Minister Narendra Modi waves to the crowd during a public gathering in Nanded, Maharashtra on Saturday. Maharashtra Chief Minister Eknath Shinde and BJP MP Ashok Chavan also seen. (ANI Photo)(BJP media)

Five years later, as the country and the state are set to face elections; Fadnavis’s speech is now one of the most circulated videos on WhatsApp groups and social media. Unlike 2019, however, this time it is being used as a meme with people asking who this “I” is as the BJP has currently put up a somewhat bizarre front of leaders from across parties in a bid to recapture power in Maharashtra. A party that once seemed invincible is continuing to struggle on several fronts despite its political clout and access to power. How and why did this happen? The reasons are most likely a mix of strategic misjudgment, lack of political expediency and desperate shortcuts to claim power without working on core issues and building its own leadership and cadre.

After tasting success in 2014, the party had an excellent opportunity to consolidate its vote-bank in the 2019 elections. It had the perfect formula to become a dominant player in state politics for many years to come: in power in the centre, alliance with one of the most powerful parties in the state (the Shiv Sena), growing popularity for the party and its leaders including Devendra Fadnavis and a strong appeal among different sections of voters due to its much-touted agenda of “vikas” (development). While the party managed to piggyback on the saffron wave in the 2019 Lok Sabha polls, its assembly performance dipped as it only managed to get 105 seats as against 122 seats it won in 2014 despite contesting in alliance with the Shiv Sena. The BJP’s vote share was also hit by 2% in 2019 in comparison with the 2014 state elections. Despite this, the party continued to demand the chief ministerial berth in Maharashtra, leading to disagreements with the Shiv Sena. Unlike instances in the past where the allies bickered and finally settled, this time, the growing disagreements and increasing ambitions of both parties led to a breakup of the alliance and created a political upheaval which finally culminated in the Maha Vikas Aghadi (MVA), an unconventional coalition between the Shiv Sena, the Nationalist Congress Party and the Congress, with Sena chief Uddhav Thackeray taking charge as the chief minister of Maharashtra in November 2019. If its inability to claim power, despite being the single largest party in the state, was a blow to the BJP’s political prowess, its desperate yet failed attempt to claim stake with NCP leader Ajit Pawar (who was ironically the biggest target in BJP’s 2014 electoral campaign due to his alleged involvement in the irrigation scam) was a huge moral loss for a party that set to assert itself as an invincible force.

Following its setback in the 2019 Maharashtra assembly elections and subsequent loss of power, the BJP strategised to reassert its dominance in the state's political landscape. One key element of this strategy was to engineer splits within the ruling MVA coalition. The BJP's objective was twofold: To destabilise the MVA government and to send a strong message that it would not tolerate a consolidated Opposition. To achieve these goals, it embarked on a series of manoeuvres aimed at weakening its opponents. The party sought to exploit internal dissent within the Shiv Sena and subsequently the NCP, capitalising on existing fissures and disgruntled factions. It used a trump card that it has successfully used in many parts of the country over the last decade – if you cannot get power, target the powerful. The historic split within the Shiv Sena, the exit of Eknath Shinde with the majority of Shiv Sena MLAs and MPs, and the success in wooing NCP leader Ajit Pawar to break family ties seem to be a part of the BJP’s single-pronged strategy to make a dent in two of Maharashtra’s biggest political dynasties, the Thackerays and the Pawars.

While the party successfully reclaimed its stake in power by forming a government with Shinde-led Shiv Sena and Pawar-led NCP, it spent a considerable amount of time, and its strategy of “todfod rajniti” (horse-trading politics) was a big distraction from the party’s touted agenda of “vikas”. During these five years, the party failed to consolidate its vote bank across social sections in the state and also failed to create a second and third rung of able leadership. The constant influx of leaders from different parties and ideologies led to confusion and affected their morale.

A BJP leader I recently spoke to lamented about this. “We have been working hard to independently set our footing in the state but now all our opponents are in our party. On the one hand, we trumpet our corruption-free image while on the other, we have inducted many leaders who have corruption allegations against them. They have been inducted with a promise of seats and power positions. This is a huge injustice to those loyal to the party for many years as they are left with nothing and now in many cases have to report to these leaders from other parties,” he said.

This is also evident from a recent tweet by Chinmay Bhandari, the son of senior BJP leader Madhav Bhandari who underlined that his father’s name was in talks for a seat nearly 12 times but was left without any ticket despite years of service to the BJP and the RSS. Chinmay's post surfaced following the BJP's nomination of Ashok Chavan, a former Maharashtra chief minister and recent Congress convert who joined the party recently.

Despite all the effort that went into re-engineering a bizarre coalition, the BJP is still on shaky ground in Maharashtra. On the one hand, its public reputation has taken a hit, as its role in bringing leaders from across the political spectrum — with tactics such as using central agencies to woo them with cushy seats — is now under the public scanner. On the other hand, constant internal pushes and pulls among its alliance partners have not left enough room for the party to come up with a solid people-centric agenda for the upcoming state elections. It is still banking on its power at the Centre and is hoping to convert the loyalties commanded by its leaders and those from the imported lot to convert itself into numbers without substantially involving itself in grassroots organisation and agenda building — a trait that is very unusual for a party which runs on RSS’s core ideology of “service to mankind.” Another crucial factor that has upset many voters in Maharashtra is the BJP’s neglect of the cause of the Marathi manoos and the assertion of its central leadership over matters of the state. The disinvestments of giants like Vedanta Foxcon and Diamond Bourse from the state and their move to Gujarat have created a sentiment that the BJP is trying to give a stepmotherly treatment to the people of the state.

Mumbai-based political analyst Ravindra Swami said that the BJP's struggle to expand its grassroots presence and cultivate local leadership in Maharashtra has been conspicuous. “Instead of investing in grassroots development, the party opted to support well-established leaders from other parties, aiming for short-term electoral advantages. However, this strategy is now proving costly, with recent events indicating potential repercussions. For instance, the defection of a sitting MP from Jalgaon to the Thackeray faction signifies challenges within the BJP's stronghold. Additionally, the rift within the party regarding Ranjeetsinha Nimbalkar’s candidature, leading to the Mohite-Patil family’s eventual move to Sharad Pawar's NCP, could potentially impact not only Madha but also neighbouring constituencies such as Solapur and Baramati. The BJP faces a dual challenge of quelling unrest among its loyal and seasoned leaders while simultaneously placating upset stakeholders who may be considering leaving the party before pivotal assembly elections.”

Whether the BJP’s ambition of capturing power in the state bears fruit in the end, only time will tell. But in a state that is struggling with several developmental outcomes and is seeing potentially one of the harshest droughts in its history, the losers are definitely the voters of Maharashtra.

Dr. Sanjay Patil is a Mumbai-based researcher who works on Maharashtra Politics and Urban Informality. His doctoral work looks at the journey of Shiv Sena between 1985 and 2022. The views expressed are personal

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