Voting against the national trend

Print edition : June 04, 2004
in Mumbai

MAHARASHTRA used to be a Congress stronghold, but since the Shiv Sena-Bharatiya Janata Party alliance's victory in the 1995 Assembly elections the State has swung between the Congress and the saffron combine in the Lok Sabha as well as Assembly elections. In the 1996 Lok Sabha elections, which were held during the `honeymoon' period after the Shiv Sena-BJP government took over the State administration, the electorate reposed faith in the combine. However, the voters' faith had been dented by the time Lok Sabha elections were held in 1998, and the Congress won 33 of the 48 seats as opposed to the Shiv Sena-BJP combine's 10. In June 1999, the Congress split, paving the way for the creation of the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP). In the 1999 Lok Sabha polls, while the Shiv Sena-BJP won 28 seats, the Congress won 10 and the NCP six.

Analysis indicates that the drastic change in the Congress' fortunes between the 1998 and 1999 elections owed a lot to the split. Such an assumption underlay the decision of the Congress and the NCP to fight the 2004 Lok Sabha elections together and regain what they lost in 1999. Besides, the historical advantages of the Congress, such as its grasp of popular issues and its secular image, remained attractive to rural voters and the minorities, especially Dalits who saw the BJP as an upper-caste Hindu party.

Unfortunately, though the combine did regain much of lost ground, it could secure only 23 seats. Yet, when compared to 1999, the two parties secured three extra seats each - the Congress 13 and the NCP nine. The Shiv Sena-BJP alliance won 25.

Why did Maharashtra by and large vote against the national trend? A significant reason for the Congress-NCP setback seems to be the presence of the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) in the fray. Initial fears of the BSP upsetting the political fortunes of many candidates came true, but in an insidious manner. The BSP had put up 46 candidates and though none of them won they did serve BSP leader Mayawati's purpose of splitting votes. In all the constituencies where they were deployed, BSP candidates secured anywhere between 0.5 to 13 per cent of the votes polled. Apparently, the NCP's Praful Patel from Bhandara, the Republican Party of India (Gavai)'s R.S. Gavai from Amravati, the RPI's Joginder Kawade from Chimur, the NCP's Lakshman Dhoble from Osmanabad and the Congress' Prabha Rau from Wardha lost because the BSP took away a significant number of votes.

Thus, the "Dalit revenge" Mayawati spoke of at her public meetings was achieved. She not only proved that she was a significant player in Maharashtra, but underscored the fact that she had a better understanding of caste politics in the State than other leaders. Had Mayawati been given what she demanded at the start of the election, the Congress-NCP would have got more seats.

The parties the Congress-NCP allied with too did not fare well. The combine gave one seat to the Janata Dal (Secular) and one each to three factions of the RPI. While Ramdas Athavale of the RPI(A) retained the Pandharpur seat, the three others lost theirs. A combination of issues relating to drought relief, agriculture and poor development also contributed to the Congress-NCP's average performance.

The elections resulted in some major upsets and in a redistribution of power in the State. One of the big upsets was the defeat of former Lok Sabha Speaker and Congress leader Shivraj Patil in Latur. Patil, who was seeking re-election for the eighth time, was defeated by the BJP's Rupa Nilangekar, a first-time contestant with no political experience. While some reports attributed his defeat to his neglect of the constituency, others blamed the drought in Latur. However, the fact is that Patil was a victim of intra-party squabbles. Many Congress workers stayed away from his campaign.

Film actor Govinda and supporters after his victory in Mumbai North.-

The defeat of Lok Sabha Speaker Manohar Joshi of the Shiv Sena in Mumbai North Central to the Congress' Eknath Gaekwad dealt a severe blow to the Shiv Sena. The party has blamed its cadre's lackadaisical approach to Joshi's campaign for his defeat.

A noteworthy aspect of the result is the rout of the Shiv Sena-BJP in the Mumbai region. Of the six seats in the region, the combine could retain only the Shiv Sena's Mumbai South Central. The BJP's Mumbai South, North and North East seats went to the Congress, resulting in a Congress-dominated Mumbai after almost 20 years. Prior to the election, the BJP had expressed confidence in retaining the first two since they were held by party stalwarts and Union Ministers Jaywantiben Mehta and Ram Naik. The BJP was banking on the fact that these veterans were pitted against two first timers - Milind Deora against Jayawantiben Mehta and film actor Govinda against Ram Naik. The results showed that the confidence was misplaced. Deora beat Jayawantiben Mehta by 10,246 votes and Govinda won by 48,271 votes.

Jayawantiben Mehta's defeat was attributed to "overconfidence". While Deora, who is the son of Congress leader and Rajya Sabha member Murli Deora, actively campaigned on the streets, Jayawantiben Mehta said that since "the people were already on her side" she preferred to concentrate on winning over the many corporate voters of Mumbai South for the party. In Ram Naik's case, the defeat is believed to be owing to two factors. One is the recent attack on North Indians coming to Mumbai in search of jobs. Although the violence was engineered and perpetrated by the Shiv Sena, Naik bore the brunt of it since his constituency had a large number of North Indian migrants. The other reason was Mumbai North's longstanding water problem. For years Naik promised a system to ensure regular water supply, but the heavy hand of the tanker operators has always prevailed.

With the defeat in Dahanu (Reserved), the BJP no longer has a presence in the Konkan region. The party did, however, stage a coup in Solapur from where Chief Minister Sushilkumar Shinde's wife, Ujwalatai, contested. She lost to the BJP's Subhash Deshmukh. Significantly, Solapur is the home turf of both the Chief Minister and the Deputy Chief Minister, Vijaysinh Mohite-Patil. Deshmukh's victory has been attributed to the fact that his numerous business interests provide jobs to a large number of people, a fact that endeared him to the voters.

Meanwhile, the BJP's defeat in Beed was a personal blow to State party president and former Deputy Chief Minister Gopinath Munde. In fact, the party's fate was sealed in Munde's native district even before the elections when the sitting MP, Jaisingrao Gaekwad, crossed over to the NCP. Gaekwad defeated the BJP candidate by 47,412 votes.

Another power centre that was shaken was Vidarbha where the Shiv Sena-BJP trounced the Congress-NCP by winning all the 11 seats except Nagpur. Drought seems to have played a significant role in Vidarbha voters turning against the Congress. The region has had deficit rainfall for four years and irrigation facilities are inadequate. Cotton growers, who number over 15 lakh in the region, were especially affected.

Dalits constitute a significant number of voters in the region, and the Congress had successfully won their support in the past. This time, however, it failed. On the other hand, the Shiv Sena's "Shiv Shakti-Bhim Shakti" slogan seems to have worked. The party retained the Aurangabad (Reserved) and Buldhana (Reserved) seats.

While the issue of statehood for Vidarbha is an important one in the region, it would be incorrect to attach much importance to the issue. If that had been the main demand of the voters, then Banwarilal Purohit of the Vidarbha Vikas Party, which supports the demand for a separate State, would have won from Nagpur. But Purohit trailed way behind the Congress' Vilas Muttemwar; he polled only 3.53 per cent of the votes.

Meanwhile, earlier the power of the Dalit vote used to fetch the community at least two seats. This time only one Dalit leader emerged victorious - Athavale from Pandharpur (Reserved).

It is evident that the calculations of the Congress-NCP alliance were slightly off the mark. The last minute decision to work as a team, delayed campaigns among crucial segments such as Dalits, and unmotivated allies caused it to lose a chance to regain its dominant position in Maharshtra.

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