Anybody’s guess

Print edition : October 31, 2014

Shiv Sena president Uddhav Thackeray addressing an election rally in Ahmednagar on October 7. Photo: PTI

Chief Minister Prithviraj Chavan during campaigning in Karad. Photo: PTI

Maharashtra faces a multi-cornered contest for the 288 Assembly seats. There are no clear favourites, but the State may throw up a few surprises.

THE upheaval Maharashtra politics witnessed just weeks before the State Assembly election on October 15 has led political observers to conclude that the electoral outcome is anybody’s guess. With the national parties deciding to break decades-old electoral alliances and go it alone, almost all the 288 constituencies in the State are poised to witness multi-cornered contests. Every Assembly election in the State has been a closely fought one, but never before has it been so acrimonious. The 2014 election has become a clash of personalities and a numbers game with little attention being given to real and pressing issues. With former Chief Ministers and members of influential political families in the fray, each heavyweight candidate is pulling out all the stops.

During the campaigning or what little there was of it, it was noticed that an anti-incumbency feeling was building up against the Congress and the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP), which ruled the State in an alliance for 15 years. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is feeling supremely confident following its massive victory in the Lok Sabha elections held in May. It is not necessary that the outcome of the Lok Sabha elections is an indication of which way the wind is blowing in a State election. However, coming as it does so soon after the general election, there is a view that the Narendra Modi “wave” will be at play in the State election, too.

Shiv Sena chief Uddhav Thackeray, who is having a shot at becoming the Chief Minister, is not known for proactive campaigning. The late Sena supremo Balasaheb Thackeray’s younger son has been very much on the ball in this election. On the other hand, the Congress and the NCP are banking on their strongholds.

Any campaign will typically have its electoral planks. But there are few in Maharashtra this time to find mention. The Shiv Sena is continuing with its Marathi manoos (son of the soil) refrain. The speeches of BJP leaders, including Prime Minister Modi, have been full of rhetoric and with no substance. The only issue they do speak about is a separate Vidarbha State, that too in subdued tones. The Congress has very little to boast about, having done a shoddy job in its two previous terms. The party has not even made an effort to woo Muslims, who form 14 per cent of the population in the State. In fact, this segment of voters may play a crucial role in the election. Strangely, the Maharashtra Navnirman Sena (MNS) has made inroads into this section of the population in the Mumbai region.

With party president Amit Shah leading the campaign, the BJP is using the same tactics it did for the Lok Sabha election—unleashing an electronic blitzkrieg and holding rallies addressed by Modi and other party bigwigs such as Sushma Swaraj, Rajiv Prasad Rudy and Smriti Irani, where only Congress-NCP bashing is heard. The death of Gopinath Munde, soon after his election to the Lok Sabha, is costing the BJP dear as he was crucial in mobilising votes for the party in the State.

Several concerns have emerged following the break-up of the Shiv Sena-BJP and Congress-NCP alliances. Unlike in the past, when political polarisation enabled the parties to field safe and strong candidates, all the 288 constituencies have a candidate from each party. This has resulted in a search for winnable candidates in seats where either combine fought as one earlier.

“We might see unexpected outcomes from the smaller parties and independents,” said a senior NCP leader. The Republican Party of India (RPI) led by Ramdas Athawale and the Swabhimaani Shetkar Sanghatana have hitched their wagons to the BJP. Yet surprises cannot be ruled out. The MNS, led by Raj Thackeray, might be one of those surprise elements, he said.

To add to the confusion, many senior political leaders have shifted loyalties in a bid to stay in power. Prominent among them is Ram Kadam, a member of the outgoing Assembly. The MNS leader defeated Poonam Mahajan (daughter of the late BJP leader Pramod Mahajan) in 2009. He has joined the BJP. In fact, many leaders have deserted their parties to join the BJP. This is perhaps an indication that the BJP might be the leading contender for power.

Maharashtra has six regions with distinct characteristics that define its politics. It is not amiss to say that each party had its own stronghold in the previous elections. This time round, the split in the electoral alliances has resulted in a fair amount of angst and speculation, making it difficult to assign a pocket borough. Political analysts say that western Maharashtra and Marathwada could hold the key to the electoral outcome. These were the only two regions that held out against the saffron sweep in May.

Western Maharashtra, comprising the districts of Kolhapur, Sangli, Satara, Solapur and Pune, is known as the grain bowl of the State. It is the richest and most influential region. Primarily owing to the strong Maratha presence and NCP chief Sharad Pawar’s influence, the region, with 58 Assembly seats, has elected the largest number of Chief Ministers. With Chhatrapati Shivaji’s descendents, the Bhonsale family (based in Satara), allying with the NCP, this party is guaranteed the family’s loyal and substantial vote base. In all likelihood, the NCP will sweep the region. “We are not worried. The BJP is all about hype. In the past few Assembly elections, they could not make it. I think it is going to happen again,” says an NCP leader. The key candidates here are Shivendra Bhonsale, outgoing Chief Minister Prithviraj Chavan and Ajit Pawar, Sharad Pawar’s nephew.

Marathwada is the opposite of western Maharashtra—it is called the dust bowl of the State. The region, consisting of Nanded, Hingoli, Parbhani, Beed, Latur, Osmanabad, Jalna and Aurangabad districts, has 47 Assembly seats. It is perhaps the least developed region in the State and suffers from frequent droughts and power cuts. Stabs have been made at industrialisation but success has been slow. The late Congress Chief Minister Vilasrao Deshmukh represented Latur constituency, and during his lifetime the Congress-NCP combine held sway over the region.

The large Dalit population kept the Congress afloat and the equally large Maratha populace entrenched the NCP in the region. Deshmukh’s absence and the lack of attention given to the region by the Congress-NCP Democratic Front government have disillusioned the voters. “It appears to be a swing region. We are confident of Vidarbha, Konkan, north Maharashtra and Mumbai. But these two regions are tough,” says a BJP member. One of Marathwada’s main contenders is Ameeta Chavan, former Chief Minister Ashok Chavan’s wife. She is contesting from Bhokar, which Ashok Chavan had represented.

Northern Maharashtra is an odd mix of extremely rich districts such as Nashik and very poor and backward tribal districts such as Nandurbar, Dhule, Jalgaon and, to some extent, Ahmednagar. It has 47 Assembly seats. Traditionally, the tribal belt and the large Muslim population supported the Congress while the rich Maratha farmers were loyal to the NCP. For many years, it was a Congress-NCP stronghold. However, in the recent past, there has been some erosion in tribal loyalty. Water, primary health and education are key and neglected issues in the tribal areas. Nashik, on the other hand, boasts of rich grape and onion farmers as well as an enviable industrial belt.

The NCP takes credit for pushing the agenda of industrialisation. Interestingly, the MNS, which made reasonable headway in Nashik during the local elections, has not taken the advantage to the next level. Chhagan Bhujbal, NCP leader and an Other Backward Classes (OBC) heavyweight, will contest from Nashik district’s Yeola constituency.

Mumbai and the Greater Mumbai region, which have 36 Assembly seats, will be watched closely. The country’s economic capital consists mainly of urban middle class, mercantile and urban poor populations. It also has a significant Gujarati, Maharashtrian and minority populations.

The issues in focus here are typical of most urban centres: housing, employment, sanitation, public transport and inflation. In 2009, the Congress gained from the breaking away of the MNS and cut into the Sena-BJP vote share. This time, the Congress’ Muslim voters may be weaned away by a new entrant into the electoral arena—the All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen (AIMIM). The Owaisi brothers of Hyderabad have released a list of 24 AIMIM candidates for the elections.

“After many elections, we have finally got some party to represent us exclusively,” says Abdul Khan Hussaini, a trader in the Crawford Market area of south Mumbai. “Given that we have a saffron Prime Minister, we are never sure if the climate will go against us. These Muslim leaders are able to sway our youth using these tactics. However, what we need is better facilities such as health centres and sanitation in our neighbourhoods,” says Hussaini. The Congress has teamed up with the Samajwadi Party led by Abu Azmi in Mumbai.

Mumbai has a line-up of well-known candidates, who include Subash Desai of the Shiv Sena and Vinod Tawde, Baba Siddique and Varsha Gaikwad of the Congress.

The eastern region of Maharashtra, also known as Vidarbha, comprising the districts of Buldhana, Akola, Amravati, Washim, Wardha, Nagpur, Bhandara, Gondiya, Gadchiroli, Chandrapur and Yavatmal, has 62 Assembly seats. Mainly a cotton-producing zone, the region has unfortunately been at the receiving end of flawed irrigation and agricultural policies, which have caused a massive agrarian crisis leading to thousands of farmer suicides in the past 15 years. This region continues to grapple with the naxalite issue.

The region has swung between the Congress and the BJP. The latter has supported the demand for a separate State of Vidarbha and, therefore, hopes to benefit from that slogan. Additionally, Union Transport Minister Nitin Gadkari, who hails from the area, recently pushed a Rs.13,000-crore industrialisation policy for the region.

The coastal belt of Konkan, which has 38 Assembly seats, is expected to see some major changes following the Shiv Sena-BJP split. The districts of Thane, Palghar, Raigad, Ratnagiri and Sindhudurg have traditionally constituted the Sena stronghold but it is believed that the Sena may not be able to pull it off without the BJP. Narayan Rane, the Congress leader who is contesting from Sindhudurg district, is confident that the Congress will gain from the Sena-BJP split and defeat the Sena in the region. Konkan is fast developing with several special economic zones coming up in the region. It is also opening up the coast to travel and tourism.

A staggering 7,401 candidates have filed their nominations, making the October elections one of the biggest ever. The Congress has fielded its candidates in all the 288 seats; the NCP has nominated 286 candidates; the BJP has fielded 257 candidates; and the Sena 286.

Without doubt, it is one of the most exciting State elections ever. Maharashtra could do with change and a shake-up. However, that does not seem to be on anyone’s mind.

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