Lok Sabha polls: The Maha ‘khichdi’, with pickles on the side

In Maharashtra, is it a mess being stirred up or a melting pot, as parties strategise to select candidates for the long five-phase elections?

The return of Bollywood actor Govinda to politics after 14 years, joining the Shiv Sena, adds intrigue to the situation (photo: IANS)
The return of Bollywood actor Govinda to politics after 14 years, joining the Shiv Sena, adds intrigue to the situation (photo: IANS)

Navin Kumar

With high stakes and tall egos involved, all parties are finding it difficult to finalise the tie-ups and candidates for the unexpectedly long five-phase election in Maharashtra.

A Thursday morning (28 March) headline in the Free Press Journal summed it up well for the BJP-led alliance that runs the state — 'Mahayuti in Maha Pickle', read the cheeky headline — but it remains valid for the MVA as well.

Suitable and winnable candidates are clearly hard to come by, prompting the return of faded Bollywood star Govinda to electoral politics after 14 years. He joined the Shiv Sena (the Shinde faction) — obviously, because it is a ‘clean party,’ and because he must serve people in North-West Mumbai.

The constituency is already in a ‘pickle’, with Uddhav Thackeray having sprung a surprise by nominating the son of a deserter, Gajanan Kirtikar, who had lent his support to the Shinde camp! The senior Kirtikar was, however, denied nomination by the Shinde faction. The son, Amol Kirtikar, may well have his father’s blessings and the support of the (other) Shiv Sainiks in the constituency, which was won by Gajanan in 2019.

Media reports continue to assert that the BJP is keen to put up a candidate of its own, preferably a prominent Congress leader who is reportedly being 'wooed' (read: intimidated) by the Enforcement Directorate.

Indeed, the ED shot off a notice to Amol Kirtikar in a three-year-old investigation barely an hour after his nomination was announced.

He shouldn't feel singled out — no reason to believe that the ED will refrain from harassing more candidates from the Opposition either.

The strong Congress candidate from Ramtek, Rashmi Barve, has had her caste certificate cancelled by the social justice department of the state government — although her certificate was upheld as valid by the Bombay High Court. In marked contrast, Amravati MP Navneet Rana—now a BJP candidate from the same seat—has completed her full term despite her caste certificate having been found invalid by the Bombay High Court in 2021 and an appeal pending before the Supreme Court.

With 48 Lok Sabha seats up for grabs, neither alliance can afford to make mistakes that lose them a seat. While the BJP appears more confident about winning the lion’s share in Uttar Pradesh, in Maharashtra it has been walking the razor’s edge, aware that reverses here will decisively affect its ambition of returning to power at the Centre for the third term — and its bid to cross the majority mark of 272 seats in the Lok Sabha.

Political workers are also keenly aware that the issue-less election campaign this time is all about Narendra Modi’s performance in the last 10 years, as venerable RSS swayamsevak Omprakash Agarwal admits.

Ramdas Kamble of the Shiv Sena (UBT), on the other hand, believes that the Opposition have several issues — including the backsliding of democracy and the subversion of the Constitution, besides unemployment, inflation and misgovernance — to rally support around.

People within the BJP too don't seem entirely happy with the party leadership trying to browbeat its allies in the state on the matter of ticket distribution. Old party workers are resentful of nominations being given to 'outsiders' and defectors, and are apprehensive that rebel candidates could spoil the party.

There is unrest among the Mahayuti allies, who are upset at the BJP citing its internal surveys to turf out sitting MPs from the Shiv Sena (Shinde) and NCP (Ajit Pawar faction), who are purportedly on sticky wickets in their constituencies. Let the BJP conduct surveys in constituencies of its own MPs, exclaimed an irritated Sanjay Shirsat of the Shiv Sena (Shinde) — but "who are they to conduct surveys for us?"

The Sena has released its first list of eight candidates. Conspicuous by absence is the name of sitting MP Shrikant Shinde, son of chief minister Eknath Shinde.

Political observers are inclined to the view that BJP is repeating the same mistakes it made while dealing with Uddhav Thackeray and that its overbearing attitude could again prove to be counter-productive.

A possibly bigger problem within the Mahayuti is the clash of priorities.

While the BJP is focused on increasing its tally from the state to take the Lok Sabha by storm, as they confidently claim, both Eknath Shinde and Ajit Pawar are concerned with holding their own in the Assembly election that will follow.

At the same time, they are in no position to antagonise the sitting BJP MPs who sided with them — which explains the CBI's 'timely' closing of a corruption case against Praful Patel, who walked out of the Sharad Pawar-led NCP (SP) with Ajit Pawar.


The loose cannon

Prakash Ambedkar continues to live up to his reputation of being a bit of a loose cannon. Mixed signals from the Vanchit Bahujan Aghadi leader are keeping all the alliance suspense alive.

He joined the INDIA bloc's rally in Shivaji Park and indicated that he would be part of the alliance. Then, his unilateral announcement of eight candidates and extending support to the INC candidate in Nagpur added to the confusion.

There are mixed reactions in the INDIA bloc about Prakash Ambedkar. Some sections are convinced that he should be wooed back because of his potential to do damage to the Alliance in key constituencies; others believe he is fast losing his relevance in the state and has no more than a nuisance value in state politics.

In 2019, VBA candidates stood in second place in as many as 10 Lok Sabha constituencies and had cut into the votes of the INC–NCP alliance, helping the BJP–Shiv Sena to win 9 of the seats. The VBA, however, had contested the election in alliance with Asaduddin Owaisi’s AIMIM at the time.

Moreover, the VBA gained from the outrage among the Dalits following the rioting at Bhima Koregaon in 2018 and the subsequent arrest of Dalit activists and intellectuals in the Bhima-Koregaon conspiracy case.

Since then, however, the VBA and the AIMIM have parted company, and with the VBA doing little to nothing for the victims of the Bhima-Koregaon riots, much of the goodwill Ambedkar had gained has dissipated.

As matters now stand, efforts now continue to persuade the VBA to strengthen the Opposition, as the VBA has a history of opposing the communal politics of the BJP in the state.

Ambedkar, meanwhile, has made overtures to Manoj Jarange Patil, the new kid on the block who has emerged on the back of the agitation demanding reservation for Marathas. Jarange Patil — who is believed to have the back of the RSS and BJP — has been evasive.

The other Thackeray

After his much publicised meeting with Amit Shah in New Delhi, followed by a less publicised meeting with chief minister Shinde and his deputy Devendra Fadnavis in a five-star hotel in the national capital, both Raj Thackeray and the BJP have been quiet about their plans for a tie-up.

While the marriage is waiting to be solemnised, both sides are said to be afflicted by doubts.

The BJP ranks are apprehensive that the alliance might upset the sizeable number of North Indians in Mumbai, who have not forgotten Raj Thackeray’s tirade against settlers from North India, indicting them of taking away jobs from the Marathi manoos. His men had beaten up taxi and auto rickshaw drivers in the city and young men who had arrived in Mumbai to appear at recruitment tests. The leaders on both sides will be hoping that the past is too distant to matter much.

Mumbai is said to be inhabited by 30 per cent Marathis, 20 per cent North Indian settlers, 10 per cent ‘South Indians’ and 18 per cent Muslims. The rest are people from Gujarat and elsewhere.

The conspiracy theory going around is that Raj Thackeray is being encouraged by the BJP to take over the Shinde faction of the Shiv Sena, which is the group officially recognised by the Election Commission. His ‘Thackeray’ surname, it is calculated, will help him rally the Marathi manoos and challenge the Shiv Sena led by Uddhav Thackeray.

Now, Raj Thackeray — known as a good organiser — also has ED inquiries pending against his business ventures and is vulnerable to pressure. However, Shiv Sena founder Bala Saheb Thackeray had announced Uddhav and not Raj, as his political heir. So it is not clear how the Shiv Sainiks will react if Raj Thackeray makes a bid to take over the Sena with the help of the BJP.

It could be safer for him to let his party, the Maharashtra Nirman Sena (MNS), join the BJP-led alliance for the time being and contest a few seats for the Lok Sabha in preparation of the battle he has to fight for the Assembly, feel some observers.

In any case, Raj Thackeray is keeping his cards close to his chest and is expected to reveal them only around the festival of Gudi Padwa, the traditional Marathi new year, which falls this year on Tuesday, 9 April.


ED update: An earlier version of this article misgendered MP Naveen Rana and miscalculated the duration of time that had passed since her caste certificate was declared invalid by the Bombay High Court. We deeply regret the error and apologise for the mistake.

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