No smooth sailing

Print edition : November 14, 2014

Devendra Fadnavis celebrates with supporters after the results were announced in the Maharashtra Assembly elections in Mumbai on October 20. Photo: Shashank Parade/PTI

Shiv Sena chief Uddhav Thackeray with newly elected party MLAs at Sena Bhavan in Mumbai on October 20. Photo: PTI

The anti-incumbency factor and a well-thought-out strategy of accepting powerful rebels from rival parties helped the BJP emerge as the single largest party in Maharashtra.

IT cannot be emphasised enough that there was no Modi wave in Maharashtra. It is true that the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) emerged as the single largest party, but this was the result of two factors: anti-incumbency and political opportunism. With 122 seats, the BJP may have got the highest number of votes, but the party fell short of the magic figure of 145 seats in the 288-member Assembly to form the government on its own. The BJP could not even achieve its pre-election estimate of 130 seats.

The anti-incumbency wave was the factor that made many undecided voters to choose the BJP. So, though the party emerged victorious it was certainly not a smooth sailing. Equally important, the BJP managed to reach the 100+ mark with the help of 52 candidates who until recently were members of other political parties. So, it is also the politics of mutual opportunism that has placed the BJP in a position to form the government and also choose its allies.

A well-thought-out strategy was employed to choose these 52 candidates. This meant identifying seats where the BJP and its rivals were weak, potential rebels in all parties, and candidates who could fund their own election expenses. The choices were made well but it cast a pall over the BJP. Senior BJP leader Eknath Khadse, who was involved in the poaching, admitted that accepting Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) and Congress members into the BJP fold would dilute the party’s stand on issues such as corruption. As far as the BJP was concerned, the Maharashtra election was a miniature version of the Lok Sabha election. There were the same kind of rallies addressed by Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the same media blitzkrieg—full-page advertisements appeared in English and language broadsheets and tabloids, even a day before polling.

For the Congress, it was a race that was lost even before it was run. The party had too much against it what with the defeat in the Lok Sabha and the aggressive BJP campaign with Modi as its icon. It almost seemed as if the Congress believed the accusations the BJP was hurling at it and thus chose a defensive rather than an offensive campaign strategy. The Congress had no battle plans. Even the severing of the alliance, though it proved to be beneficial to the Congress in terms of retaining its reputation, was done by the NCP. It is not as if the party lacked ammunition. For one, Maharashtra has continued to perform well in terms of investment. Even industry reports point this out, but this aspect was not highlighted. The party did not capitalise on the Mr Clean image of its Chief Minister, Prithviraj Chavan. So badly did the party perform that its vote share dropped sharply compared with its 2009 performance whereas that of its estranged ally, the NCP, was not as drastic.

The BJP won 122 seats, 76 more than in 2009; the Shiv Sena won 63, 19 more than its previous tally; the NCP won 41 seats, 21 fewer than in 2009; and the Congress fared the worst getting 40 seats fewer than its 2009 tally of 82.

Living up to the sobriquet of a “wily Maratha”, NCP leader Sharad Pawar let pre-election rumours fly about possible post-election tie-ups. It came as no surprise when he offered unconditional outside support to the winning side. The BJP’s initial contempt for the NCP as the “Naturally Corrupt Party” and its post-results willingness to consider the NCP’s offer were very much in character. It is understood that the NCP is essentially offering support in exchange for protection from the numerous corruption cases against its members. The BJP is treading on dangerous ground here because the party’s hard-core voters will be enraged if any deal is struck with the NCP since the BJP has taken the high moral ground against corruption. When rumours circulated about the NCP’s offer, even Prithviraj Chavan wondered how the BJP was going to face the public’s scorn if it associated with the NCP.

The elections were a setback for the Shiv Sena. The party lost its home turf, Mumbai, to the BJP. For Shiv Sena leader Uddhav Thackeray, the loss does not bode well personally. He does not have the charisma or leadership abilities of his father and Sena founder Bal Thackeray. Moreover, the party’s vapid performance in the first Assembly elections after Thackeray’s death (in 2012) can only bring down his reputation further. The average Maharashtrian voter does not see the Shiv Sena as its only recourse. During its 25-year-long relationship with the Shiv Sena, which was snapped on the eve of the elections, the BJP ingratiated itself with Maharashtrian voters so as to be considered the party of first choice. The Shiv Sena is not used to such a situation. Uddhav’s wait-and-watch strategy immediately after the results did not exhibit his statesmanship. It only showed that he had no choice.

If the BJP and the Shiv Sena ally themselves again, it is certain that the BJP will hold the bargaining chips. If the two parties enter into an alliance, the Shiv Sena will have a much diminished role in such an alliance. The Shiv Sena is eager to be a part of the government. That the BJP is open to an alliance is clear from the fact that it is a member of the old guard, former party president Rajnath Singh, who was brokering the deal. If an understanding is arrived at, one thing is certain: there will be no mollycoddling. The BJP intends to hold the Shiv Sena in check; the BJP has already set its sights on winning the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation elections, which are due in 2017. If that is not a direct threat to the Shiv Sena’s sphere of influence, nothing is. The BJP sees the larger political benefits of continuing the saffron alliance, but it has also made it clear that its first priority is itself. So the BJP will not hesitate to have the whip hand.

The Maharashtra Navnirman Sena (MNS) was all but wiped out in this election. After a creditable performance with a seat tally of 13 in the first Assembly election it contested (in 2009) after breaking away from the Shiv Sena, the MNS contested 147 seats but won just one seat. The winning candidate had joined the MNS from the Shiv Sena. The MNS lost the five Mumbai seats it had held. However, the shocker in this election is the creditable debut of the Hyderabad-based All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen (MIM) led by Asaduddin and Akbaruddin Owaisi. MIM candidates contested 16 seats and won two—Byculla, a south Mumbai constituency, and Aurangabad Central. The party came third in two other Mumbai constituencies and stood second in another Aurangabad seat.

The Byculla victory came as a bombshell. The area, largely populated by former mill workers, was dominated by the jailed gangster Arun Gawli, who ruled with the benevolence of a Bollywood don. In the past, when most of Mumbai was affected by communal riots, Gawli’s ilaka (locality) would be relatively calm despite having a fair number of Hindus and Muslims. Gawli never supported divisions on the basis of religion, possibly because his wife is a Muslim. So the election of MIM in Byculla is an indication not only of the shifting demographics of Mumbai but, more seriously, of polarised politics and the emergence of aggressive Muslim identity politics. Educated middle-class Muslim voters from business communities live in this locality and their opting for a hard-core Muslim party reveals a certain nervousness. The thinking seems to be, “if Modi speaks for the Hindu masses then we need a Muslim leader to speak for us”. The bogeyman of religion is clearly seen in the votes of this constituency.

Of the 8,33,89,412 voters in Maharashtra, 4,60,741 chose to press the NOTA (none of the above) button, demonstrating an increasing disillusionment with politicians and the political process. Among the prominent losers were the Congress’ Narayan Rane and Harshvardhan Patil, the NCP’s Ganesh Naik, Anil Deshmukh and Sachin Ahir, and the Shiv Sena’s Subhash Desai.

The BJP’s choice for the post of Chief Minister is not the most obvious one. Why was Devendra Fadnavis considered over Eknath Khadse, who has more experience in government and was the Leader of the Opposition? Why was Nitin Gadkari’s name bandied about initially, suppressed later and raised again? The choice of Chief Minister is not based on who will govern the best but rather who will be the best man for Modi in Maharashtra. And the RSS seems to be claiming its rights too.

The BJP in Maharashtra

Modi and the Maharashtra BJP have a bit of a history. Two decades and more ago when both Modi and the late Pramod Mahajan were jostling for attention from the party’s central leadership, it was Mahajan who found favour with the top brass of the time. The natural competition that started between the two never died down, and although Mahajan is no longer around, the feud has been extended to his string of followers. In essence, this applies to several others in the State BJP because after Mahajan’s death, his brother-in-law, Gopinath Munde, assumed the mantle of power in the party and controlled most of the loyalties. The opposing side belonged to Nitin Gadkari, but he did not wield as much power. After Munde’s death in June, his daughter Pankaja Munde-Palwe, who has been elected from Parli, attempted to win back loyalties, but she is not considered of any importance. So the field was left open and Fadnavis was propelled to the front.

Fadnavis joined the BJP in the 1990s and has typically risen from the ranks, starting as a local ward president in Nagpur and reaching his current role of president of the party’s State unit. He was not the natural choice for senior BJP workers but no objections were raised when his name came up. It was assumed that he would be Chief Minister until a dark horse emerged in the form of Gadkari, whose name has most likely been proposed by the RSS. After installing Manohar Lal Khattar as Haryana Chief Minister, the RSS was trying to assert itself by influencing the choice of Chief Minister in Maharashtra. There were also mild rumours that Prakash Javadekar, Minister for Information and Broadcasting, and Environment and Forests, was being considered for the post.

The chances of Fadnavis becoming Chief Minister are strong. Gadkari clearly likes his time at the Centre. He seems to be done with State politics. He was Minister for Public Works in the Shiv Sena-BJP government in 1995-99. Some scandal was attached to his name when Arvind Kejriwal of the Aam Aadmi Party accused him of colluding with the NCP’s Ajit Pawar to exploit poor farmers in the Vidarbha region. None of the accusations was proved. There is also the whiff of caste politics. Gadkari, Fadnavis and Javadekar are Brahmins, and Khadse belongs to the Other Backward Classes (OBC). Brahmins have played little or no role in the State’s politics, which has been dominated by Marathas. It will be interesting to watch how the BJP will tackle this problem.

What is interesting is how Modi is silently acting out his role in all this. When he was the Chief Minister of Gujarat, he had banned any RSS activity in that State. The move was so shocking as to be almost unbelievable but it was just power play. Modi was showing the RSS who the boss was. Now, he is listening to his old tutors again. Even if the RSS’ choice does not prevail, it is worrisome that the outfit has the ear of the most powerful man in India.

Whoever becomes the Chief Minister will have a tough task ahead as Modi is going to flex his muscles in the State and the State unit of the party and the Chief Minister will have little choice but to fall in line.

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