Maharashtra: A decisive rejection of revolving-door politics and communal rhetoric

The decisive victory of the Maha Vikas Aghadi has left the BJP-Shiv Sena reeling. The results will have an impact on the Assembly election too.

Published : Jun 11, 2024 17:28 IST - 9 MINS READ

A poster outside the NCP office in Mumbai on June 6. 

A poster outside the NCP office in Mumbai on June 6.  | Photo Credit: Nitin Lawate/ANI

The people of Maharashtra have spoken decisively against the revolving door politics of the past five years. The 2024 general election was the first test of public response to the political flux in the State since 2019, when the Shiv Sena’s Uddhav Thackeray broke his alliance with the BJP to form the Maha Vikas Aghadi (MVA) government with the Congress and Sharad Pawar’s Nationalist Congress Party (NCP).

In 2022, Eknath Shinde of his party usurped him by aligning with the BJP. A year later, NCP’s Ajit Pawar followed the “Shinde route”, joining the government as Deputy Chief Minister. Both the Shinde and Ajit Pawar factions claimed theirs were the real parties, which the Election Commission of India (ECI) later approved. In this electoral test, the people of Maharashtra seem to have unambiguously sided with the MVA.

The INDIA bloc won 30 (Congress 13, Shiv Sena–Uddhav Balasaheb Thackeray 9, NCP–Sharadchandra Pawar 8) of the 48 seats, while the ruling coalition of the Shiv Sena, the Ajit Pawar faction of the NCP, and the BJP secured just 17. Vishal Patil, a Congress rebel who won from Sangli as an Independent, has declared his support for the INDIA bloc. The BJP slumped to 9 seats from the 23 it won in 2019. Shinde’s Shiv Sena won 7 seats, while Ajit Pawar managed to win just one.

The election was fought on five major planks. The first was the Ram Mandir and hardcore Hindutva. The BJP attacked Uddhav for siding with the Congress and abandoning Hindutva, with Shinde citing this as a reason for his split with Uddhav. But the voters rejected this narrative completely.

The second plank was Maharashtra subnationalism or “Marathi asmita”. Uddhav and Sharad Pawar went public saying that the BJP had misused the investigating agencies and the ECI to break two Marathi regional parties. In Uddhav’s case, the electorate seems to have accepted it only partly; he failed to win his strongholds in the Konkan region: Ratnagiri-Sindhudurg, Raigad, and Maval (part of Maval comes under Raigad district of Konkan), and his party also lost the Chhatrapati Sambhajinagar seat to Shinde’s party.

Despite the split within the party and the family, the NCP(SP) won 8 of the 10 seats it contested, increasing its tally from five in 2019. At 83, Sharad Pawar has proved he is still a force to reckon with in Baramati, his home turf, where his daughter Supriya Sule defeated Ajit Pawar’s wife Sunetra Pawar in a high-stakes contest.

The third major issue in the campaign was Maratha reservation. This proved to be a double whammy for the BJP, which fared badly in the Marathwada and Vidarbha regions. In Marathwada, the epicentre of the Maratha reservation protest, the BJP failed to defend the Latur, Nanded, Jalna, and Beed seats it held. Significant among the losses was that of Raosaheb Danve, a fifth term MP and Union Minister of State, from Jalna, and of Pankaja Munde, daughter of the late BJP stalwart Gopinath Munde, from Beed. In Beed, the Maratha-Muslim-Dalit (MMD) equation helped Bajrang Manohar Sonwane of the NCP(SP) tide over the BJP’s aggressive Hindutva and consolidation of OBC votes.

Also Read | The Kunbi twist in Maharashtra could hurt the BJP

In Vidarbha, a strong backlash from the Kunbi community against the State government’s handling of their Maratha reservation demand helped the Congress win five seats. Uddhav and Sharad Pawar won one seat each here, taking the INDIA bloc’s tally to seven of ten seats in Vidarbha.

The fourth major issue was the perception that Maharashtra was being sidelined in favour of Gujarat. With Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Home Minister Amit Shah hailing from Gujarat, this propaganda gained support on the ground, especially in Mumbai.

The move of a few mega industries, that were proposed to be set up in Maharashtra, to Gujarat added to this sentiment. Uddhav’s son Aaditya raised this issue in every campaign rally, harping on how employment opportunities for Marathi youths were snatched away to be given to the people of Gujarat. This narrative seems to have resonated well with voters. In the six seats of Mumbai, the INDIA bloc won four. Uddhav’s candidate Amol Kirtikar lost the Mumbai North West seat by just 48 votes. Kirtikar has declared his intent to move the court against the result.

A point the media mostly ignored was the Assembly election, which is due in October. The general perception that there will be a change of guard in the State helped the MVA politically. In many small pockets, MVA leaders took people on board, signalling “favours” after the Assembly election. The BJP failed to give this confidence in many places.

A realignment of forces among many prominent political families that were sidelined even after joining the BJP also worked against the BJP (“Can the reunion of Maharashtra’s erstwhile ruling classes challenge BJP’s entrenched dominance?” Frontline, April 26, 2024). Their loyalists won in 11 of the nearly 15 seats where these families united to safeguard their interests.

‘Khichdi politics’

The NDA banked on three major factors this time. The first was Modi’s popularity. If the Prime Minister addressed 13 government functions before 2023 in Maharashtra, after the Model Code of Conduct came into force he addressed 19 rallies and held one road show. (“Modi’s Mission Maharashtra”, Frontline, March 22, 2024). All these were attempts at possible damage control in the “khichdi politics” of the State of which it was a crucial part, but they proved to be of no avail.

The BJP’s communal rhetoric, too, failed. Maharashtra saw the most number of hate speeches in 2023 in the country. The cases of riots too increased substantially after Shinde came to power. However, it seems people were fatigued with communal politics.

The NDA’s strategy to cut the vote share of Uddhav Thackeray and Sharad Pawar substantially did not pay off either.

Sharad Pawar with party workers. Despite the split within the party and the family, the NCP(SP) won 8 of the 10 seats it contested. 

Sharad Pawar with party workers. Despite the split within the party and the family, the NCP(SP) won 8 of the 10 seats it contested.  | Photo Credit: Nitin Lawate/ANI

The big blow to the BJP came from the failure of Prakash Ambedkar’s Vanchit Bahujan Aghadi (VBA). In 2019, it had made a dent in the Congress-NCP votes. However, the VBA’s vote share of 7.65 per cent in 2019 fell to 2.78 per cent this time. The consolidation of the Muslim and Dalit vote in the favour of the INDIA bloc made Ambedkar irrelevant.

Most significant of all, the Congress has made a resurgence in Maharashtra. From two seats in 2014 and one in 2019, it has recorded its best performance in the MVA. The agrarian crisis, the MMD consolidation, and smart election management made this turnaround possible. Significantly, the Congress won 11 of the 15 seats where it was pitted against the BJP in a straight fight.

Maharashtra was a Congress bastion till 2014. After a decade, the party seems to have sensed that opportunity is knocking at its doors again. The new confident Congress will be an important factor in the upcoming Assembly election.

Shiv Sena (UBT) chief Uddhav Thackeray on June 5 after his party’s election win. He played the “Marathi asmita” card, saying the BJP misused investigating agencies and the ECI to break two Marathi regional parties. 

Shiv Sena (UBT) chief Uddhav Thackeray on June 5 after his party’s election win. He played the “Marathi asmita” card, saying the BJP misused investigating agencies and the ECI to break two Marathi regional parties.  | Photo Credit: PTI

The agrarian crisis dented the BJP’s prospects in the rural belt. The falling prices of soya bean and cotton have been of big concern for farmers in Vidarbha and Marathwada. Addressing the media after the results were out, Deputy Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis admitted that the failure to address farmers’ issues had cost the BJP dear in Vidarbha and parts of Marathwada. “We had designed a scheme where the difference between the market price and the MSP [minimum support price] was to be transferred to the farmers’ accounts. But this decision got stuck in the Model Code of Conduct, and we faced the losses,” said Fadnavis.

Similarly, the ban on onion export hurt the BJP in north Maharashtra. The prices of onion in the Agriculture Produce Marketing Committees in north Maharashtra had fallen in the last three months. Maharashtra is the largest producer of onion in the country. The anger of onion growers was visible even during the campaign. This cost the BJP three constituencies of north Maharashtra, where the issue was burning.

Role of civil society

The role of civil society organisations such as Bharat Jodo Abhiyan Maharashtra, Lok Morcha 2024, Nirbhay Bano, and Maharashtra Democratic Front is also noteworthy. These groups were active in almost 24 constituencies (“Civil society activists in Maharashtra enter ‘Battleground 2024’ against BJP, Frontline, July 3, 2023). Of these seats, the INDIA bloc won 19.

The results have opened up political moves for the Assembly election. As Shinde has only succeeded marginally and the Ajit Pawar faction could win only one seat, they are likely to get the cold shoulder from the BJP.

Eknath Shinde (right) with Ajit Pawar during the campaign, in Mumbai on May 18. People have voted against revolving-door politics. 

Eknath Shinde (right) with Ajit Pawar during the campaign, in Mumbai on May 18. People have voted against revolving-door politics.  | Photo Credit: Ashish Vaishnav/ANI

Also, it is certain that Prime Minister Modi will not be the face of the campaign for the Assembly election. The dominant view in the corridors of power is that the current lot of leaders will not be able to deliver in the Assembly election. The results will also reduce the BJP’s ability to poach MLAs. People have by and large rejected turncoats in the Lok Sabha election.

Also Read | In Maharashtra, an election like never before

Sensing the challenges, Fadnavis accepted the responsibility for the party’s resounding defeat and offered to resign. “I will inform the party high command that I would like to resign and join party work ahead of the Assembly election,” he said. This statement could start the process of a Cabinet reshuffle in Maharashtra.

Buoyant MVA leaders have vowed to work harder and defeat the BJP in the Assembly election. “Our direction is right. People want change. We will keep fighting against the State government’s anti-people policies. We are sure the people will support us in the Assembly election too,” Sharad Pawar said after the verdict.

In 2014, the BJP won 24 Lok Sabha seats and 122 Assembly seats in Maharashtra. In 2019, the corresponding figures were 23 and 105. The BJP was the first party to win more than 20 seats in the Lok Sabha since 1998 and over 100 seats in the Assembly since 1990.

However, since 2014, engineering splits in opposition parties, using investigating agencies against opposition leaders, and being unnecessarily loud have characterised the party’s politics in Maharashtra. The 2024 verdict seems to have slammed the door shut on that brand of politicking. Whether the BJP will learn from it and change tack or keep moving ahead in the same direction needs to be seen. But one thing is certain for the BJP: politics will not be what it was in the last decade. 

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