Maharashtra: PM Modi’s last bid to salvage a few more seats?

The election in Maharashtra, most observers believe, is done and dusted and the prime minister’s roadshow today is unlikely to make a difference

PM Modi with Maharashtra CM Eknath Shinde (second from left)
PM Modi with Maharashtra CM Eknath Shinde (second from left)

Navin Kumar

Prime Minister Narendra Modi is back in Mumbai today, 17 May, just two days after his disastrous roadshow in the city which appears to have cost him much goodwill. Polling is due in Mumbai and the rest of Maharashtra on Monday, 20 May, for all six Lok Sabha seats in the city and 13 elsewhere in the state. Not many in Maharashtra, however, believe that today's rally will materially affect the outcome in the state's 48 Lok Sabha seats.

The BJP-led NDA won a whopping 42 of those seats in 2019, but is finding it difficult to retain them this time. PM Modi must already be regretting the decision to engineer the fall of the MVA (Maha Vikas Aghadi) government in the state by splitting the two regional parties, Shiv Sena and Nationalist Congress Party (NCP).

The BJP is paying a heavy price for that now, because the two officially recognised factions of the Sena and NCP may have helped reclaim the state government and control of BMC (BrihanMumbai Municipal Corporation), but are proving to be liabilities in the Lok Sabha election.

Most political observers believe that the NDA’s tally in the state will come down by 10-20 seats from 42. A few believe the Shinde faction of the Sena could at best win 3-4 seats, and the NCP, led by the breakaway Ajit Pawar, is unlikely to win more than 1-2 seats, leaving the BJP to do the heavy lifting.

In its turn, the BJP, which always contested elections in Maharashtra in alliance with the united Shiv Sena earlier, is finding it difficult to retain its 2019 tally of 23 seats. If the calculations this time are accurate, Maharashtra will see a major upset with the MVA and the INDIA alliance walking away with 30 seats, leaving the NDA with 18.

Former chief minister and NCP leader Sharad Pawar reinforced this assessment by claiming after round four of polling that the INDIA alliance in the state, essentially the Maha Vikas Aghadi, could win 30-35 seats.

Former MVA chief minister Uddhav Thackeray is already twisting the knife in. Why is the prime minister visiting Maharashtra so frequently? Earlier, he did not have to because we were there. This time, he is returning to the state for the last time as prime minister on 17 May, Thackeray routinely tells interviewers, seemingly convinced that the BJP government is on its way out from the Centre.

The prime minister does not explain even once why he took away industries, Central government offices and projects with foreign collaboration coming to the state to his home state of Gujarat. The Maharashtra government has been forced to give up precious land for the bullet train project, which will be of no value to Mumbai or Maharashtra, Thackeray points out.

He is echoing popular sentiment, which blames successive railway ministries for investing little to improve the local train network, the lifeline of Mumbai. Thackeray also blames misplaced priorities and points out that even the BEST bus service, the city's second most important lifeline, is being deprived of funds.

The prime minister has made things worse by first mocking Uddhav Thackeray and Sharad Pawar as representing the nakli (fake) Sena and NCP, and then referring to Pawar as bhatakti atma (a wayward soul), also seemingly taking a jibe at his age.

He then changed tack to invite both Thackeray and Pawar back to the NDA. Referring to Pawar’s statement that regional parties found themselves more closely aligned ideologically to the Congress and some may even merge with the party after the general election, the prime minister wondered why Pawar was harbouring such suicidal thoughts.

Later still, he asserted that the NCP (Sharadchandra Pawar) would be certain to merge with the Congress so that Congress could secure the leader of the Opposition tag in the Lok Sabha, for which securing 10 per cent of the total seats is a requirement.

Sanjay Awate, editor of Lokmat’s Pune edition, believes Pawar’s assessment to be correct. There is a wave of sympathy in the state for both Pawar and Thackeray, and most people do not approve of the manner in which the MVA government was dislodged. It has come to be identified with Marathi pride, and the BJP is seen as the villain and Eknath Shinde and Ajit Pawar as traitors. Pawar’s confidence, Awate feels, is not misplaced, and both Shinde and Ajit Pawar are liable to drag the BJP down with them.

Veteran political commentator Vivek Bhavsar agrees. After round four, he thinks, even the MLAs who defected with Shinde and Ajit Pawar may return to the party they left. If indeed the MVA bags 30-35 seats in the Lok Sabha, a change of government in Maharashtra will become inevitable, he adds.

Political commentator Rajendra Thorat hints at dissatisfaction with Modi even within the RSS (Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh), a section of which, he claims, does not approve of Modi and did not seem very active on the ground in this election. Many RSS supporters in Pune and Shirur, he says, did not even go out to vote.

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