Waiting for change

Print edition : April 18, 2014

Shiv Sena chief Uddhav Thackeray addressing an election rally at Dombivli near Thane. Photo: PTI

IT is odd that five years after the last elections, neither the ruling Congress-Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) combine nor the saffron Shiv Sena-Bharatiya Janata Party (SS-BJP) alliance can find a stout enough stick of omissions or commissions to beat each other with in the run-up to the elections.

In both rural and urban Maharashtra, there has been no dearth of issues. Here are just a few of the larger ones. Unseasonal rain and hail in 28 of the 35 districts destroyed crops in over 19 lakh hectares. The tragedy intensified when an estimated 37 farmers ended their lives, unable to sustain their families. There was the Rs.70,000-crore irrigation scam. In the Adarsh Cooperative Housing Society scam, illegal beneficiaries were granted flats in a building meant for retired armed forces personnel. Others include the controversial land allotment for a tech park in Pune, the Rs.1,000-crore education scam involving State-run schools, a public distribution system scam involving bogus ration cards, BJP leader Gopinath Munde’s boast that he had spent more than Rs.8 crore in the 2009 Lok Sabha elections, and, most recently, NCP chief Sharad Pawar’s exhortation to his loyal mathadi workers to vote twice—once in Mumbai, where they work, and then again in their villages—with a reminder to erase the voting “dot”.

There is no area of life that has not been touched by some sort of corruption. And yet, there is no palpable feeling that the opposition is raring to attack the government. Parties are going around with furrowed brows, engrossed in their own troubles. The BJP’s prime problem is ironically also its greatest trophy. The larger-than-life image of Narendra Modi is turning out to be larger than the party. And while this was initially exciting, it has progressively lost a great deal of its shine. A BJP source compared Modi’s campaign to “a selfie [in which] one is only thinking about oneself and how one looks… you are the subject, you are the photographer… nothing else is important”. The point being made by this disgruntled senior BJP worker is that the campaign is all about Modi, and the party has been relegated to the back seat. Indeed, the BJP’s headquarters in Mumbai proves this with its huge hoarding that proclaims: “Vote for India Vote for Modi”. What happened to voting for the BJP’s State MPs, or can they be dispensed with? This is the sort of question that is being murmured in Mumbai though not too loud because the Big Brother style of functioning (and its consequences) that Modi has entrenched in Gujarat is only too well known.

Modi himself has been taking huge strides across the State, visiting farmers in Yavatmal who have lost their crop to hailstorms, holding a rally in Mumbai, and conducting his “chai pe charcha” meetings. His prime ministerial aspirations and his casual manner towards some senior BJP leaders have created a new set of problems for some of the State’s parties. The Sena’s Uddhav Thackeray stubbornly supports the old guard in the BJP. This naturally means that Uddhav’s cousin, Raj Thackeray of the Maharashtra Navnirman Sena (MNS), had to take a contrary view. Modi, the realist, tried to get the Sena and the MNS on the same page, knowing the value this would have for the Sena-BJP combine in terms of garnering votes. But he had not reckoned with the fact that the cousins had split not over ideology but over power-sharing and hence could not be appealed to. In fact, the BJP has been trying to persuade the MNS to either ally with them or not contest the Lok Sabha elections. In 2009, the MNS had unwittingly eaten into the saffron vote and indirectly helped the Congress-NCP to win all six Mumbai seats. Despite this, the MNS has decided to contest as a separate entity. The SS-BJP combine has extended its influence with a pre-election alliance with the Republican Party of India (Athavale) and the Swabhiman Shetkari Sanghatana.

The Sena has seen unprecedented defections in the run-up to this election. With Uddhav at the head after the death of his father, Bal Thackeray, the Sena has been in a flux. Uddhav’s milder ruling style has been (wrongly) mistaken for weakness, and after the breaking away of his fiery cousin Raj, membership in the Sena is no longer seen as a lifelong commitment. Among the spate of defections, the most shocking one was that of Rahul Narvekar, the vociferous spokesman-cum-lawyer, who left the Sena saying that he was being victimised by the party. Three sitting MPs have quit the Sena and joined the NCP. Part of the reason for the defections is supposedly Uddhav’s weak leadership, but if this were true, then the defectors should logically go to the MNS, which is closest to the Sena in terms of ideology. But the MNS seems to have fizzled out after its impressive debut in the 2009 Assembly elections. So the reason for Sena men leaving seems to have more to do with their feeling that Uddhav’s neglect of Modi, as well as his poor relationship with BJP leader Nitin Gadkari, may lead to the Sena itself being marginalised politically. Thus, the defections have more to do with personal career paths than with political factors.

In the Congress, perhaps the most interesting person is Chief Minister Prithviraj Chavan. Incidentally, he has just completed three years in office. Not only did he inherit an administration that was burdened by scams and inefficiencies but he has also had to survive political storms. Now he has the additional responsibility of ensuring that the Congress and the NCP put up a good show so that the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) can return to power in New Delhi. With more than seven crore voters and 48 Lok Sabha seats, Maharashtra is second only to Uttar Pradesh when it comes to the numbers game in politics.

The opportunistic behaviour of candidate-hopefuls and party functionaries and the low level of public engagement by the parties have so far made this a very jaded pre-election period. Perhaps the only aspect of the election that seems to have some semblance of integrity and excitement is the entry of the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP). The AAP came into prominence in the State when the lid was blown off an irrigation scam in 2012 in which the NCP’s Ajit Pawar was allegedly involved. The AAP has consciously pitted itself against all the 22 NCP candidates. Social activist and national executive member of the AAP Mayank Gandhi has called the NCP a corrupt political party, pointing out that NCP Ministers like Ajit Pawar and Chhagan Bhujbal face corruption charges while Water Resources Minister Sunil Tatkare and Higher Education Minister Rajesh Tope have been indicted by a judicial committee in the Adarsh scam. Notable candidates of the AAP in the State are the activist Medha Patkar, irrigation scam whistle-blower and retired bureaucrat Vijay Pandhare and ex-banker Meera Sanyal.

For Mumbaikars, the constituencies worth watching will be Mumbai South, where Meera Sanyal takes on the Congress’ sitting MP and Union Minister of State for IT and Communications Milind Deora, and Mumbai North-East, where Medha Patkar faces sitting MP Sanjay Dina Patil of the NCP and Kirit Somaiya of the BJP. South Mumbai’s slum population has increased drastically. Like all established parties, the Congress has not neglected slum voters, and this has lessened newcomer Meera Sanyal’s chances of a political advantage.

In Mumbai North-East, Medha Patkar has a distinct advantage despite this being her first foray into politics. She is up against two seasoned fighters who have the financial backing of their parties while her campaign managers have been forced to appeal to the public to fund the campaign. However, her activist image will stand her in good stead in this constituency where she was well known long before she entered politics. She has fought for the right to housing and livelihood in the area, which has been beleaguered by infrastructure projects that have left many homeless. To that extent, Medha Patkar has already proved her mettle to her potential voters. She has another advantage over Sanjay Dina Patil who, in the last election, won only by a small margin of fewer than 10,000 votes. In Mumbai North-West, Mayank Gandhi has been pitted against the Congress stalwart and sitting MP, Gurudas Kamat, who has had five terms from this constituency.

Showing its spunk, the AAP has even entered the lion’s den, fielding a retired Indian Police Service officer, Suresh Khopade, against Sharad Pawar’s daughter Supriya Sule in Baramati. Likewise, in Nagpur, the AAP has fielded its Maharashtra convener Anjali Damania against Nitin Gadkari.

What voters are talking about is a need for change. The only sense of impending change comes from the AAP, but the party is too inexperienced. The non-AAP opposition, which has so much ammunition to use against the government, is caught in a trap of Modi monotheism. Gridlocked with internal issues, it is unable to belabour the Congress-NCP combine. All in all, it has been an extraordinarily dull start to the 16th Lok Sabha election campaign.

This article is closed for comments.
Please Email the Editor