Maharashtra: ‘Bye-bye budget’ before elections

The budget session showed the ruling Mahayuti’s desperation to retrieve lost ground

Dy CM Ajit Pawar and MoS finance Deepak Kesarkar before presenting Maharashtra budget
Dy CM Ajit Pawar and MoS finance Deepak Kesarkar before presenting Maharashtra budget

Navin Kumar

The Maharashtra budget, presented last week, has been described as the ‘bye-bye session’ by Shiv Sena (UBT) chief Uddhav Thackeray, coming barely three months before the Assembly election due in October.

The session showed the ruling alliance’s desperation to retrieve lost ground. The Mahayuti alliance of the BJP-Shiv Sena (Shinde)-NCP (Ajit Pawar) won only 17 Lok Sabha seats out of 48 (a mere nine via the BJP). Buoyed by the two per cent difference in votes polled by the Mahayuti and the MVA, finance minister Ajit Pawar went all out to woo women (48 per cent of the voters), OBCs and Hindus.

Emulating Shivraj Singh Chouhan’s gambit in Madhya Pradesh of launching the ‘Laadli Behna’ scheme before the Assembly election last year, a similar scheme was announced for Maharashtra.

Coming into effect this month, poor women in the age group 20 to 60 years would receive Rs 1,500 every month in their bank accounts. Grants were announced for ‘pink e-rickshaws’ to be allotted to women, three free gas cylinders to poorer households, and free higher education to girls from the OBC community.

Implementing all the schemes in the next few weeks will be a challenge. Wondering why the government has woken up to the behnas (sisters) so late, opposition leaders appear confident that the sops would as ineffective as PM Narendra Modi’s guarantees ahead of the Lok Sabha elections.

At the post-budget media briefing, Ajit Pawar said the state’s fiscal health made it impossible for the government to allow loan waivers for farmers. Instead, the budget announced free power to farmers using water pumps up to 7.5 horsepower.

While this, it was claimed, would benefit 46 lakh farmers, the ‘beneficiaries’ are clearly unhappy. They recall that loans up to Rs 2 lakh were waived by the MVA government in the wake of the pandemic despite fiscal difficulties. (Ironically, Ajit Pawar was then the finance minister.)

Farmers’ suicides continue unabated in the state. In 2023, the eight districts in Marathwada reported 1,088 such suicides while Jayant Patil of NCP (SP) claimed in the Assembly that the actual figure is over 3,900. Low wholesale prices of onions and cotton as well as water woes cost the ruling alliance dearly in the Lok Sabha election, as it won only two of the 10 seats in Vidarbha and drew a blank in Marathwada.

Both these regions have protested the ‘stepmotherly treatment’ in the budget. The government has sought to appease them by announcing a bonus of Rs 5,000 per hectare to cotton growers and financial assistance of Rs 350 for every quintal of onions brought to the market. An additional ‘bonus’ of Rs 5 per litre has also been announced for dairy farmers producing milk.

State budgets in Maharashtra, point out old-timers, have rarely been this brazenly communal. A case in point is the annual pilgrimage to Lord Vithal’s temple in Pandharpur, for which every pilgrim has been promised assistance of Rs 20,000. This year’s pilgrimage having already begun, it’s not clear if the aid kicks in already, nor how it is to be claimed and disbursed.

The waris, as the processions to Pandharpur are called, start from towns and villages across Maharashtra and its neighbouring states. The smaller streams of walkers join the main wari that sets off from towns closer to Pune. This budget also pledged grants and financial assistance to the warkaris, as the pilgrims are called, and a Rs 36-crore fund to Nirmal Wari, an NGO that provides sanitation and portable toilets for the pilgrims.

In contrast, the budget of the department for minority welfare has been slashed by Rs 472 crore from Rs 1,419 crore last year. Observers link this cut with the BJP’s accusation that Muslims voted for the MVA in the Lok Sabha election. Earlier state governments, even the MVA government headed by Uddhav Thackeray, they noted, were not as discriminatory on grounds of religion.

Having lost all eight Lok Sabha seats in Marathwada, the BJP is taking no chances before the Assembly election. The stakes are even higher in the 46 Assembly constituencies in the region; and though BJP candidate Pankaja Munde lost the Lok Sabha seat from Beed, the party knows it has to bank on her to fight back.

Pankaja, daughter of late chief minister Gopinath Munde, had lost the earlier Vidhan Sabha election too. Following her recent defeat, half-a-dozen of her supporters are said to have died by suicide.

It is not clear if this is the first instance of disappointed supporters choosing suicide in the wake of a leader’s defeat, or if the deaths are being politicised to mount pressure and garner sympathy. In any case, the suicides were seen as a bad omen and there was a clamour within the BJP to rehabilitate Pankaja. She has been nominated by the party to contest for one of the 11 vacant seats in the legislative council. While vacancies will arise on 27 July, the election to fill up the seats is slated for 12 July and results are expected the same day.

The last two years have witnessed a steady decline in Devendra Fadnavis’s influence both in Maharashtra politics and within the BJP. The party has been leaning on people opposed to Fadnavis, such as Maratha leader Vinod Tawde, Eknath Khadse and Pankaja Munde.

Khadse left the party because of Fadnavis. His daughter-in-law Raksha has now become a Union minister. Tawde, appointed the national general secretary, is among the frontrunners for the next BJP president. Pankaja, if she wins, is also likely to corner a responsible position, to the growing discomfiture of Fadnavis.

Realignment of forces

The RSS wants Ajit Pawar out of the NDA, the sooner the better. District-level RSS leaders in Pune have accused Pawar (not Modi or Union home minister Amit Shah) of giving the NDA a bad name and have blamed him for his alleged failure to transfer votes to the BJP in the recent Lok Sabha elections.

The rebel NCP leader is also on the backfoot because his party won only one Lok Sabha seat, compared to seven by Shinde’s Sena and nine by the BJP. Ajit dada’s focus was always on state politics, he was least interested in playing a role on the national stage. But now, with his wife having lost from Baramati to Supriya Sule, his own chief ministerial ambitions have received a setback.

To add to his woes, the Enforcement Directorate has questioned the closure report submitted by Mumbai Police on a cooperative bank loan scam worth Rs 25,000 crore. The ED’s intervenor petition in court is a threat that cannot be undermined by Pawar. For him, the Assembly election will be an existential battle, and his party is already planning to fight the election in alliance with smaller parties.

Some of his partymen are in favour of ghar wapsi (homecoming, i.e. joining hands with Sharad Pawar) while others have been in touch with Prakash Ambedkar and his VBA (Vanchit Bahujan Aghadi). The BJP is not inclined to have any truck with Ajit Pawar in the Assembly election, while the Shiv Sena (Shinde) will be happy to contest the Assembly election as equal partners with the BJP.

Meanwhile, Raj Thackeray’s Maharashtra Navnirman Sena (MNS) has decided to contest the election alone, signalling a fresh churn in the state’s politics.

Follow us on: Facebook, Twitter, Google News, Instagram 

Join our official telegram channel (@nationalherald) and stay updated with the latest headlines