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Messages from the States

Print edition : Mar 21, 1998 T+T-
R. PADMANABHAN

Total seats 48Congress(I) 33RPI 4BJP 4Shiv Sena 6Peasants and Workers Party 1

THE Maharashtra electorate's verdict has given the BJP-Shiv Sena combine a tally of seats in the Lok Sabha that is nearly 70 per cent lower than what it scored in the 1996 election. There is every indication that this can be attributed to the successful mobilisation by a unified and rejuvenated Congress(I) seeking to benefit from popular dissatisfaction with the record of the combine in the governance of the State.

The BJP-Sena alliance, which contested all the 48 seats, won only 10 - compared to 33 seats in 1996. It flopped comprehensively outside the 11-seat Konkan division (which includes Mumbai), where it won six seats. It bagged only two of the eight seats for the Marathwada region, only one each of the six northern Maharashtra and 12 western Maharashtra seats, and not even one of the 11 Vidarbha seats. The BJP fared even worse than the Sena, winning in only four of the 26 constituencies allocated to it.

For the Congress(I), facing the electorate in alliance with the Republican Party of India and the Samajwadi Party, it was a replay of 1991. That year, the Congress(I), helped along by sympathy generated by the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi and the absence of an electoral understanding between the BJP and the Sena, won 38 seats. This time, the Congress(I)-RPI-S.P. alliance bagged 37 seats - the Congress(I) winning 33 out of 41, the RPI scoring a grand slam with four and the S.P. losing out in all the three constituencies in which it was engaged. In 1996 the Congress(I) had won only 15 seats, and the other two parties had drawn a blank.

The United Front scored its lone success in the Kulaba constituency in Konkan - but that seat went not to the Janata Dal, which contested 19 seats, but to the Peasants and Workers Party (PWP), which contested only two. The U.F. had scored a duck in 1996. The PWP wrested the Kulaba seat from the Congress(I), represented by former Chief Minister A.R. Antulay, in a contest in which three parties, including the Shiv Sena, secured more than two lakh votes each.

The Ahmednagar seat in western Maharashtra, which the Congress(I) won in 1996, was taken this time by the Shiv Sena - represented by Balasaheb Vikhe-Patil, a sugar baron who was a Congress(I) stalwart not so long ago. The Congress(I) retained the 13 other seats of 1996 vintage, and took 12 seats from the BJP and eight from the Shiv Sena. The RPI, which had lost all the 11 seats it had contested in 1996 - not to mention the four seats contested and lost by the Bharatiya Republican Party Bahujan Mahasangh (BRPBM), a party with an RPI connection - took two seats each from the Sena and the BJP this time.

At the time of writing, the electoral authorities were still in the process of working out the percentages of the valid votes polled secured by parties. According to rough estimates provided, the Congress(I)-RPI-S.P. alliance secured 51 per cent of the votes - the Congress(I) 44, the RPI 4 and the S.P. 3 per cent. The BJP-Sena combine got 43 per cent - the BJP 23 and the Sena 20 per cent. In 1996, the Congress(I) secured 35 per cent of the votes, the BJP 22 per cent and the Sena 17 per cent.

Senior Congress(I) leader Sharad Pawar must be regarded as the chief architect of his party's comeback. Evidently realising that factionalism in the State Congress(I) contributed considerably to the party's dismal performance in the 1995 Assembly and 1996 Lok Sabha elections, he set about mending fences with rival leaders such as S.B. Chavan, Sudhakar Naik and Vithal Gadgil. Pawar also set the pace for the party's alliance with the RPI and the S.P. As is now clear, the alliance made sense not only in terms of electoral arithmetic but also as a means to harness Dalit anger against the Sena-BJP Government and Muslim apprehensions about its intentions.

First, the arithmetic. The RPI has pockets of support throughout the State, but it might be legitimate to assume that it is particularly influential in the 11 constituencies it contested in 1996 of its own accord after reunification of its factions. Eight of these seats were bagged by the BJP-Sena combine, while the Congress(I) won the remaining three. The figures suggest that six of the eight seats could have eluded the combine had the RPI or the Congress(I), as the case may be, not played "spoiler". They also suggest that the Congress(I) could have won three more seats had not the BRPBM, of which RPI leader Prakash Ambedkar is the co-promoter, been in the fray. As it happens, the BJP-Sena combine this time lost 11 of the 12 seats it won last time from constituencies in which the RPI or the BRPBM had been in the fray in 1996, seven of them to the Congress(I).

Available statistics also suggest that the combine might not have won in Mumbai South, Mumbai South Central or Mumbai North-West in 1996 had the Congress(I) and the S.P. not stood in each other's way. As it happens, the combine lost only Mumbai South this time. The other two seats fell into its lap on account of the Janata Dal's fielding candidates and taking away a chunk of the votes that might have otherwise gone to the S.P.

But the arithmetic was only a minor part of the rationale for the alliance for which the Congress(I) set the pace. There is a history of Sena hostility to Dalits, the Mahars and neo-Buddhists in particular. Dalits were, therefore, bound to regard as hostile the action of the Sena-BJP Government in withdrawing a large number of prosecutions the predecessor Congress(I) Government had initiated under a law designed to protect Dalits from atrocities perpetrated by people belonging to higher castes. But the last straw for Dalits was the death of 11 Dalits in police firing in July 1997 in and about a slum colony in northeast Mumbai.

That the Congress(I)-RPI alliance had triggered a large-scale Dalit mobilisation against the BJP-Sena combine was evident at campaign rallies addressed by Sonia Gandhi. There were almost as many RPI flags as Congress(I) flags at these rallies - and frenzied applause greeted a reverential reference to Babasaheb Ambedkar that Sonia made in Nagpur on February 15.

Unlike Dalits, Muslims seem to have held their cards close to their chests before the election. They were far less visible than Dalits in the rallies that Sonia Gandhi addressed. For one thing, the S.P. flag was not so much in evidence. But as Shiv Sena leader Bal Thackeray admitted, there is reason to believe that there was large-scale Muslim voting against the combine. If such voting had indeed taken place, it leads to the conclusion that the low incidence of communal riots during Sena-BJP rule in the State has owed more than a little to Muslim fears of provoking a Government they consider hostile.

Muslims have reason to be wary of the Sena-BJP Government. It wound up the State Minorities Commission on the plea that all citizens were on a par. There is reason to believe that it has brought non-academic influences to bear on the functioning of the government-run Urdu Academy. The Government also withdrew a large number of cases instituted against Thackeray and others for allegedly stoking communal fires.

What was perhaps the sorest point with Muslims was the Government's attitude to the Commission of Inquiry that probed the 1992-93 Mumbai riots, which exposed the minority community to the murderous wrath of Shiv Sainiks and Sena supporters. At one stage the Government wound up the Srikrishna Commission - only to reinstate it later. Even after reinstating the commission, it attempted time and again to withold key documents on the ground of privilege. (The Commission submitted its report to the Government last month.)

The Sena-BJP Government has fallen far short of keeping several promises, including one to provide free pucca houses to all slumdwellers in Mumbai. On the other hand, it has dishoused many slumdwellers, including Muslims, through large-scale demolition drives. This has created the impression that the Government is the friend of the real estate developer rather than of the slumdweller.

According to Thackeray, Christians also voted en masse against the BJP-Sena. If this is true, part of the reason could be the interference by Shiv Sainiks and the Sena-BJP Government with the autonomy of mission-run schools in the matter of student admission. Moreover, Thackeray's campaign speeches were peppered with references to the supposed pro-Christian bias of Sonia Gandhi and warnings about the implications of this alleged bias in the event of the Congress(I) being voted to power.

Perhaps the Sena-BJP Government had alienated Adivasis as well. In any event, the Congress(I) triumphed in all the seven constituencies in the State reserved for Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe candidates; the BJP-Sena combine had won five of these seats last time.

It is not as if the Shiv Sena has alienated only Dalits, Muslims, Christians and, possibly, Adivasis. A large number of middle-class Maharashtrian Hindus who were once starry-eyed about the party have since got disillusioned with it, thanks partly to reports that Sena activists at different levels have been resorting to extortion and pressuring the occupants of flats, at the behest of flat-owners, to vacate the flats. Other reports have created the impression that certain members of the Thackeray family behave as if they are above the law.

Besides unity of purpose and the alliances with the RPI and the S.P., the Sonia factor had a big say in the Congress(I)'s success. The campaign rallies that Sonia Gandhi addressed boosted the morale of the party leadership and rank and file, mainly because the party's capacity to attract large crowds to its meetings had become past history. The enhanced morale presumably motivated the party to work for electoral victory with a greater sense of purpose.

Apart from the Shivaji Park (Mumbai) rally of February 22, Sonia Gandhi addressed rallies in 13 constituencies: Nandurbar (S.T.) in northern Maharashtra; Buldhana (S.C.), Bhandara, Nagpur and Chandrapur, in Vidarbha; Beed, Latur, Nanded, Hingoli and Aurangabad in Marathwada; and Solapur, Kolhapur and Pune in western Maharashtra. Whereas the Congress(I) had won only six of these 13 seats in 1996, it won all of them except Beed this time.

Perhaps part of the credit for the Congress(I)-RPI showing in Mumbai, too, should go to Sonia Gandhi and her Shivaji Park rally. Whereas the BJP-Sena combine won all the six Mumbai seats in 1996, it got only three of them this time.

The failure of the BJP-Sena combine to win even a single seat in Vidarbha can be attributed to the popular perception that the region remains neglected despite the assurance given by Thackeray more than two years ago that if the Government failed to deal justly with the region, he himself would lead an agitation against it. Vidarbha farmers seem to be particularly aggrieved. The Government prides itself on the higher price that it offers for cotton, but according to its critics, the price increase falls short of neutralising the increase in costs. Another grievance, voiced by cultivators of cotton, oranges and other crops, is that the Government failed to provide proper compensation for massive crop failure on account of the erratic monsoon.

Tenants of the island city of Mumbai constitute another aggrieved group. Their perception is that it is the Government's calculated failure to defend the provisions of the existing law on rent properly that enabled landlords to secure a judicial ruling in their favour. Congress(I) leader Murli Deora capitalised on this grievance. This was probably one of the factors that enabled him to win in Mumbai South. Another factor that made things easier for Deora, who took the seat from Jaywantiben Mehta of the BJP, was his party's alliance with the S.P.; the seat might have gone the Congress(I) way in 1996 had not an S.P. nominee been in the fray.

The biggest blow to the BJP-Sena combine was the defeat in Mumbai North-East of BJP general secretary Pramod Mahajan, who was Defence Minister in the 13-day A.B. Vajpayee Government of 1996. Gurudas Kamat of the Congress(I) defeated him by a margin of 47,452 votes. Kamat could well have won in 1996 but for the presence in the fray of RPI leader Ramdas Athavale, who secured 24.3 per cent of the votes. Indications are that the death of 11 Dalits in police firing in July 1997 in Ghatkopar, which falls within Mumbai North-East, was a major factor in Mahajan's defeat.

Ramdas Athavale contested this time from Mumbai North Central, within the boundaries of which Chief Minister Manohar Joshi's Dadar Assembly constituency falls. He defeated Narayan Athawalay (Sena), who was a member of the dissolved Lok Sabha, by a margin of 25,232 votes. According to Sharad Pawar, the victory of Athavale, like the victories of Prakash Ambedkar (Akola), R.S. Gavai (Amravati) and Jogendra Kawade (Chimur), indicates that Congress(I) supporters voted en masse for the RPI in the four constituencies. It had been observed in the past that while RPI supporters had few reservations about voting for the Congress(I) wherever the RPI had no candidate of its own, only part of the Congress(I)'s base of voter support was transferable to the RPI.

Possibly the biggest surprise was Congressman Vitthal Tupe's triumph over Suresh Kalmadi by a margin of 93,252 votes in Pune. The odds had seemed overwhelmingly to favour Kalmadi, who won the seat as the Congress(I) candidate in 1996 but contested as a saffron-supported independent this time. Perhaps Kalmadi had reckoned without Sharad Pawar, for whom Pune district is home turf. Perhaps the fact that a Sonia Gandhi rally was held in Pune three days before polling day had something to do with the outcome.

Of all the successful candidates in the State, Sharad Pawar won by the largest margin: 2,68,184 votes. Other prominent winners were former Lok Sabha Speaker Shivraj Patil, former Himachal Pradesh Governor Sudhakar Naik, former AIIC general secretary Sushilkumar Shinde, former Union Sports Minister Mukul Wasnik and Jaisinghrao Gaekwad Patil, Maharashtra's Minister for Cooperatives.

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