HT Explains: A 5-point FAQ on the Lok Sabha battle in Maharashtra | Latest News India - Hindustan Times
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HT Explains: A 5-point FAQ on the Lok Sabha battle in Maharashtra

May 17, 2024 05:21 PM IST

By splitting two strong regional parties, Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has weakened them but it remains to be seen whether it has strengthened itself

Mumbai: Maharashtra, which sends the second-highest Members of Parliament (MP) to Lok Sabha (48), is a key swing state in this election. In 2019, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-Shiv Sena alliance supported by one independent MP (Navneet Rana from Amravati) swept the state with 43 seats. Five years on, the state’s politics is considerably fragmented with the split in the Shiv Sena and the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP). How these following five questions play out will decide the 2024 mandate in the state:

Prime Minister Narendra Modi campaigning in Mumbai (Bloomberg)
Prime Minister Narendra Modi campaigning in Mumbai (Bloomberg)

Will splitting the Shiv Sena and the NCP help the BJP?

In the 2014 and 2019 elections, at the height of the Modi wave, and when it was in alliance with the Shiv Sena, the BJP won 23 seats, and its vote share hovered a few decimal points above 27%. Following the split with the Shiv Sena, it became clear that the party needed another ally to continue to do well. The BJP’s stated aim is to win 45 seats in Maharashtra. By splitting two strong regional parties, it has weakened them but it remains to be seen whether it has strengthened itself. In an election that has largely become about local issues and sentiment, the anger on the ground about breaking up the Shiv Sena and the NCP will impact the electoral arithmetic.

Will the Maratha agitation have an impact?

The Maratha community comprises 38% of the state’s population. It is a dominant force in the state’s politics with an overwhelming majority of Maharashtra’s chief ministers having been Marathas. The nine-month-long agitation led by reservation activist Manoj Jarange-Patil has had considerable traction, especially in Marathwada. At the same time, the Eknath Shinde government’s move to provide reservation to a section of the Marathas under the Other Backward Class (OBC) category by enveloping them in the Kunbi fold—as they were classified under the Nizamshahi rule—has created unrest among the powerful OBC bloc. It complicated matters that for a significant part of Jarange-Patil’s agitation, the chief minister and his two deputies spoke at variance with one another. While Shinde proposed the idea of reservation under the Kunbi fold to bypass the 50% cap, Devendra Fadnavis, especially, and Ajit Pawar, consistently opposed the idea of engaging with Jarange-Patil. Shinde’s cabinet colleague Chhagan Bhujbal, a powerful OBC leader, too rallied against the Maratha reservation.

So, how will this play out in the election? In the eight constituencies in Marathwada, there is a discernible impact among the pro-Maratha agitators. The OBC agitation will have a bearing on electoral outcomes in Nashik and Dindori in north Maharashtra, in Raigad and Ratnagiri-Sindhudurg in the Konkan belt, and also in the 10 seats in the Vidarbha region.

Can Uddhav Thackeray reinvent his party and maintain his relevance?

The chief reason the BJP split the Shiv Sena was that a strong Shiv Sena would never allow the party to become hegemonic in Maharashtra. When the BJP first came to power in the state in 1995, it was on the back of the Shiv Sena. Mumbai continues to be a Thackeray stronghold with their control of the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC). In the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, the Sena won six of the 10 seats in the Mumbai Metropolitan region. In the 2014 and 2019 elections, while the party’s tally was constant at 18, its vote share went up from 20.63% in 2014 to 23.29% in 2019. When the split with the BJP happened over sharing the chief ministership after the 2019 assembly win, it not only shocked the BJP but also alarmed it. In opposition, the Shiv Sena would be its only ideological rival and one that also mined the nativist narrative successfully.

The 2022 split in the Shiv Sena has left the party bleeding men and money. Uddhav Thackeray lost the party name, and symbol, while the bulk of his lawmakers is now with the Eknath Shinde. The ideological dilution by allying with the Congress has left a section of Sainiks confused and unhappy. Thackeray is trying to counter that by upping the rhetoric of Gujarati versus Marathi manoos. If he does manage to hold on to his seats, Uddhav Thackeray would have scripted a miraculous comeback.

Is this NCP founder Sharad Pawar’s make-or-break election?

Comebacks have no meaning for Sharad Pawar, for the stalwart Maratha never went anywhere. He has been the dominant force in Maharashtra politics for the last five decades, becoming the state’s youngest chief minister at 36. He broke away twice from Congress each time to build a new party for himself. But he is hamstrung this time around because of his advancing years. His daughter and Baramati MP Supriya Sule is the working national president of the NCP, but whether she is his true political inheritor remains unclear. This is why Pawar recently floated the trial balloon about a possible merger with Congress in the months ahead. It keeps his party in the long game.

In the previous two general elections, the NCP won four seats and its vote share remained steady at a shade below 16%. This time the party is contesting its lowest number of seats, and with all eyes peeled on the high-decibel Pawar versus Pawar contest in the pocket borough of Baramati, any wins will be a bonus for the grand old man of Maharashtra politics.

Will Eknath Shinde’s gamble pay off?

If there has been one winner in Maharashtra’s game of thrones, it is Eknath Shinde. His take-no-prisoners approach got him not just the chief ministership but also the effective control of the Shiv Sena right from under Uddhav Thackeray’s nose. But elections are a different game. Between chipping away at Uddhav Thackeray’s faction, and running the government with two powerful deputies from different parties, it is to be seen whether Shinde has also had the time to build a grassroots organisation essential for winning elections. He succeeded in getting 15 seats with hard-fought ticket negotiations, and on 13 of which he has a direct contest with Shiv Sena (UBT). Shinde’s political future hinges on how his party performs in this election. The BJP will be keeping a close eye on him to assess if he remains a useful fellow traveller.

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