Distrust and disarray

Print edition : May 16, 2014

First-time voters show off their inked fingers, at Solapur, Maharashtra on April 17. Photo: PTI

A pavement shop in Akola uses masks of politicians to attract customers. Photo: PTI

CORRUPTION, development and communal polarisation are among the crucial issues that influence Indian elections. Corruption, particularly, seems to be of urgent concern to the electorate this time.

In past elections, Maharashtra’s sizeable Muslim population, which accounts for about 10.6 per cent of the total electorate, was seen as a vote bank. Political parties wooed the community for its votes, especially in the Lok Sabha constituencies. But this election is different. The candidate lists of the parties show that the community has not been singled out for special treatment on the basis of religious identity. The Congress has one Muslim candidate, the Samajwadi Party eight and the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) seven. Judging by the constituencies they represent, they do not seem to have been chosen on the basis of their religious identity.

The lack of issue-based campaigning also differentiates this election from the previous ones. Issues do not seem to dominate campaigning because the two national-level parties are busy fighting the enemies within. The Congress is desperate to salvage its reputation and keep its alliance partner, the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP), in check. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is rocked by a battle between two of its stalwarts and is also managing a delicate see-saw with its ally, the Shiv Sena.

Oddly enough, the Narendra Modi-factor is not a big deal in Maharashtra. He has addressed a dozen or so rallies in the State but while BJP offices dutifully display posters and party office-bearers respectfully speak of Modi as the Messiah, it is another man whom the State unit really needs at this time—Pramod Mahajan. His murder in 2006 was a shock to the Maharashtra unit of the party. Mahajan was the glue that held the State unit together. He had engineered an alliance with the Shiv Sena and was also the State BJP’s face in Delhi. He groomed Gopinath Munde and raised him from district politics to State politics. He could hold his own with the likes of Bal Thackeray and Sharad Pawar. Though he created the SS-BJP alliance, Mahajan was contemptuous of Thackeray and once described him to this correspondent as a “small man”, emphasising his point by holding his thumb and forefinger two inches apart.

In the absence of Mahajan, dissension broke out in the BJP State unit, with Munde feeling the brunt of it since he was Mahajan’s brother-in-law and had been seen as benefitting from the connection. Nitin Gadkari in particular had an antipathy to Munde and took the opportunity to trim his wings. The often-traded barbs between the two were public knowledge and resulted in rifts in the party. Last year, after Modi was given charge of the BJP’s campaign committee, the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS) more or less insisted on peace between Munde and Gadkari. The former was given control over the State unit and the latter was sent to the Centre. Unhappy at being distanced from his home base, Gadkari engineered the much-hyped meeting with Maharashtra Navnirman Sena leader Raj Thackeray in the run-up to the elections.

Internal feud

Though Gadkari had sound political reasons for this, the meeting was also seen as a means for him to reassert himself. In 2009, the MNS fought the Lok Sabha elections for the first time. Of the 48 seats in the State, the MNS contested 12. Although it did not win any seat, its candidates came second in two seats, beating contenders from the Shiv Sena and the BJP, and polled over 100,000 votes in 10 seats. Raj Thackeray has openly pledged support to Modi in this election. Given that the Sena and the BJP have also been at odds with each other, Gadkari had enough reason to draw the MNS into an alliance. In fact it was believed that the Shiv Sena might try to put a spoke in Gadkari’s campaign in his home constituency of Nagpur. It is worth noting that despite being a senior leader he was not a part of the mega rallies that were held to mark the entry of the Ramdas Athavale faction of the Republican Party of India (RPI), the Swabhimani Shetkari Sanghatana and the Rashtriya Samaj Party into the BJP-Sena fold. The combine’s rocky relationship has been sending out mixed signals to even its hard-core voters and so the inclusion of fresh political blood is essential.

From a total of 48 Lok Sabha seats, the BJP is contesting 26 and the Sena 22. Two seats have been given by the BJP to the Swabhimani party and one to Rashtriya Samaj Party. The Sena has given one seat to the RPI.

The Munde-Gadkari battle runs deep, but what perhaps will seriously affect their party is the difference in their views on Sharad Pawar and the NCP. Gadkari is all for a post-election alliance with the NCP, which he thinks will give the National Democratic Alliance a majority in the Lok Sabha. Munde is dead set against it on the grounds that the NCP is the most corrupt party in the State with Deputy Chief Minister Ajit Pawar, Public Works Minister Chhagan Bhujbal and Water Resources Minister Sunil Tatkare facing corruption charges.

He has also said that any such move will lend credence to the AAP’s accusation that the main parties of the State were playing fast and loose with each other at the expense of the people. Also, an alliance with the NCP would also cost the BJP its ties with Raju Shetti of the Swabhimani party. Shetti, who is the MLA from Hatkanangale, cannot tolerate Pawar or the NCP. He has made a name for himself by fighting the sugar barons and his support base is primarily the sugarcane farmers of the region. To accept the NCP would be suicidal for him. For the BJP it is a Hobson’s choice and most believe that if there is any winner in this game it will be Pawar.

Congress and scams

The Congress, as it attempts to keep its head above water in Maharashtra, is hobbled by corruption charges, the most prominent being the Adarsh scam. Though former Chief Minister Ashok Chavan was indicted by the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) and removed from his post, the Congress saw it fit to let him contest the election from his Nanded seat—a fact that did not raise the party in the public’s esteem. The party is floundering as much as the BJP is, despite being the oldest party in the State and having held power continuously except during two periods. Like the BJP, the Congress is frazzled by its alliance partner, the NCP. In 2009, the Congress won 17 of the 26 seats it contested and the NCP eight.

This time around the Congress will not only have to see that its candidates do well but will have to ensure that the NCP wins more seats than it did five years ago. This will be no easy task. The Congress is facing an anti-incumbency mood that is fuelled by charges of corruption. Add to this the freshness that the AAP is bringing to a very jaded political arena and the Congress will have to put up an extremely strong fight to stay in power. Another bad ingredient is the NCP behaving in a fickle way and talking loosely of post-election alliances with other parties.

Chief Minister Prithviraj Chavan has tried to assert his government’s presence in a number of ways. One of his chief aims has been to cut the lifelines of the NCP. These have primarily been through the sugar and banking cooperatives. To a great extent, Raju Shetti’s new supremacy has besieged the NCP in the sugar sector, but it was left to Chavan to deal with the NCP’s domination over the Maharashtra State Cooperative Bank. Three years ago, citing wrongdoings in the bank’s administration, Chavan ensured that the bank’s board of directors was superseded by the Reserve Bank of India. This strangled the NCP’s hold over rural politics.

Despite being alliance partners, the Congress and the NCP have tried to distance themselves from each other’s scams, but that is not the way the voters see it. The crimes of one party are seen as the crimes of the alliance it is part of. The Rs.70,000 crore irrigation scam, for instance. This colossal amount was spent on irrigation between 2000 and 2010, but the State’s irrigation capacity has increased by a mere 0.1 per cent. Fingers were pointed at the NCP’s Ajit Pawar, who was the Irrigation Minister. But Ajit Pawar was allowed to cling to his post despite the public outrage. However, the most interesting aspect of the affair is that the documents that seemed to establish the scam could only have reached the public domain with a nod from the Chief Minister’s office.

Pre-election sops

By making policy changes, Chavan has tried to polish the image of the Congress. The powerful and corrupt Urban Development Department was jolted last year when Chavan took away its discretionary power to grant extra floor space index. The new rule granted extra FSI to whoever was willing to pay a hefty premium. The decision is a two-faced coin, but the bottom line is that it brought in more than Rs.1,500 crore to the cash-strapped government.

Similarly, in a typical pre-election move, Chavan regularised slums that were built up to 2000. Rural Maharashtra has always had a politically aware electorate, and the Congress has been neglecting its needs for long. Chavan tried to make amends during the drought of 2012-13 when the state machinery did a commendable job of providing water and fodder. But his attempts during the recent hailstorms that destroyed harvests were not as successful. Thirty per cent of the rabi crop on 1.78 million hectares was lost, affecting over one million farmers. In response to this disaster, the State announced a relief package of Rs.4,000 crore with the rider that it was for farmers who had suffered a loss of 50 per cent or more. Further stipulations of the package said that the government would compensate Rs.25,000 per ha for horticulturists, Rs.15,000 per hectare for farmers who had irrigated land and Rs.10,000 per ha for those who did dry land farming. The compensation was restricted to up to two hectares.

The waiver of interest on crop loans and a moratorium on loan recovery for all affected farmers did little to quell the sense of injustice among farmers. The paucity of the relief package could prove to be a terrible mistake, especially in an election year. Much of the damage was in Marathwada, a region that sends eight of Maharashtra’s 48 MPs to the Centre and, more crucially, accounts for 48 of the 288 Assembly seats. The Assembly election is due later this year.

Chavan’s appointment as Chief Minister surprised many because he was essentially an “outsider” to State politics. His impressive educational background was encouraging but as it turned out, his grasp of politics was even better. While successfully fighting off other contenders for his post, he also strengthened the Congress with his various policies and tightened the party’s grip over the NCP. He inherited a party and a position that was in disarray. It is generally held that if it had been otherwise the Congress-NCP would have sailed through this election but because things are the way they are, with both major parties beset with their own internal devils, the BJP and its allies have as good a shot at winning this election in Maharashtra as the Congress does.

Lyla Bavadam

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