Maharashtra

Saffron stranglehold

Print edition : June 07, 2019

Maharashtra Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis and Shiv Sena chief Uddhav Thackeray addressing a joint press conference in Mumbai after the Lok sabha election results on May 23. Photo: Emmanual Yogini

Girish Bapat of the BJP, who won thr Pune seat. Photo: PTI

Jai Siddheshwar Shivacharya Mahaswamiji of the BJP. He defeated senior Congress leader Sushil Kumar Shinde in Solapur constituency. Photo: Special Arrangement

Supriya Sule wins in Baramati. The constituency is the NCP chief Sharad Pawar’s stronghold. Photo: PTI

Sujay Vikhe Patil of the BJP wins in Ahmednagar. Photo: Vivek Bendre

Nitin Gadkari of the BJP, elected from Nagpur. Photo: Sandeep Saxena

Ashok Chavan of the Congress lost in Nanded. Photo: Vivek Bendre

Milind Deora of the Congress lost in Mumbai South. Photo: SHIV KUMAR PUSHPAKAR

Priya Dutt of the Congress lost in Mumbai North Central. Photo: SHASHI ASHIWAL

The BJP-Sena combine wins 41 of the 48 seats and tightens its grip on the State, leaving the Congress and the NCP wondering how to return to relevance.

The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and its alliance partner, the Shiv Sena, made a dramatic sweep of the election to the 48 Lok Sabha seats in Maharashtra. The coalition not only retained power but increased its grip on the State, while the two main opposition parties, the Congress and the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP), were decimated. The BJP won 23 seats, the Sena 18, the NCP four and the Congress and Asaduddin Owaisi’s All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen (AIMIM) one each. One seat went to an independent. Held in four phases, the election was fought over issues such the water crisis, the agrarian crisis, drought and rural unemployment. Although there was freely expressed anger among voters, this did not translate into votes for the opposition. Instead, for the ruling coalition in the State, 2019 was like an action replay of the 2014 Lok Sabha election in which it strengthened its hold on the State and edged out the Congress and the NCP from what was once their bastion. In their seat-sharing talks, the BJP and the Sena came to a 25-23 agreement. In 2014, the BJP won 24 seats and the Sena 18. The coalition retained its majority in north Maharashtra, Vidarbha, Marathwada and the Konkan. More significantly, it further eroded the Congress-NCP’s last remaining bastion of western Maharashtra.

Western Maharashtra

The 10 seats of western Maharashtra are the jewels in the crown when it comes to the rural economy of the State. The prosperity of the region is legendary and was fuelled by the sugar industry. Sugar cane cultivation is entrenched in the region’s recent history as it changed the economy and gave rise to sugar cooperatives. The money power derived from sugar cane cultivation and sugar cooperatives fuelled Congress and NCP politics, making the region a natural target for the BJP-Sena. The BJP-Sena combine won seven seats in the region. Amol Ramsing Kolhe of the NCP won the Shirur seat by defeating the sitting Sena MP, Adalrao Shivaji Dattarey. The NCP’s Supriya Sule and Chh. Udayanraje Pratapsinmaharaj Bhonsle retained the Baramati and Satara seats respectively. A defeat in these two seats would have been catastrophic for the party. Satara is a matter of huge prestige for the party as Udayanraje Bhonsle, a Maratha leader, traces his ancestry to ‘Chhatrapati’ Shivaji. Baramati is the NCP chief Sharad Pawar’s stronghold, and his daughter, Supriya Sule, has won it for the third time. Baramati has elected the Pawars uninterrupted since 1989. Pawar’s power, however, did not extend to getting his grand-nephew Parth elected in Maval. Parth, a novice in politics, is the son of Ajit Pawar, Pawar’s nephew and a former Deputy Chief Minister. The Maval seat went to the Sena’s Shrirang Appa Chandu Barne, who won it by more than two lakh votes. It is believed that Parth paid the price for his father’s alleged corruption and high-handedness within the party.

The BJP won the Sangli and Solapur seats , and here it was unwittingly assisted by the Vanchit Bahujan Aghadi (VBA), a social coalition of Dalits formed by Prakash Ambedkar, which allied itself with the AIMIM. The VBA’s entry into the election divided the votes, often to the advantage of the BJP and the Sena. Prakash Ambedkar contested from two seats, in Solapur in Western Maharashtra and Akola in Vidarbha, both areas heavily populated by Dalits. He lost in both the seats. The Solapur seat, which the BJP had wrested from former Chief Minister Sushilkumar Shinde in 2014, was retained by the party’s candidate, Jai Sidheshwar Shivacharya Mahaswamiji, a Lingayat seer.

On the eve of the election, the Congress and the NCP saw some crucial defections, which ultimately contributed to their losses in western Maharashtra. The BJP won the Madha seat because its candidate, Ranjitsinh Naik Nimbalkar, was a recent defector from the Congress. He had been the party’s district president. The sitting MP of Madha, Vijaysinh Mohite Patil of the NCP, also defected to the BJP, leaving voters dazed with the political merry-go-round. Kolhapur, also held by the NCP, slipped away to the BJP. The BJP retained the prestigious Pune seat as well.

In Hatkanangale, Raju Anna Shetti of the Swabhimani Paksh decided to sever his alliance with the BJP and ally with the Congress-NCP. He was welcomed since he was considered a strong candidate because of the work he has done among the farming community. His defeat at the hands of Dhairyasheel Sambhajirao Mane of the Sena candidate jolted the Paksh. Mane won by a margin of 96,039 votes, whereas in the 2014 election Shetti won by a margin of 1,77,810 votes.

The most crucial defection though happened in Ahmednagar. Although Sujay Vikhe Patil was not a practising politician, he is the son of Congressman Radhakrishna Vikhe Patil and it was expected that his loyalties would lie with the Congress. So, when he joined the BJP, it was seen as a defection. For the BJP, Sujay Vikhe Patil’s admission into the party was a huge boost since he was the biggest catch from western Maharashtra. He won the election by a margin of 2,81,474 votes, defeating his NCP rival, Sangram Arunkaka Jagtap. Radhakrishna Vikhe Patil blamed directionless leadership for the Congress’ poor performance. He said: “The BJP-Sena won because wrong political strategy on the Congress’ part gave them an advantage.” He also said vested interests in the Congress-NCP coalition had damaged their chances.

The defections have highlighted an old feud between the Vikhe Patils and the Pawars that goes back to the 1950s. This has been rankling for a while and came to the fore, hurting the Congress-NCP alliance. The NCP came into existence because of a rift in the Congress. The breakaway leaders consisting of Sharad Pawar, Tariq Anwar and P.A. Sangma formed the party in 1999. However, Pawar has been astute enough to not let differences of opinion come in the way of his political progress. Soon after forming the NCP, he allied himself with the Congress in the State and defeated the Sena-BJP alliance in the 1999 Assembly election. The Congress-NCP alliance was elected in the subsequent Assembly elections in 2004 and 2009 and ruled until 2014. But this time around, internal rifts became uncontrollable and the seat-sharing talks provided a flashpoint, leading to defections by prominent NCP and Congress members. The BJP benefited greatly from this. While the losses in western Maharashtra were heavy and have no doubt demoralised the Congress-NCP, the rout the combine faced in north Maharashtra’s six seats was not unexpected. The region has been dominated by the saffron combine, and its candidates did not face any strong opposition.

Marathwada

Of Marathwada’s eight seats, seven went to the BJP-Sena combine. The region saw major upsets for the Congress. In Hingoli, the sitting Congress MP, Rajeev Shankarrao Satav, opted out of the election leading the Congress to support a defector from the Sena, Wankhede Subhashrao Bapurao, as its candidate. The Sena’s Hemant Patil won the seat. The rout suffered by the Congress was visible in the loss of the Nanded seat, which was held by former Chief Minister and State Congress president Ashok Chavan. His defeat, by a margin of 40,148 votes, shocked the party, especially since he was defeated by the BJP’s Pratap Chikalikar, who was a Sena MLA. Ashok Chavan was strategically targeted by the BJP to demoralise the Congress. It is interesting that Ashok Chavan’s brother-in-law, a former Congress MP, is now the BJP’s State vice president. “It is as if the BJP is edging [Ashok] Chavan into a corner,” said a Congress source.

The BJP failed to win the Aurangabad seat, where four-time MP Chandrakant Khaire was defeated by a political novice, Imtiyaz Jaleel. A former journalist, Jaleel was the AIMIM candidate. He scraped past Khaire by a margin of 6,000 votes. Jaleel owes his victory to the Dalit-Muslim cause as well as to the precarious relationship betwee Khaire and the State BJP president. The Maratha vote here was also fractured by an independent candidate, the Sena rebel Harshwardhandada Raibhanji Jadha, who polled 2,83,798 votes. His main election plank was to protest against the non-implementation of reservation for Marathas. Aurangabad was where the Maratha Morcha movement was born, and in 2018 the city saw violence because of the reservation issue.

The VBA played a role in the upsets in Aurangabad and Nanded, and though the party did not win any seat on its own (its alliance partner the AIMIM won the Aurangabad seat), for a new party it did surprisingly well in Marathwada. In Hingoli, for instance, the VBA got 15 per cent of the vote; in Osmanabad 8 per cent; in Parbhani 12 per cent; and in Latur 10 per cent. It would seem that the alliance between Prakash Ambedkar and Owaisi did appeal to Dalits and Muslims.

Konkan

Of the six seats in the Konkan region, the saffron combine retained five and lost Raigad to the NCP. The Sena’s sitting MP Anant Geete was defeated by the NCP’s former State president Sunil Tatkare. The Sena maintains that it lost the seat because the Peasants and Workers Party backed the NCP candidate. A significant victory of the Sena was in Sindhudurg-Ratnagiri where the sitting MP, Vinayak Raut, retained his seat. He defeated Nilesh Rane, son of the former Sena leader Narayan Rane, who had defected to the NCP and recently formed his own party, the Maharashtra Swabhimaan Paksh. Raut ascribes his victory to the scrapping of the highly controversial Nanar refinery project, an action he and the Sena take full credit for.

Nine of Vidarbha’s 10 seats went to the ruling BJP-Sena. One seat was won by an independent. The two larger-than-life figures in this region are Nitin Gadkari of the BJP and Prakash Ambedkar. Gadkari is the sitting MP of Nagpur, and it was a given that he would retain the seat. Gadkari defeated Nana Patole of the Congress by a margin of 2,16,009 votes, which is lower than his 2014 victory margin of 2,84,848. Although Prakash Ambedkar lost in both Akola and Solapur, the VBA is said to have made an impression on voters. It is believed that the Lok Sabha election was a testing ground for the VBA and that Prakash Ambedkar is actually keen on flexing his muscles in the upcoming Assembly elections. The Amravati seat went to Navneet Ravi Rani, an independent candidate. Her victory prevented the BJP-Sena from making a clean sweep of Vidarbha. Navneet Ravi Rani was supported by the NCP, but nonetheless her win against sitting MP Adsul Anandrao Vithoba of the Sena was astonishing.

Like in 2014, Mumbai’s six seats went to the BJP-Sena. In 2009, the Congress secured all the six seats. The State Congress is yet to carry out an internal assessment of its losses, but ground realities indicate that replacing Sanjay Nirupam with Milind Deora as Mumbai Congress president and the slow campaign takeoff in the city contributed to the loss. The Congress leader Priya Dutt had initially declined to run in this election. She was persuaded to do so by the party’s high command. The need for the Congress to look for “fresh, energetic people committed to our ideology is even more pressing now”, said a Congressman, while discussing the defeat of Milind Deora in Mumbai South and Priya Dutt in Mumbai North Central.

The election has seen the fall of many stalwarts—Ashok Chavan, Sushilkumar Shinde, Priya Dutt, Milind Deora—but none as big as Sharad Pawar. This election is probably a landmark one in his political career. Although he decided not to contest any seat, it was expected that he would be instrumental in engineering more wins and also play a key role in post-election agreements. Pawar campaigned vigorously, addressing close to 70 rallies and at the same time keeping up a dialogue with national leaders such as Mamata Banerjee of the Trinamool Congress, N. Chandrababu Naidu of the Telugu Desam Party and Mayawati of the Bahujan Samaj Party.

Perhaps, the explanation for the BJP-Sena’s victory lies not so much in voters giving the BJP a mandate and Narendra Modi’s style politics but rather in voters not seeing an alternative, the choice being between a dynamic BJP and a stagnant Congress-NCP. There were, however, some losses that were inexplicable. Addressing the media after the results, Pawar said that while he accepted the people’s decision, “it is also a fact that people had their doubts about the EVMs”. Maharashtra Navnirman Sena chief Raj Thackeray, who had campaigned almost with a vengeance against the BJP-Sena, described the landslide victory as “beyond rationale” and “incomprehensible”.

But these are matters for the Election Commission. With just a few months to go for the Assembly election, the Congress and the NCP have little time to rally around and offer voters a tenable choice. Re-evaluating internal structures, bringing in fresh blood and actively reaching out to new alliances are options that are being talked about. One thing is clear, the Congress’ very existence will be threatened and the party will become irrelevant, as is the case in Gujarat, if nothing is done to shake up the party organisation.

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