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Sunday, Nov 17, 2019

Maha polls: The battle in western Maharashtra

For the Opposition, this battle in its erstwhile stronghold is likely to be for survival and hence the most crucial. It is the only region in the state where the Congress-NCP retained some of their base in the 2014 Assembly polls.

assembly-elections Updated: Oct 14, 2019 08:09 IST
Ketaki Ghoge
Ketaki Ghoge
Mumbai
For decades, Pawar’s strength mostly came from this region and its co-operative doyens, who in turn got their clout from network of sugar mills, milk dairies and banks.
For decades, Pawar’s strength mostly came from this region and its co-operative doyens, who in turn got their clout from network of sugar mills, milk dairies and banks.(HT Photo)
         

The poll battle in western Maharashtra, home turf of the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP)-Congress opposition, which elects 70 legislators to the 288-member state Assembly, may well hold the key to the state.

For the Opposition, this battle in its erstwhile stronghold is likely to be for survival and hence the most crucial. It is the only region in the state where the Congress-NCP retained some of their base in the 2014 Assembly polls. Nearly half of NCP’s legislators (19 out of 41) and one-third of Congress’s (10 of 42) come from this region.

No one symbolises it better than veteran state politician and NCP chief Sharad Pawar, who is leading the Opposition charge from the front. Chief minister Devendra Fadnavis as well as the BJP’s top brass have made it clear through various public rallies that Pawar is their main target.

For decades, Pawar’s strength mostly came from this region and its co-operative doyens, who in turn got their clout from network of sugar mills, milk dairies and banks.

With the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) sweeping power in 2014, Pawar’s well-established bastion has been under threat. The party made inroads in western Maharashtra, picking up maximum seats – 24 of 70 – and in the next two years, also wrested a majority of the civic corporations and councils in the region. Five years on, the battle looks all the more tough for the embattled NCP and Congress, as they are fighting with half their strength. But they haven’t yet given up.

DEFECTIONS OF KEY LEADERS

The BJP-Sena combine has strategically worked on each of the districts in the region and poached key Opposition leaders. As many as six sitting Opposition legislators – Dilip Sopal, Shivendra Bhosale, Jaykumar Gore, Radhakrishna Vikhe Patil, Bhausaheb Kamble and Vaibhav Pichad – have defected to the BJP-Sena ahead of polls. Besides these leaders, former Congress minister Harshawardhan Patil, former NCP minister Vijaysinh Mohite Patil, sitting Satara NCP MP Udayanraje Bhosale and former NCP MP Dhananjay Mahadik have joined the BJP. Leaders like Vikhe Patil, Mohite Patil and Bhosale have influence that goes beyond just one or two Assembly seats.

“By picking Bhosale and Gore from Satara, a region where we had no presence, we have ensured at least two seats. In Solapur, because of Mohite Patil, we will get two more seats in our kitty. Every legislator is picked because of his winnability. Our strength is in Pune and Ahmednagar district, where we plan to isolate the Opposition completely,” said a BJP leader from the region, who did not want to be named.

“To add to this, Udayanraje joining our party is a symbolic win, as it showcases that the entire Bhosale clan of Maratha king Shivaji is with us today. We have been working on this for the past year-and-a-half,” he added.

Some political observers, however, feel that it is not necessary that the defected big leaders will ensure a win.

“At the end of the day, what is the credibility of a leader, who has spent four years in the Opposition and is suddenly asking votes for the ruling party? In some cases, voters will see through this even if the candidates have resources,” said Prakash Pawar, political science professor with Fergusson College, Pune.

Pawar, however, added that the poll battle would be challenging for the NCP chief. “It is a battle for survival for Pawar, but unlike the Lok Sabha polls, in this election, local issues will matter more.’’

Beyond the defections, many big Opposition leaders, including Congress’ former chief minister Prithviraj Chavan, legislators Vishwajeet Kadam, Praniti Shinde and NCP’s state chief Jayant Patil, Dilip Walse Patil, Ajit Pawar, also do not have easy walkovers in their own constituencies.

OPPOSITION STRATEGY?

While the BJP pushes the ‘Kashmir and Article 370 agenda’ in the polls, the Opposition is focussing on bringing the attention back on local issues – drought, floods and economic slowdown. This has been at the heart of a majority of Opposition rallies and public meetings.

“The BJP is a master in deflecting issues. It’s Maharashtra’s election, but they will talk of Kashmir and Pakistan. In my constituency, we have faced the misfortune of both drought and floods. We will bring focus on the state’s failure in addressing these disasters and not meeting the promises made five years ago,” said Kadam, who is contesting from his home turf and father, the late Patangrao Kadam’s constituency of Palus-Kadegaon in Sangli district. On ground, in Kolhapur and Sangli, the recent floods and disaster management are likely to be election issues.

The public sentiment over the floods in Kolhapur and the uncertainty over the internal rebellion is said to have forced state BJP chief Chandrakant Patil to cancel his plans to contest from home turf of Kolhapur to a safe constituency in Pune city. The Opposition also hopes to improve its tally by taking advantage of the rebellion in the saffron camp across western Maharashtra. For instance, the NCP hopes to pick additional seats and keep their bastions intact, thanks to saffron rebels in Khed-Alandi, Junnar in Pune district; Shirala, Jath, Islampur in Sangli and Karmala in Solapur, Kagal in Kolhapur.

In Maval, the NCP has given its ticket to a BJP rebel, Sunil Shelke, who will take on sitting legislator and minister of state Sanjay Bhegade. In Karmala constituency, the NCP is backing an independent candidate, Sanjay Shinde, brother of NCP legislator Baban Shinde instead of its official candidate, said sources in the party.

Political analysts, however, pointed out that there is no guarantee of how the rebel factor will get played out. “In this election, local issues, candidates and rebels will come into play. In many seats, there is still lack of clarity over who is contesting against whom,” said Pune-based political analyst Nitin Birmal.

“The impact of the images of both PM Modi and CM Fadnavis as well as national issues will not be as relevant for the Assembly as in the Lok Sabha. The opposition, specifically NCP, may do better in these polls than the Lok Sabha, but it may not be enough,” he added.

“Not just rebels in the saffron camp, but our selection of candidates has also been very good and we hope to improve our seat tally from 2014 in Kolhapur, Pune, Sangli, Ahmednagar districts. The response we are getting to our rallies indicates that people are not happy with this government and its performance,” said NCP state president Jayant Patil, who is contesting from home turf of Islampur in Sangli.

MARATHA CARD AND DIRECT BENEFITS

The BJP hopes that reservation granted to Marathas in jobs and education will woo the community, which dominates politics in the region and has traditionally supported the NCP and Congress. This support has been ebbing for the NCP-Congress since 1995 in favour of the Sena and BJP, but the community continues to support the NCP.

The BJP has also picked up maximum Maratha leaders from the Opposition camp in the region, starting with Udayanraje and Shivendra Bhosale, who represent Maratha king Shivaji’s legacy to Vikhe Patils and Mohite Patils.

A recent CSDS Lokniti post poll survey in 2019 showed that 65.8% of the community had voted for the BJP-Sena, even though 30% voted for the NCP.

In 2014, the CSDS Lokniti post poll survey showed that 52% of the community voted for the saffron parties.

Marathas dominate the western Maharashtra polity; Dhangars are the other community that can upset poll calculations here.

The BJP, by getting Padalkar back, have managed to stem this discontent. The ruling party will also rely on its bouquet of benefits from crop insurance payouts to farmers allowance (PM Sanman Nidhi) to construction of toilets and homes for a favourable outcome. One of the repeated strands of the BJP campaign will be to compare performance of the past five years of BJP government vis-a-vis 15 years of the Congress-NCP especially over monetary assistance.

With Prime Minister Narendra Modi holding nine rallies, party chief and Union minister Amit Shah holding 19 rallies and Fadnavis likely to hold 35 rallies, the BJP also plans to campaign very hard and send the message loud and clear ahead of the elections.

“The Opposition will not be able to elect an Opposition leader as they won’t even get 10% of the seats in the Assembly this time. We are sweeping the polls once again just like in Lok Sabha,” said Fadnavis, at a rally on Friday. As against this, the NCP has only senior leader Sharad Pawar to rely on. In western Maharashtra, however, in some areas the enforcement directorate case against Pawar may actually work in his favour.

“It’s definitely working in our favour. The BJP is targeting the co-operative movement and Pawar, who is the tallest Maratha leader from the state,” said Patil.