Heavyweights set for a tough test in Maha battle of alliances
The run-up to the Maharashtra assembly polls, which on Saturday were set for October 21, was marked by a raft of defections to the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-Shiv Sena alliance, further demoralising an Opposition already reeling from its debacle in the Lok Sabha elections.
At least 18 sitting legislators have quit their parties to join either the BJP or the Sena in the past five months. One sitting MP, three former MPs and several former ministers have also switched allegiances.
The main electoral battle is likely to be between the two main alliances – BJP-Sena and Congress-Nationalist Congress Party (NCP), unlike in 2014 when all parties contested separately. The BJP and Sena are currently locked in seat-sharing talks while the NCP and Congress have said they will contest 125 seats each in the 288-member assembly, and offer 38 seats to eight smaller allies.
Other contestants in Maharashtra include the Vanchit Bahujan Aghadi and the All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen, who fought the Lok Sabha elections together but have called off the alliance that courted votes from the Dalit, Other Backward Class and Muslim communities and won one seat.
“Not in the last 30 years has Maharashtra witnessed this kind of a one-sided political scenario. BJP is not just preparing for a win but it is planning a massive scale of victory. As things stand now, it seems difficult for the Opposition to play catch-up,’’ said Abhay Deshpande, a political analyst.
The saffron coalition have set a target of 220 out of the 288 assembly seats in the coming polls, up from 185 in 2014 polls.
The opposition says the assumption that the fight is one-sided is false.
“This is BJP’s Gujarat model, where half of their party leaders are ex-Congress men. Despite that, the Congress vote share hasn’t dropped. In Maharashtra, the alliance’s vote share was around 38% even in the Lok Sabha polls. This one-sided election target of 220 + is nothing but propaganda by the BJP; it does not reflect the situation on the ground,’’ said NCP spokesperson Nawab Malik.
Congress state president Balasaheb Thorat agreed. “The way people vote in Lok Sabha polls and state polls is starkly different so the assumption that central issues or Prime Minister Narendra Modi will work now is not correct,’’ he said.
“We have the mandate of the people. It is now only a question of whether the opposition gets 50 seats or 20 seats,’’ chief minister Devendra Fadnavis last week as he inducted former NCP minister Ganesh Naik into the BJP’s fold.
The BJP has sought to pick up political heavyweights and established leaders from the Opposition to improve the party’s previous tally of 122 seats. Besides Naik, the NCP has lost seven of its top-rung leaders, several mentored by party chief Sharad Pawar himself. The party also lost one of its sitting MPs, Udyanraje Bhosale, also the 13th descendent of Maratha king Shivaji, who is now paraded as a star asset for the BJP.
The Congress has lost its former leader of the opposition Radhakrishna Vikhe Patil and former minister Harshawardhan Patil, among the big guns. “We can empty out the Opposition if we want but we don’t have space to take everyone. We are only taking those leaders who can secure a seat and where we may be a little weak or need of a change. These are long thought-out and planned decisions,’’ explained state BJP chief Chandrakant Patil.
The Congress and NCP say they expect internal trouble in the saffron parties over the claims of many aspirants. “This defection game can work both ways. There is a long list of aspirants from the ruling parties, who can join us ahead of election,’’ said Congress’s Vijay Wadettiwar, leader of the Opposition in the state assembly.
The BJP is banking on Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s popularity, the scrapping of Jammu and Kashmir’s special status and a bouquet of welfare schemes and sops announced by the central and state governments.
In urban areas, the ruling party is reposing faith in a campaign focusing on its infrastructure-driven agenda. For instance, the party hopes to talk about the state government’s Rs 1.5 lakh crore investment on infrastructure projects in Mumbai.
“The people are with us because of PM Modi’s decisive leadership and the central and state governments’ performance in the last five years. I am not saying we have solved all problems, but people have faith that only we can address their grievances,’’ said Fadnavis.
The Fadnavis government has succeeded in addressing the caste dynamics by granting reservation to Marathas and balancing the grievances of the Other Backward Classes (OBC) through a slew of sops.
To be sure, some activists and farm leaders say the agrarian crisis in Maharashtra may end up hurting the BJP.
“On the ground, rural labour payments have come to a halt, farmers have no money in hand, people are losing jobs,’’ said Vijay Jawandia, a prominent farm leader.
In its electoral campaign, the Opposition is set to raise the state of the economy, in which growth has slumped to an over six-year low, unemployment and the recent devastating floods in western Maharashtra.
“The BJP campaign propaganda is a bid to cover up what’s actually happening on the ground in Maharashtra. The state’s historic loan waiver is a flop, there is mass unemployment in the state, jobs are being lost and there is a stark slowdown. This sentiment will have an impact in the polls,’’ said Malik.
In the Sena, many leaders say that the party’s strategy of publicly criticising the government has helped it. “We are in favour of an alliance. And in national interest, we have always supported PM Modi and CM Fadnavis. But our commitment is to our voters so when it comes to issues like drought or agrarian issues...we will question the government,’’ said the Shiv Sena’s deputy leader, Neelam Gorhe.