Maharashtra

State of swing

Print edition : May 10, 2019

BJP supporters at an election rally addressed by Prime Minister Narendra Modi (not in picture), at Akluj in Solapur district on April 17. Photo: Shashank Parade/PTI

Congress candidate Sushilkumar Shinde beats a “dhol” during an election campaign in Solapur on April 15. The former Chief Minister is facing two-time MP Prakash Ambedkar of the VBA in this constituency. Photo: PTI

Parth Pawar, Mohan Joshi and Supriya Sule, the NCP’s candidates for Maval, Pune and Baramati respectively, at an election rally in Pune on April 3. Photo: Mandar Tannu

The Congress and the NCP stand a chance of regaining their constituencies from the BJP-Shiv Sena.

Maharashtra’s electoral politics has seen wild swings in the last decade. In 2009, the Congress-Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) combine won 25 of the State’s 48 Lok Sabha seats and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-Shiv Sena combine won 20 seats. In 2014, the BJP-Sena secured 41 seats, reducing the Congress-NCP total to six.

The BJP-Sena’s massive victory in 2014 was attributed to the so-called Narendra Modi wave. The saffron parties are hoping to ride the crest of that phenomenon again, but it may not be so easy this time. Issues such as agricultural distress and rising unemployment, the impact of goods and services tax (GST) and demonetisation, and an emerging Dalit-Muslim political force in the State will ensure a closely fought election this time.

The first round of the four-phase voting in the State took place on April 11 in seven constituencies. Elections were held for 10 constituencies (Buldhana, Akola, Amravathi, Hingoli, Nanded, Parbhani, Beed, Osmanabad, Latur and Solapur) in the second phase on April 18. On April 23, 14 constituencies (Jalgaon, Raver, Jalna, Aurangabad, Raigad, Pune, Baramati, Ahmednagar, Madha, Satara, Sangli, Kolhapur, Ratnagiri-Sindhudurg and Hatkanangle) will go to the polls, and the remaining 17 seats (Nandurbar-S.T., Dhule, Dindori S.T., Nashik, Palghar S.T., Bhiwandi, Kalyan, Thane, Mumbai North, Mumbai North-West, Mumbai North-East, Mumbai North-Central, Mumbai South-Central, Mumbai South, Maval, Shirur and Shirdi) will have voting on April 29.

Western Maharashtra

Western Maharashtra, which includes the districts of Pune, Satara, Sangli, Solapur, Kolhapur, Nashik and Ahmednagar, has 11 Lok Sabha seats. The prosperous rural heartland, where sugar cane made history with sugar cooperatives and sugar barons, was the centre of the Congress-NCP’s political power. The region’s wealth has played a leading role in the politics of the State and all parties covet the region’s votes. The sugar belt has elected a number of Chief Ministers. The BJP gradually started making inroads into the region and by 2014 the BJP-Sena became a force to reckon with especially in Pune, Satara, Sangli and Solapur.

The BJP-Sena won the support of Raju Shetti, founder of the Swabhimani Paksh, a breakaway group of the late Sharad Joshi’s Shetkari Sanghatana. In 2014, Shetti joined the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) and got re-elected from Hatkanangale. The BJP won three seats and the Sena two. The Congress-NCP was left with five seats in the region.

The popular farmer leader from Kolhapur has ended his ties with the BJP-Sena and allied with the Congress-NCP. The Paksh is contesting from Hatkanangale and Sangli. The Congress will contest from Solapur and Pune while the NCP is fielding its candidates in the remaining six seats in a bid to reassert itself in what was once its bastion. The BJP will contest from Pune, Baramati, Sangli, Solapur and Madha. The Sena has fielded its candidates in Kolhapur, Satara, Hatkanangale, Maval and Shirur.

Shetti has a powerful voice in rural Maharashtra and a strong following among farmers, especially sugar cane growers whom he had mobilised on the demand for a fair price for their crop. Shetti said he had decided to quit the NDA as the BJP had betrayed him and, by extension, the farmers who had reposed their faith in him. The support price for sugar cane has been a burning issue in western Maharashtra and has been a key element of the campaign.

The NCP’s leader, Sharad Pawar, is the most formidable figure in western Maharashtra. Although his political presence is far reduced from what it was, he continues to cast a long shadow over the region on the strength of his reputation and past work. “Saheb”, as Pawar is referred to in the area, is credited with developing the region.

Kishor Ganpat Kadam, 70-year-old small farmer from Ahmednagar, recalling the heyday of the Congress and the sugar barons, said: “We have never been rich and we will never be rich but we had managed. And there was a support system that we could turn to. Saheb ruled well. As farmers, we got what we needed and we gave him votes in return.”

Kadam’s biggest concern is that the “new parties” do not understand rural needs. “This BJP and Shiv Sena are not from the land. They all want to go to Delhi [a way of saying power for power’s sake]. Earlier, if we had a problem we knew we could approach the [Congress] leader. Now we do not know whom to go to. And what do we tell them?They do not understand farming.”

His neighbour Ganpatrao said: “Now we are fearful. It is each man for himself; the village is so politicised. Earlier, we were farmers and neighbours first. Now, it’s all about which party we support. I don’t care for all this.” Another man, Macchindar, said: “My neighbours and I voted for the BJP last time because we were angry with the Congress and the NCP, but this time I think very few people will vote for the BJP. They are for the rich. We are only to be lied to.”

Intra-party tensions such as the defection of Congress-NCP stalwarts Radhakrishna Vikhe-Patil, Vijaysinh Mohite Patil and their sons to the BJP will affect the outcome of the election. Interestingly, many BJP supporters disapprove of the induction of “corrupt” Congressmen into the “clean” BJP.

The candidates to watch in western Maharashtra are Girish Bapat of the BJP who is contesting in Pune against the Congress’ Mohan Joshi. In a surprise move, the BJP dropped its sitting MP and chose Bapat who is Maharashtra State’s Guardian Minister for Pune. Joshi and Bapat are considered a fair match since both are of the same political vintage and caste. This election will be a matter of prestige for Sharad Pawar. He is not contesting. His daughter Supriya Sule is fighting from Baramati and his grandnephew, Parth, is contesting in Maval.

A potential spoiler in this election is the alliance between Prakash Ambedkar’s Vanchit Bahujan Aghadi (VBA) and Asaduddin Owaisi’s All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen (AIMIM). A two-time MP, Prakash Ambedkar is taking on the Congress’ Sushilkumar Shinde, a former Chief Minister and three-time MP, in Solapur. The VBA-AIMIM alliance has caused frayed nerves in the Congress-NCP as it is expected to fracture the Dalit-Muslim vote. These voters would have largely stayed away from voting for the saffron parties, but with the VBA-AIMIM tie-up, they will be drawn towards casting a direct community-caste vote.

Prakash Ambedkar will draw steam not only from his political lineage and his experience in politics but also from a simmering anger over the 2018 Bhima-Koregaon attack on Mahars and the fact that the perpetrators of the violence have not been booked.

Mumbai-Thane

The Mumbai-Thane belt accounts for 10 seats. Largely urban and semi-urban, this area is heavily industrialised. Thus unemployment, setbacks caused by demonetisation and GST, lack of affordable housing and open spaces, disintegrating civic infrastructure, sanitation, and public transport will be factors voters will consider.

The BJP-Sena won all the six seats in Mumbai in 2014. One of the biggest shocks of that election was the result of Mumbai South where the Congress’ Milind Deora lost to the Sena’s Arvind Sawant by 1.28 lakh votes. Deora has been named president of the Mumbai Congress and it will be a matter of prestige for him to wrest the seat. The Congress is contesting five seats and the NCP one. The other Congress stalwart, Priya Dutt, who was defeated in Mumbai North Central in 2014, has been persuaded to contest again.

For Mumbai North East, the BJP dropped sitting MP Kirit Somaiya and nominated municipal corporator Manoj Kotak. This is seen by many as a mistake as Somaiya is popular in his constituency. A Gujarati married to a Maharashtrian, he has proved himself time and again. The BJP denied him the ticket essentially to pander to its alliance partner, which demanded his ouster. The Sena intensely dislikes Somaiya because he has been outspoken about corruption in the Sena.

In Mumbai, the Maharashtra Navnirman Sena’s (MNS) Raj Thackeray may cut into BJP-Sena votes. Raj Thackeray has said he will campaign against the saffron combine and called for a Narendra Modi-free India. Although not a heavyweight contestant, he is not to be underestimated. Take Mumbai South Central, for example.

In 2014, Eknath Gaikwad of the Congress lost to the Sena’s Rahul Shewale by a huge margin of 1.38 lakh votes. The win was explained as a vote for the BJP and for Modi rather than for Shewale. The other contender was from the MNS and he won more than 73,000 votes. With Raj Thackeray campaigning for the Congress-NCP, these votes can add precious numbers to the combine. The Mumbai South-Central constituency has a large Dalit population. With no VBA or Republican Party of India candidate in the fray, it is likely that the Dalit votes will go to the Congress. The vast slum colony of Dharavi, which is rife with small businesses that were severely affected by demonetisation and the GST rollout, is in this constituency.

Konkan region

The Konkan region has two Lok Sabha seats and both are held by the Sena. The Peasants and Workers Party (PWP) is another party with a strong presence in the region, especially in Raigad. In 2014, the PWP secured over 1.2 lakh votes, a figure that was attractive enough for the NCP to ally with it this time. Unemployment is a big issue here. Many sections of voters have been left out in the cold by party manifestos. Bapu Deshmukh is one of them. This mango farmer of Raigad says the promise of creating jobs is not the only way to address the problem of unemployment. This is especially the case in Konkan, where the land is fertile and water is plentiful, but lack of marketing infrastructure has dissuaded people from practising farming, which has resulted in unemployment.

Konkan generates revenue from agriculture, agri-product industries and, in the last 20 years, from industry and tourism, too. The region had in the past survived on its money order economy, with people migrating to work in Mumbai’s textile mills. This accounts for Konkan’s association with the Sena. The Sena has entrenched itself here because it supported the local opposition to the Ratnagiri Refinery and Petrochemical project at Nanar. The project site has reportedly been shifted, but there is no confirmation on the new location.

Despite holding both the Konkan seats, the Sena may not be the clear winner this time. Promises of job creation and clean industry have not materialised. The State of Maharashtra Agribusiness and Rural Transformation scheme, which was launched in December last year and was meant to bridge the gap between farmers and consumers, has not shown much result. The Congress is trying to capitalise on this.

In Raigad, Anant Geete won the previous election by a narrow margin of about 2,000 votes, defeating the NCP’s Sunil Tatkare. By tying up with the PWP, the NCP has turned up the heat. In a bid to counter this, the Sena has inducted Naved Antulay, son of former Chief Minister A.R. Antulay, for electioneering. Naved and his family are still influential in the region and it is hoped that his presence will attract Muslim voters.

In Sindhudurg, the sitting MP, Vinayak Raut, will face Nilesh Rane of the Maharashtra Swabhiman Paksh (MSP), a party started by his father and former Chief Minister Narayan Rane. Rane started his political career in the Sena, defected to the Congress and then formed the MSP. The Congress contestant, Navinchandra Bandivadekar, weakened his own chances by sharing the platform at a local function with a known member of the Sanatan Sanstha, thereby possibly alienating Muslim votes.

North Maharashtra

The hilly and remote region of north Maharashtra has seven seats. The BJP-Sena won all the seats in 2014. Drought; poor irrigation facilities; falling prices of onion, cotton and tuar dal; poor infrastructure and general discontent among farmers and tribal people will be the issues that will influence voting.

In 2014, in the reserved constituency of Nandurbar, the BJP’s Heena Gavit unseated nine-time MP Manikrao Gavit. She won by more than one lakh votes. It may be a walkover this time for her. The Congress did not re-nominate Manikrao. It has given the ticket to K.C. Padavi, the MLA from Akkalkuva constituency in the district, and an enraged Manikrao, who wanted his son to be nominated, has threatened to field him as an independent or campaign for the BJP.

The VBA has fielded a candidate in Dhule constituency. This may complicate matters for the sitting BJP MP, Subhash Bhamre, and the Congress contender, Kunal Patil. Malegaon, which comes under this constituency, has a sizeable Muslim population, which is likely to vote for the VBA-AIMIM candidate.

The Dalit and Muslim votes are once again failing to make a unified impact. While the VBA-AIMIM alliance is expected to capture many votes and give the leaders bargaining power post elections, there is no doubt that an alliance with the Congress-NCP would have offered voters a clear choice. Prakash Ambedkar has said his fight is with the BJP-Sena. So it begs the question, why did he not tie up with the Congress-NCP? He rejected an alliance with the Congress-NCP because they did not agree to his demand for more than half the seats.

The Bahujan Samaj Party-Samajwadi Party alliance is also fielding Dalit and Muslim candidates, which could fracture the votes.

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