M’rashtra: Raj Thackeray, Ambedkar X-factors this polls

Maharashtra Navnirman Sena (MNS) chief Raj Thackeray. PTI

The heat and dust of the Lok Sabha’s four-phase polls in Maharashtra will settle after the voting on Monday, but the outcome in this state will be crucial to determining who will form the next government at the Centre. 

Of the 543 seats in the Lok Sabha, Maharashtra accounts for 48 – second only to Uttar Pradesh, with its 80 seats. 

Interestingly, in a few months’ time, Maharashtra will also have assembly elections, the first big state to do so after the ongoing Lok Sabha polls.

The five-party ruling combine led by the BJP-Shiv Sena and the Congress-NCP led 56-party front are both claiming they will wipe out the other, but that’s for public consumption. In party circles and private conversations, both sides are unsure what undercurrent is driving the election.

In the April-May 2014 parliamentary elections, riding on the Modi wave, the BJP won 23 seats while its ally Shiv Sena 18. The NDA’s total was 42, with Raju Shetti, the founder of the Swabhimani Shetkari Sangathana (SSS), who was then with this alliance, winning one.  The Congress won just two, while Sharad Pawar’s Nationalist Congress Party landed with four — so, the Congress-NCP total was just six. 

To add to the background, the state saw three by-elections — one after the death of veteran BJP leader Gopinath Munde in 2014, which his daughter Pritam Munde won. Two by-elections were held in May 2018, one in Palghar because of the death of BJP MP Chintaman Vanaga, which it won; the other seat, which became vacant when the BJP MP in Bhandara Gondia Nana Patole raised a banner of revolt against Modi and resigned, was won by the NCP.

Much water has flown under the bridge since 2014 and the Modi wave. Patole is now the Congress candidate in Nagpur, taking on Nitin Gadkari. Raju Shetti’s SSS has joined the Congress-led front. 

The biggest plus for BJP is that it has patched up with its old saffron ally, the Shiv Sena. BJP president Amit Shah had to air dash to Mumbai a couple of times and meet Shiv Sena president Uddhav Thackeray for the patch-up to come about, but in the end, it did – and a deal was finalised for both the Lok Sabha and the coming assembly polls.  

While the 2014 election was all about the Modi wave and his development agenda, 2019 has multiple and inter-woven factors. 

Important political developments took place ahead of the polls. Firstly, Maharashtra Navnirman Sena president Raj Thackeray, the charismatic nephew of late Shiv Sena founder Bal Thackeray, whose party is not contesting the Lok Sabha polls, launched a broadside against Modi-Shah through a dozen hugely-attended meetings. In these rallies, he did not explicitly say who his supporters should vote for but made it amply clear through his multimedia presentations which were aimed at the Modi-Shah duo’s ‘lies’ and unfulfilled promises. These rallies have had enough impact to force Maharashtra Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis to not only acknowledge them but to charge that Raj had become a  “parrot of  Baramati”, meaning that he was taking instructions from Sharad Pawar. 

Secondly,  Prakash Ambedkar,  the grandson of Babasaheb Ambedkar, floated the Vanchit Bahujan Aghadi (VBA) in alliance with the Asaduddin Owaisi-led All India Majlis-e-Ittehad-ul-Muslimeen (AIMIM). The VBA brings together various groups of Dalits, tribals, Dhangars, Kolis, Agris, Banjaras, Malis, Kaikadis and other communities. The Dhangars were with the BJP last time.

Former union home minister and veteran Dalit leader Sushilkumar Shinde, who is contesting from Solapur, had described Ambedkar’s as “vote-katua” (vote-cutting) party and a B-team of the BJP.

Like in most parts of India, religion and caste play an important part in polls in Maharashtra, too. The results of the contest in Nagpur will reflect whether this is true in this election or not.  Here, BJP’s Nitin Gadkari is taking on Congress’ Nana Patole. Gadkari is a Brahmin and Patole a Kunbi, an OBC community. Nagpur has a VBA candidate, too, as well as those of the BSP-SP combine. Nagpur has large Dalit, Muslim and Kunbi populations, which local politicians refer to as ‘DMK.’ If voting is on caste lines, Gadkari will be up against a high wall. Gadkari is expected to play a major role in the post-poll scenario in case the BJP falls short of a majority.

There are various issues in a large state like Maharashtra, which has five politically significant regions — Vidarbha, Marathwada, Konkan, Western Maharashtra, Khandesh-North Maharashtra. Vidarbha, Marathwada and parts of Western Maharashtra are reeling under severe drought, agrarian distress and suicides by farmers. The urban areas, like Mumbai and the larger Mumbai Metropolitan Region, Pune, Nashik and Aurangabad has its own issues.  

The BJP and Sena ran their campaign very well, with Prime Minister Modi addressing a dozen rallies -- almost double that of Congress president Rahul Gandhi. But the Congress-NCP has had help from Raj Thackeray to sharpen the attack on Modi-Shah.

The Congress rejected Pawar’s plan to include Raj in the grand alliance in the state, sensing that his presence would cause the party problems in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar because of his anti-migrant stand. But Raj still addressed a rally in Nanded, the home turf of state Congress president Ashok Chavan. The Congress as a unit also faced problems, with veteran leader Radhakrishna Vikhe-Patil resigning as leader of the opposition and heading to the BJP, like his son Sujay Vikhe-Patil, who is the BJP candidate in Ahmednagar.

We have to wait for May 23 to see how the BJP-Sena may have helped the Congress-NCP with its mistakes, and vice-versa. It will also be interesting to see how much damage Ambedkar-Owaisi’s VBA will have done to either side, especially to the Congress.

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