Winners and losers

Print edition : November 05, 2004
in Mumbai

SHARAD PAWAR is a man with a mission and his mission is to prove that not only will his Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) survive, but it will dominate and perhaps eclipse the Congress in the State. There is no doubt that the victorious surge for the Congress-NCP in Maharashtra was largely due to Sharad Pawar's political calculations that overcame the problem of rebel candidates, but due credit also needs to be given to Sonia Gandhi's extensive campaign tour as well as the Congress' strategic positioning of her as the `ideal woman who made sacrifices for the nation'.

To some extent, the public speeches by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, who is widely perceived as a good and honest man in politics, also contributed to the Congress-NCP image and victory. Many factors have contributed to the victory of the Congress-NCP alliance. Consider its campaign strategy as opposed to that of the Shiv Sena-Bharatiya Janata Party. The Congress-NCP contrasted the divisive nature of the saffron forces with the inclusive and secular nature of its own politics. Sharad Pawar concentrated on the possibility of "increased harmony" between the Centre and the State if the Congress-NCP returned to power. He also highlighted the fact that there were eight Ministers from Maharashtra in the Union Cabinet.

The Sena-BJP initially seemed to have decided to hammer away at the failures of the Democratic Front government, but never quite got around to do so in a cohesive way. The combine failed to make an impact on the voters either on emotive issues or bread-and-butter concerns. Their star campaigner, Bal Thackeray, made only two public appearances. His inability to campaign is seen as a big loss to the party. Despite a determination by his poll partner, the BJP, to stay away from his favourite issues of Bangladeshi infiltrators, north Indian `mafia' in Mumbai and similar chauvinistic topics, Thackeray could not resist raising them.

A region-wise analysis brings out specific factors behind the wins and losses.

Although the Congress-NCP alliance continues to hold the largely tribal area of north Maharashtra, all parties have fared poorly compared to their performance in 1999. The region, which has traditionally voted for the Congress, has also seen a slight tilt towards the saffron parties. In the 1999 Lok Sabha elections, the Sena-BJP combine claimed three of the five seats, a figure it retained in the 2004 Lok Sabha polls. The alliance was confident of conquering the Assembly segments as well, but suffered a loss. From 17 seats in 1999, their tally dropped to 13 this time. By comparison, the Congress and the NCP improved their seat share. The two had campaigned as independent parties in 1999 but allied after the elections. Their total seat share at the time was 15. It rose to 19 in this election, ensuring their hold over the region. Unlike the other regions of Maharashtra that are either held together by a dominant economy like sugarcane in Western Maharashtra, or cultural commonalities as in the Konkan, the districts of Khandesh or North Maharashtra have little that bind them together. The one thing that is common is a rapid but completely unregulated process of urbanisation. The immediate effect of this has been a swamping of Adivasi rights and culture. Ten of the Assembly seats are reserved for Scheduled Tribes and so matters relating to Adivasis such as land rights, resource management and employment are crucial. The unregulated urbanisation and industrialisation has also left a trail of unemployment. Industries that were started with the hope that the government would provide adequate infrastructure were forced to close down as suddenly as they started. The region also has rich agricultural land, but the almost total absence of irrigation has forced many farmers to convert their land to non-agricultural use.

Marathwada stayed with the Sena-BJP combine, but there was a considerable churning in the region. More than half the seats changed hands, leaving the NCP as the main beneficiary, with a gain of 11 seats. The Dalit vote as usual went to the saffron alliance, specifically the Shiv Sena. The fragmentation of the Republican Party of India (RPI) forced Dalit voters towards other parties. The Sena has a grip over the Other Backward Classes (OBCs) and Dalits of the region, though not totally because of its association with the "upper" caste BJP. The Congress lost most of the Maratha vote in this region long ago when it renamed the Marathwada University Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar University. With most of the State's small industrial units ailing, unemployment is high and the region depends heavily on the employment guarantee scheme (EGS). For at least half the year, more than four lakh landless labourers are employed in Marathwada alone. Cotton is the main crop in Marathwada and, to a lesser extent, sugarcane. The first blow to farmers came from the BJP-led government at the Centre in 1998, which allowed indiscriminate import of cotton and sugar. The mismanagement of the Monopoly Cotton Procurement Scheme by the Sena-BJP government added to the huge losses of farmers. Although the problem was seen as a creation of the Sena-BJP government, it did not deprive the combine of victory. Even the Congress-NCP's election promise to increase the cotton price under the Monopoly Procurement Scheme to Rs.2,700 from Rs.2,500 did not impress the voters adequately.

Vidarbha was expected to see a dramatic fight and the region did not disappoint. Voters in 28 constituencies changed their party preferences. All the major parties gained new seats, but the BJP and the Congress saw some big upsets, losing four and 13 seats respectively. The result was a setback for the BJP, which had expected to repeat its Lok Sabha victory of 10 out of 11 seats. A region that saw rebels from all parties, the NCP gained six seats. Previously the party barely had a presence in the region. Although caste was a major factor here, which could have given the RPI and the BSP many more seats, the Congress-NCP alliance managed not only to retain their hold but to gain seats here. Perhaps the Democratic Front government's promise of substantial agricultural sops, coupled with the pre-election promise of loan waivers, found favour with voters in this drought-ridden region. The BSP polled more than the winning margins in four constituencies and effectively played a spoiler's role in the case of unseating one sitting Member of the Legislative Assembly - the RPI's Sulekha Kumbhare, who lost to the BJP candidate by about 4 per cent votes because the BSP candidate captured over 9 per cent of the votes. Sonia Gandhi's tour of the region is believed to have made a difference to the Congress-NCP votes.

However, the Sena-BJP alliance's hopes of BSP candidates demolishing the Congress-NCP vote base failed, with Mayawati turning out to be a dark horse. Some big upsets in the region include the defeat of two-time Maharashtra Pradesh Congress Committee chief Ranjit Deshmukh. Two NCP rebels won as independents.

The time-tested Congress-NCP dominance in this region took a beating because of the large number of rebel candidates. Although the expected swing away from the Congress-NCP combine was contained as a result of interventions by Sharad Pawar, the NCP lost 14 seats it held earlier. It is believed the Sena-BJP's alliance's image as an urban party unfamiliar with rural issues helped Congress-NCP combine, but it is also a fact that feudal issues played a part in influencing the voting pattern. Late arrival of monsoon in the region also eased the drought situation and ensured that the Congress-NCP retained over 70 per cent of the seats.

The NCP lost nine seats to rebels. Vinay Kore from Warana, near Kolhapur, was a major culprit. He formed the Jan Surajya Shakti and managed to win four seats. NCP rebels won Kolhapur, Sangli, Satara and Ahmednagar. Satej Patil, a rebel NCP candidate in the Karveer seat in Kolhapur district, managed to unseat sitting MLA and former Minister of State for health, Digvijay Khanvilkar. Since the rebels were from big families of the region, voters were torn between their traditional political affiliation and the rebel candidate's personal influence. In these cases, the individual overtook the party.

A Sena-BJP bastion for almost 15 years, the region saw a dramatic re-entry of the Congress-NCP combine this time. The only region where the rebel factor washed was Konkan. A loss of three seats in its stronghold was a body blow to the Sena. Former Chief Minister Narayan Rane managed to keep his seat. Bhaskar Jadhav, a veteran Sainik, was the most prominent rebel. Although he lost the seat, the vote was split and the NCP emerged winner. His alienation from the party apparently caused an upheaval in the Sena's vote bank. The Peasants and Workers Party, which had a long stint in Konkan, lost two seats to the Congress. The Sena also lost on account of its complete neglect of the region. Promises of industrialisation, particularly that of the agro industry, and of tapping the region's tourism potential, were never met. The NCP capitalised on the Sena's slackness and internal feud and won five seats.

Unlike the other regions in the State, Mumbai's peculiarity is that no one can really predict or speculate the results. The recent Lok Sabha election outcome, in fact, proved this. While in 1999, the Sena-BJP alliance won five out of the six Lok Sabha seats in Mumbai, in the 2004 general election the electorate did a complete turnaround and chose the Congress-NCP alliance in five seats.

Usually Mumbai, with 34 Assembly seats, plays a decisive role in the elections. Though it did not play a major role this time, it certainly tilted the scales. A Sena bastion, the metropolis handed out a defeat to the saffron combine. The Congress-NCP benefited from this by gaining five seats. What went against the Sena was its failure to win the north Indian community's vote. The minorities, which have a large presence in Mumbai, preferred the Congress. The Muslim community did not vote for the Samajwadi Party, thus avoiding a split in the anti-communal vote. It is believed that the 60 per cent vote in Mumbai that belongs to the non-Marathi population went againt the saffron forces.

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