Maharashtra: All sides get ready for a bigger battle

The Lok Sabha election results have shaken the ruling NDA and given the opposition MVA a distinct advantage in the Assembly election later this year.

Published : Jun 21, 2024 19:01 IST - 8 MINS READ

MVA leaders Sharad Pawar and Uddhav Thackeray at a joint press conference in Mumbai on June 15.

MVA leaders Sharad Pawar and Uddhav Thackeray at a joint press conference in Mumbai on June 15. | Photo Credit: EMMANUAL YOGINI

The Lok Sabha election results in Maharashtra came as a shock to many political pundits. The INDIA bloc, known as the Maha Vikas Aghadi (MVA) in the State, bagged 30 of the 48 seats, while the National Democratic Alliance’s (NDA) tally was just 17, compared with 41 in 2019 when the BJP was in alliance with an undivided Shiv Sena. An independent candidate who won the Sangli seat later aligned himself with the MVA. When seen from an Assembly seat perspective, the MVA’s decisive victory meant that it had the upper hand in 157 seats, while the NDA was ahead in just 128 seats.

However, the difference in vote share is very slim: the MVA garnered 44.92 per cent of the vote and the NDA 43.54 per cent, with the actual difference in the total number of votes just seven lakh. Prakash Ambedkar’s Vanchit Bahujan Aghadi (VBA) got 15.6 lakh votes, or 2.75 per cent vote share. It is clear that both alliances have a strong chance in the Assembly election.

In the 288-member Assembly, leading in 157 seats may seemingly put the MVA in a comfortable position, but Assembly elections are a different ball game. Hence, all the key players are redrawing their strategies, making Maharashtra politics even more intriguing and now highly unpredictable.

BJP stock-taking

Within a week of the results, the State BJP unit held a meeting of its core group. Devendra Fadnavis, Deputy Chief Minister and the party’s top leader in the State, accepted responsibility for his party’s debacle. (From winning 23 seats in 2019, the BJP is down to 9 seats. After 1998, the BJP has been reduced to single digits for the first time.) He offered to resign but the high command asked him to continue.

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Although there is no change in the NDA government, the alliance is already seeing a change, with the exit of Raj Thackeray’s Maharashtra Navnirman Sena (MNS). Raj joined the NDA without demanding any Lok Sabha seat, but for the Assembly election, he has decided to contest on his own. In a meeting with party leaders, he reportedly said that the MNS would contest around 250 seats. This development could be the result of MNS workers deserting his party and returning to Uddhav Thackeray’s Shiv Sena (UBT). The voting pattern in Mumbai and Thane district also showed that Raj’s core voters did not shift to the NDA. Rather, in many seats, MNS voters threw in their lot with Uddhav Thackeray. So, to remain relevant in State politics, Raj has little choice but to go solo.

The second dimension to this story is Eknath Shinde’s Shiv Sena. After the split in the Shiv Sena, Shinde has emerged as the third force within the Shiv Sena umbrella. His faction won seven Lok Sabha seats. In the current situation, where the BJP is short of a majority, every partner is important. Given Shinde’s growing stature, coupled with money and muscle, there is a possibility that he will attract MNS cadres. By quitting the NDA, Raj is now trying to limit Shinde’s possible expansion. Raj could also cut into the Marathi vote in Mumbai. The consolidation of Marathi, Muslim, and Dalit votes helped the MVA win four of the six Lok Sabha seats in Mumbai. It lost the Mumbai North West seat by just 48 votes; Uddhav’s Shiv Sena said it was planning to move the courts against the result.

In Mumbai, MVA gained in 23 Assembly segments, while the NDA was ahead in 13. The MNS can hope to do well in the 36 Assembly seats in Mumbai, 24 seats in Thane, and a total of 12 seats in Pune and Nashik. So, if Raj succeeds in cutting into the MVA’s votes in these 72 constituencies, it will be a big boost for the NDA.

In the case of Ajit Pawar, it is uncertain if he will continue in the NDA. His party, the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP), contested four seats but won only one. His wife, Sunetra Pawar, lost in Baramati in a battle of prestige against cousin Supriya Sule. In addition, an article published in the RSS mouthpiece, Organiser, blamed his induction into the NDA for the BJP’s poor performance, saying it did not go down well with BJP workers in Maharashtra and they did not work for the party wholeheartedly.

Maratha reservation activist Manoj Jarange-Patil with Chief Minister Eknath Shinde after ending his protest on January 27. The issue is now before the courts and could play a key role in the Assembly election later this year.

Maratha reservation activist Manoj Jarange-Patil with Chief Minister Eknath Shinde after ending his protest on January 27. The issue is now before the courts and could play a key role in the Assembly election later this year. | Photo Credit: ANI

The Lok Sabha results also showed that Ajit Pawar grossly failed to bring NCP voters to the NDA. The other NCP faction, led by Sharad Pawar, contested 10 seats and won 8. Thus, while the NCP’s voters are still with Sharad Pawar, the BJP’s core voters are disturbed by the alliance with Ajit Pawar.

In such a situation, a serious question before the BJP is whether it should continue with Ajit as an alliance partner for the Assembly election. Ajit currently has the support of 42 MLAs, of whom 20 won against BJP candidates. If the alliance continues as it is, then the BJP will have to accommodate these MLAs too.

Shinde’s strength

In contrast, Shinde’s faction contested 15 seats and won 7 in the Lok Sabha polls, while the BJP fought 28 and won only 9. The Shinde faction’s strike rate is better than the BJP’s, strengthening Shinde’s hand within the alliance.

On June 15 in Chhatrapati Sambhajinagar, Sanjay Shirsath, the faction’s spokesperson, said: “Look at our strike rate. We have fought against tough challenges. We will be the elder brother in the NDA in Maharashtra.”

This statement is an indication of the future for BJP workers. These workers had accepted Shinde only as a stopgap arrangement. But if the NDA comes back to power in the State, there is a high probability of Shinde becoming Chief Minister again. This realisation could impact the morale of BJP workers ahead of the Assembly election. It remains to be seen how the BJP leadership will be able to convince them.

The BJP’s State committee has launched a special mission to reach out to every home. Chandrashekhar Bawankule, the State party head, said: “We will go to the people again, with our 35 lakh party workers, and convince them to vote for the BJP.”

Sorting onions for auction at a godown in Nashik on May 21. Farmer anger owing to low wholesale prices cost the NDA a few seats in the general election and unless the government pacifies the farmers, its electoral prospects are unlikely to improve.

Sorting onions for auction at a godown in Nashik on May 21. Farmer anger owing to low wholesale prices cost the NDA a few seats in the general election and unless the government pacifies the farmers, its electoral prospects are unlikely to improve. | Photo Credit: INDRANIL MUKHERJEE/AFP

Agrarian crisis

Apart from the political manoeuvres, the NDA government must urgently address the agrarian crisis, particularly among onion, cotton, and soya bean growers, for whom falling prices are the biggest concern. Both Fadnavis and Ajit Pawar admitted that the fall in wholesale prices of onion hurt the NDA in Dhule, Nashik, Ahmednagar, and Solapur districts. Similarly, cotton and soya bean also played a role in ensuring the MVA’s success in the Marathwada and Vidarbha regions. Since the Model Code of Conduct came into force, the State government was unable to deposit the price difference between this year and last year in farmers’ accounts. The failure to do so angered farmers, and the NDA paid the price. Pacifying the farmers will be a major challenge for the NDA.

A bigger challenge before the NDA is the Maratha reservation demand. Manoj Jarange-Patil, a Maratha community leader, has sought reservation in education and jobs and Kunbi certification for his community. The government enacted a law giving 10 per cent reservation to Marathas, but the matter is pending in court. On Kunbi certification, the government accepted the demand in principle, but the Kunbi community is unhappy with the decision.

Another task before the NDA government is to battle the opposition’s narrative that it is allowing industries to shift to Gujarat from Maharashtra. Although Fadnavis and State Industry Minister Uday Samant kept claiming that Maharashtra topped in foreign investment in 2023, they failed to convince the public at large.

The Lok Sabha debacle has also resulted in the BJP’s attack on Uddhav Thackeray turning more communal. The entire BJP leadership has been trying to create a narrative that the MVA’s victory, and particularly Uddhav Thackeray’s success, was the result of Muslim consolidation.

On June 15, the top leaders of the MVA addressed a press conference in Mumbai. They thanked the people of Maharashtra and announced that they would fight the Assembly election as an alliance. This public posturing was an important step for the MVA to show unity when the road ahead is strewn with multiple hurdles.

MVA’s challenges

A key challenge for the MVA would be to field strong candidates. Both Ajit Pawar and Eknath Shinde have plenty of influential MLAs, apart from financial resources and manpower at the booth level, and a dedicated voter base. It will take meticulous planning at all levels to pose a serious challenge to them.

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Another challenge for the MVA is winning back the Konkan region plus Thane and Palghar districts. There are 39 Assembly seats in this area. Earlier it was a bastion of the Shiv Sena, but the Lok Sabha results clearly showed that Uddhav Thackeray has lost his grip on the region.

Expanding the social base by bringing smaller parties on board would strengthen the MVA’s prospects. For instance, Raju Shetti, former MP and leader of the Swabhimani Shetkari Sanghtana, contested independently and hurt the MVA in Buldhana and Hatkanangale seats. The division of votes helped Shinde’s candidates win. The same is the case with Prakash Ambedkar’s VBA. Talking about Ambedkar and other smaller parties, Uddhav Thackeray said on June 15: “If people are ready to join with sincere demands, we are here to welcome them.”

In October, Maharashtra, Jharkhand, Haryana, and Jammu and Kashmir are scheduled to go to the polls. There is also a buzz about an advanced election in Bihar. Of these, the Maharashtra election will certainly be the most important and keenly watched one, as the results will have a significant national impact and a psychological one too. The NDA, particularly the BJP, will go all out to retain power in the State. The battle for Maharashtra promises to be a thrilling and memorable one.

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