Modi’s Mission Maharashtra

With nine visits in the last 13 months, does Prime Minister Modi’s focus on Maharashtra betray the party’s anxiety about winning this key State?

Published : Mar 04, 2024 18:13 IST - 10 MINS READ

 Prime Minister Narendra Modi at a function in Maharashtra’s Solapur on January 19 to inaugurate various projects. 

 Prime Minister Narendra Modi at a function in Maharashtra’s Solapur on January 19 to inaugurate various projects.  | Photo Credit: PTI

With its 48 Lok Sabha seats (the second highest in the country after Uttar Pradesh’s 80), Maharashtra is understandably important for the BJP, and Prime Minister Narendra Modi is clearly its star campaigner. Between January 2023 and February 2024, Modi has made nine visits to the State. He used the visits to inaugurate infrastructure projects and hit out against the opposition.

On January 12, Modi unveiled the Atal Setu, the 21.8-km-long, six-lane trans-harbour bridge with a 16.5 km sea link, saying the project showcased India’s infrastructural prowess. The promise of world-class infrastructure is a key campaign thrust of the party. The same day he also laid the foundation stone for development projects worth over Rs.12,700 crore in Navi Mumbai in sectors such as road and rail connectivity, drinking water, gems and jewellery, and women’s empowerment.

The roads leading to the venue of his speech were awash with saffron flags, and the Prime Minister arrived with Chief Minister Eknath Shinde and Deputy Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis in a van decked out like a chariot. He told the crowd that the country had started to believe that projects could not be finished in time because members of previous governments were busy making money and safeguarding the interests of their families. His government, he said, had spent Rs.44 lakh crore on infrastructure projects in the country against the United Progressive Alliance government’s Rs.12 lakh crore, and projects worth Rs.8 lakh crore were for Maharashtra alone.

A week later, he was back in the State, inaugurating a low-cost housing project (billed as India’s largest) in Solapur. In a 2019 rally there, Modi had promised houses for all labourers, and his speech was about fulfilling that promise; “Modi’s guarantee,” he called it. (Another housing project, the Maharashtra government’s Modi Awas Gharkul Yojana, aiming to build 10 lakh houses for Other Backward Classes, was inaugurated during Modi’s next visit, in late February.) He also laid the foundation for eight AMRUT (Atal Mission for Rejuvenation and Urban Transformation) projects worth Rs.2,000 crore.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi virtually inaugurating railway projects in Maharashtra on February 26. Governor Ramesh Bais and Chief Minister Eknath Shinde were at the event in Mumbai.  

Prime Minister Narendra Modi virtually inaugurating railway projects in Maharashtra on February 26. Governor Ramesh Bais and Chief Minister Eknath Shinde were at the event in Mumbai.   | Photo Credit: ANI

On February 28, he was in the State to inaugurate rail projects worth Rs.1,300 crore (two new broad-gauge lines from Wardha to Kalamb and Ashti to Ammalner) and a slew of irrigation projects and other development schemes aimed at farmer households in the Vidarbha and Marathwada regions. Addressing a huge rally in Yavatmal in Vidarbha, Modi said: “During UPA times, the money sent for farmers used to go in corruption. Today I pressed one button and millions of farmers received Rs,21,000 crore.” He also unveiled a statue of RSS ideologue Deen Dayal Upadhyaya in Yavatmal. 

Focus on mega projects

Many political scientists and psephologists believe a new class has emerged in India over the last two decades that gets excited about mega projects. Mrudul Nile, a professor at the Department of Civics and Politics, University of Mumbai, said: “The new urban middle class, which is a product of the neoliberal economy, supports mega projects. For them, protecting human rights is less important than building big roads. So, when they see a ruler pushing the idea of big projects, they admire him.”

The 2011 census showed that city dwellers constitute 45.22 per cent of Maharashtra’s population. The hype surrounding mega projects is directly aimed at this section.

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Modi was, in fact, expected to be in Maharashtra again on February 19 for the birth anniversary function of Shivaji, the 16th-century Maratha ruler. According to an announcement by Brihanmumbai Municipal Commissioner Iqbal Singh Chahal, Modi was scheduled to inaugurate the ambitious Rs.13,000-crore project to connect Marine Lines of South Mumbai to Dahisar of North Mumbai. But the visit was cancelled. The proposed inauguration had drawn criticism from Shiv Sena (Uddhav Thackeray) MLA Aaditya Thackeray because the project is expected to be functional only by May 2025. The BJP leadership is perceived to have backtracked in view of the bad publicity it might have generated.

On February 19, Fadnavis launched a website, Mumbai Metaverse, a virtual representation of what Mumbai will look like in the near future and the amenities its residents will enjoy. It shows the city’s metro rail network, link roads to connect western suburbs to eastern suburbs, and tunnels and bridges connecting Mumbai with cities in Thane and Raigad districts.

Most of the mega projects are located in the Mumbai Metropolitan Region, which is home to 10 Lok Sabha constituencies and one-half of an eleventh constituency. As many as 63 (of the State’s 288) Assembly seats are located here. The Shiv Sena had a strong presence here. After the split in the party, Chief Minister Eknath Shinde managed to get prominent leaders of the area to stay with him, but ground workers of the Shiv Sena are still openly with Uddhav Thackeray. This can hurt the ruling alliance’s chances in the area, which explains why the BJP is going all out to woo voters here.

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Modi has been reaching out to other parts of the State too. He inaugurated various projects in Nashik on his January 12 visit. He addressed a mega youth rally where he spoke of the importance of young people in making India a strong nation. Nashik, Ahmednagar, and Pune are part of Maharashtra’s sugar belt and together have eight Lok Sabha seats. The Shiv Sena (Uddhav Thackeray), Congress, and Nationalist Congress Party (Sharad Pawar) are strong in the area. Modi inaugurated the Nilwande dam in Ahmednagar in November 2022.

Appropriating Shivaji’s legacy

It has long been the BJP’s strategy to claim Shivaji’s legacy. Modi invokes it every time he visits the State. On February 18, Modi claimed at the BJP’s national council in New Delhi that his own attitude to power was like Shivaji’s: “I am not someone who lives for personal wealth and prosperity or my happiness.”

Modi’s December 4 participation in a Navy Day function in the coastal town of Malvan in the Konkan, where he talked of the region’s rich legacy, was politically loaded. Sindhudurg, a fort on an islet off the coast of Malvan, was built by Shivaji. The Konkan region is a stronghold of the Shiv Sena (Uddhav Thackeray), and the BJP is keen to win the two Lok Sabha seats there. The party has deployed a Cabinet Minister and four MLCs to focus on Raigad, Ratnagiri, and Sindhudurg districts.

Modi has also reached out to groups connected with various local temples and deities. On January 12, he visited the Kalaram temple in Nashik, which was the site of a satyagraha organised by B.R. Ambedkar seeking entry for Dalits in the early 1930s. It is reported that on his next visit Modi will visit the Poharadevi temple of Washim, Vidarbha; the nomadic Banjara community in Maharashtra worships Poharadevi.

Modi also mentioned Ram in every speech he made during the January 12 and January 19 visits. The attempt to unify voters through hype about the Ram temple is part of the BJP’s election strategy. The party’s Maharashtra unit has asked all MLAs and district presidents to organise bus and train trips to Ayodhya for their constituencies. The social media accounts of many BJP MLAs and MPs are full of pictures of devotees setting off on the pilgrimage.

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The BJP has been carefully nurturing identity politics among all groups. Prakash Pawar, head of the political science department at Shivaji University in Kolhapur, gave an example. “Recently, for Sevalal Maharaj’s birth anniversary, the BJP organised programmes in an area where Maharaj wouldn’t have many followers. This is a strategy to be in the minds of the people all the time. So, every time a leader mentions some person or figure from history, a follower of that person forms an easy connect to him and his local party workers. In this way, the BJP has created a rainbow of identity politics within the Hindu community.”

Turning welfare beneficiaries into voters

Another segment the BJP is targeting are the beneficiaries of government schemes. Solapur, where Modi inaugurated the low-cost housing project on January 12, is a hub of bidi and handloom industries. Interestingly, Solapur is a stronghold of the CPI(M). Modi shared the stage with CPI(M) leader and former MLA Narsayya Adam, who had fought for the rights of labourers in the area.

An aerial view of the Atal Setu (Mumbai Trans Harbour Link Road) which Modi inaugurated on January 12.

An aerial view of the Atal Setu (Mumbai Trans Harbour Link Road) which Modi inaugurated on January 12. | Photo Credit: EMMANUAL YOGINI

The Shinde government has launched the “Shasan Apalya Dari” (government at your doors), an outreach programme spanning all districts, where the government machinery mobilises government scheme beneficiaries from their respective areas, including widows who have received pensions and farmers who have bought subsidised agricultural machinery. In every such function, Shinde talks of how Modi pays special attention to individual beneficiaries. “We have to make Modiji PM again” is the refrain. Until mid-February, Shinde had covered 30 of 35 districts under this programme.

On January 12, Modi launched the Namo Women Empowerment Mission, designed by the State’s Women and Child Development Department. Its aim is to train 10 lakh women in the first year with skills that will enable them to start small-scale businesses. Modi said: “Our government has always paid special attention to women’s welfare. Be it the Ujjwala gas scheme or the Ayushman Bharat scheme or Jan Dhan account or Sukanya Samruddhi scheme, our government has always aimed to empower women.”

This drive to turn government scheme beneficiaries into voters for the ruling party was seen in the general and Assembly elections in 2019 in Maharashtra. Now that the rising cost of cooking gas is disturbing family budgets, there are renewed efforts to win back women voters.  

  • The Prime Minister, star campaigner for the BJP in Maharashtra, has made nine visits to the State from January 2023 to February 2024, using them to inaugurate infrastructure projects and criticise the opposition.
  • Maharashtra’s 48 Lok Sabha seats, second only to Uttar Pradesh’s 80, make it crucial for the BJP, yet the party may face uncertainties due to the allegiance of Shiv Sena’s ground workers to Uddhav Thackeray after the party split.
  • Despite this, Modi’s frequent visits to the State suggest a focus on infrastructure projects, reinforcing his image as a strong leader achieving tangible results.

The BJP is clearly taking the battle for Maharashtra seriously and knows it is not going to be easy. In 2019, when the BJP and the Shiv Sena were in an alliance, their vote stare in the Lok Sabha election was 51.34 per cent. Together, they won 41 of the State’s 48 Lok Sabha seats. The Congress-NCP alliance’s vote share was 32.07 per cent. Prakash Ambedkar’s Vanchit Bahujan Aghadi (see box) and the All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen together secured 7.65 per cent. In 2014, too, the BJP-Shiv Sena alliance got 41 seats. This time, the Shiv Sena is split into two factions. Maintaining the 2019 and 2014 tally will not be easy.

The BJP has four senior leaders (Union Ministers Amit Shah, Rajnath Singh, Nitin Gadkari, and party president J.P. Nadda) to oversee election preparations in the State, with each responsible for 12 seats. There is speculation that only 10 of the sitting MPs from the State will get the party ticket this time.

A senior BJP source told Frontline that three survey agencies have been asked to prepare detailed feedback from each of the 48 constituencies. “One agency is working on the performance of the MPs, another is looking into prospective candidates, and a third is working on the local issues that need to be raised during the election. These reports will be crucial in candidate selection,” the three-term BJP MLA said.

The opposition has pounced on the BJP’s frenetic outreach. Former CM Uddhav Thackeray said in a recent speech in Sindhudurg that the BJP had invited this anxiety. “If you had kept your word, today PM Modi could have focussed on other States rather than come to Maharashtra every month.”

The Congress State in-charge Ramesh Chennithala said, “The frequency of the PM’s tours shows that the BJP fears losing Maharashtra. People of the State have made up their mind. They are just waiting for the elections.” The BJP’s State president Chandrashekhar Bawankule rejected the criticism. “We are confident of winning. Our effort is to win 45 of 48 seats in Maharashtra. PM Modi is the most popular leader in the world.”  

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