Maharashtra elections: Hegemonic politics versus yesteryear’s glory
A tour of western Maharashtra, known to be an NCP-Congress stronghold, suggests the dawn of a new age of state electoral contests marked by a lack of a macro challenge to Modi.Updated: Oct 19, 2019 12:35 IST
It will be nothing short of a miracle if the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and Shiv Sena alliance does not return to power in Maharashtra. From the industrialised and cash crop rich region of Nashik-Aurangabad to the arid district of Beed, and even the Nationalist Congress Party stronghold of Baramati and former Congress chief minister Prithviraj Chavan’s seat Karad, hardly anybody has a doubt about the electoral outcome at the state level. This in itself is not a big deal. The BJP-Sena alliance will not be the first political party in India to recapture power in a state. Yet, the Maharashtra elections signify the dawn of a new age in the state’s politics, perhaps even in the country’s polity.
It is the beginning of electoral contests under a new national political hegemon, the BJP led by Narendra Modi. The biggest change under this new political regime is the lack of a macro challenge to the BJP and Modi. At least, this is biggest sense HT could draw from touring large parts of Marathwada and Western Maharashtra including Nashik, Aurangabad, Beed, Baramati, Pune and Kolhapur.
Let us first look at the micro picture. There is definitely a degree of uncertainty about how many seats the BJP-Sena alliance will ultimately get. There are talks about possible sabotage of each other within the alliance. The BJP wants to get a majority on its own and would like to see the Sena reduced to a much smaller force, is a common refrain. The Sena, aware of this fact is focusing on maximising its numbers, we are told.
“Bandkhors” or rebel candidates are a big headache for the BJP-Sena alliance in many places. In fact, there’s a rebellion right at the heart of the Shiv Sena. Bandra East assembly constituency (AC), where the Thackerays live, has the current Shiv Sena MLA Tripti Sawant contesting as an independent after being denied a ticket. Her late husband, a Sena veteran, had won this seat by defeating a BJP candidate in the 2014 elections. She was elected in a by-poll after his death. To be sure, the BJP and Shiv Sena are not the only ones facing this problem. In Kolhapur, the previous district president of the Congress is contesting as an independent on one of the ACs after it went to the NCP as part of the alliance. Kshirsager Jaydattji Sonajirao, an NCP heavyweight and a former minister has switched sides to the Shiv Sena and is seeking re-election in Beed. The process began before 2019. Murbad AC in Thane district has a BJP candidate who was an NCP MLA in 2009. These factors will probably affect electoral outcome in many ACs in the state.
Yet, the Opposition does not seem to stand a chance at forming a government. One reason could be that the Opposition is fighting a seat-by-seat battle, while the BJP has made it into a narrative driven political campaign and has got the Shiv Sena to endorse it.
At Karad, the constituency of former chief minister Prithviraj Chavan, everybody shows deference. “Prithviraj Baba has done a lot for us, He will definitely win” is the response we get from multiple people at the local market. However, there are multiple groups of BJP campaigners, men and women, doing their work. A local shopkeeper, who is on a WhatsApp group for Chavan supporters, shows us a video where people from Karnataka were ferried for Amit Shah’s rally in Kolhapur, 50 kilometres from Karad. The push by the BJP means that Chavan cannot be complacent. This is why he has been largely confined to campaigning in his constituency, and is not touring the state. At a time, when the Congress has been mired in in-fighting and the cadre is demoralised after the Lok Sabha defeat, a senior leader not being able to campaign in the state makes matters even worse. Chavan is not alone. In fact, the only Opposition leader who’s been touring the length and breadth of the state is Sharad Pawar. Even the Sena-BJP cadre and local leaders show respect for him. But Pawar’s respect is largely a product of his legacy, not necessarily a sign for the future.
In certain pockets, in fact, it is a liability for the Congress-NCP alliance.
At Prayag Chikhli, a village on the outskirts of Kolhapur, we met a bunch of old farmers. The village suffered badly in this year’s floods. There are water marks on houses up to first-floor levels. Their sugar cane crop was destroyed, and fields are still water-logged. This place is very close to Hatkanangale, which elected farmer leader Raju Shetty to the Lok Sabha in 2009 and 2014. In 2019, he switched to the Congress-NCP alliance and lost badly. What happened, we asked the villagers? “Shetty should have been the voice of sugarcane farmers, and he joined hands with the sugar mill lobby betraying us”, “He is not like Sharad Joshi (a legendary farmer leader from the state),” they respond. The sugar mill lobby is a veiled reference to Pawar, who is seen as a big leader of sugar industry in western Maharashtra.
To be sure, Pawar has his strengths. At Baramati, two friends in their late 50s, a lawyer and a doctor talk to us at a tea-shop in front of the local police station. The doctor is pro-NCP while the lawyer is a BJP supporter. “No one from Baramati had to pay bribes to get work done, when the NCP was in power. Ajit Pawar got my daughter admitted in an engineering college without paying the admission fees,” the doctor tells us. While the lawyer accuses the Congress-NCP of being corrupt, the doctor tells us the real reason for his anger. “He went for some work to Ajit Pawar and did not get help. Of course, the NCP is corrupt, but so is the BJP,” the doctor added. Herein lays an important constraint facing Sharad Pawar’s style of politics. With privatisation getting deeper and wider, there are limits to what state-patronage can do for a lot of people. It is even more difficult when the party is not in power.
What makes matters worse is the ideological assault which is now coming from the BJP. “I completely support the abrogation of Article 370 by Modi, but that is not an issue for Maharashtra,” the doctor tells us. Article 370 not being an issue in Maharashtra is exactly what Sharad Pawar has been saying in his campaign, while the BJP is trying to pitch voting choice as a referendum on Article 370. The NCP cadre, even in its Baramati office, does not want to talk about the issue. For the BJP-Sena cadre, it’s the ultimate vote-confirmation tool.
Article 370 is not the only issue where the BJP has been left scot-free by the opposition. Almost everybody in Maharashtra agrees about mandi or recession. Interestingly, the reasons are different. In the cash-crop dominated or industrial areas, its low farm prices and Goods and Services Tax (GST). In flood and draught affected regions such as Kolhapur and Beed, its rainfall. Yet, there is no palpable anger vis-à-vis the BJP.
Close to a hundred factories have shut down in just Aurangabad, we are told. Thousands have lost their jobs. Placements are bleak for engineering graduates this year, a couple of professors at one of Nashik’s biggest private engineering colleges tell us. But what’s striking is the fact that no political mobilisation has been undertaken to protest against the state of affairs. So people are relying on different solutions — from bringing petrol-diesel under GST (to reduce prices) to farmers sowing less onions for better prices and interlinking of rivers to tackle water scarcity in Beed. The BJP could not have been happier, given the fact that its welfare schemes have bought it some degree of insurance among the poor.
It’s not just potential benefit that the Congress-NCP alliance is losing because of its inability to raise issues at the macro level. Even existing supporters might be jumping ship. Malegaon Central, a Muslim majority AC, is one such example. The incumbent Congress MLA Aasif Shaikh is facing a tough contest and possible defeat at the hands of Mufti Ismile Kasmi, who contested in 2014 from the NCP but has jumped to All India Majlis-E-Ittehadul Muslimoon (MIM). His supporters cites the walkout by Congress and NCP over the voting on Triple Talaq Bill in Rajya Sabha as a betrayal of Muslims. The MIM has a different rhetoric in Aurangabad, where it has won the Lok Sabha seat this time. It talks about support from all communities and highlights civic issues such as waste disposal as the achievements of its new Lok Sabha MP. It would be a mistake to generalise that the MIM can draw away all Muslims from the Congress-NCP, especially where Muslims are not in a majority. But at Khuldabad from Gangapur AC in Aurangbad district, which has the grave of Mughal Emperor Aurangzeb and is very close to Daulatabad, the capital built by Mohammad Bin Tuglaq, a bunch of Muslim men in their sixties spill the beans. “We would have happily voted for the BJP candidate, but for his party,” they tell us. Why has the Congress become so weak, we asked? “Manmohan Singh, who is himself a religious minority, was made the Prime Minister for ten years, but he never spoke much. Look at Modi, even if he does little, he ensures that the BJP gets all political benefits. Why does the Congress not campaign like him,” they tell us.
Rights of religious minorities are not the only issue which the Congress could have championed. At a ramshackle tea shop in Beed, we met Rakhmaji Gavhane, a young man who runs an automobile part shop. He had a tablet with him. “I cannot support a Brahmin (Devendra Fadnavis) as chief minister, as a Maratha. The BJP has done nothing for us. The government should take concrete steps to address unemployment. They should organise free bus-service from villages to vocational training centres. Instead of going to colleges and learning useless things, young students should be taught English along with vocational training. Look at what China has done. I keep myself updated with developments from the internet, rather than TV channels,” he says. Gavhane is the local leader the Congress-NCP would have done well to enrol. He is not willing to defend the baggage of existing leaders of the Opposition. He has a vision for the future and a concrete action plan to develop one of the poorest regions in the state. And none of this prevents him from articulating a subaltern assertion against the upper caste chief minister the BJP has pinned its hopes on.
The NCP has fielded a younger member of the Sonajirao (the MLA who has defected to the Sena) family, to retain this seat. Even if it succeeds in doing that, the political narrative would hardly take a turn towards hurting the BJP-Sena at a larger level.
This is the real story of the political contest in Maharashtra in these elections. While the BJP is seeking a re-election to seek endorsement for the national transformation Narendra Modi is bringing across the country, the Opposition has been reduced to a bunch of local actors who are at best hopeful of winning their own seats. Whatever numbers the results throw up on 24 October, the gap in political capital of the two camps, BJP-Shiv Sena and Congress-NCP, would have increased manifold.