Maharashtra: Why the Mahayuti is falling apart

Even BJP supporters find it galling that Ajit Pawar, accused by PM Modi in a multi-crore scam, is now deputy chief minister

An INDIA bloc campaign rally in Pune’s Mavli, Maharashtra
An INDIA bloc campaign rally in Pune’s Mavli, Maharashtra

Navin Kumar

The prime minister’s 14 visits to Maharashtra since the announcement of general elections on 16 March show how important the state is in his scheme of things. The state with 48 Lok Sabha seats, the highest after Uttar Pradesh, holds the key to 7 Lok Kalyan Marg. Five years ago, the BJP had contested 25 seats and won 23 of them. Its then ally, the unified Shiv Sena, had won 18 seats, giving the NDA a total tally of 41 seats from Maharashtra.

In 2024, it is imperative for the BJP and its allies to maintain the 2019 numbers or minimise losses. After the first three phases of polling, with two more rounds to follow on 13 and 20 May, the NDA appears to be struggling. While it has put up a brave front and blamed the low polling percentage on the lack of enthusiasm among opposition supporters, most people believe it has been detrimental for the ruling alliance, which is contesting 28 seats in the state.

The lack of enthusiasm is evident from the relatively low voter turnout. The BJP was expected to pull out all the stops after the first two phases and ensure a higher polling percentage, but that does not seem to have worked. On the ground, there is more sympathy for Uddhav Thackeray and Sharad Pawar.

Lack of trust between NDA allies is an additional detriment. While the prime minister continues to spearhead the NDA’s campaign in the state along with Union home minister Amit Shah, he looks increasingly tired and listless. Even at the Ahmednagar rally, his speech lacked the usual fire and brimstone.

Vivek Bhavsar, a political journalist in Mumbai, is not surprised. Two factors, he feels, are working against the BJP in the state. Anti-incumbency against its 10-year rule is very real; and while the PM and Amit Shah keep denying it, the belief that the party is anti-reservation has become stronger. BJP leaders have themselves contributed to this perception.

This week, Diya Kumari, the deputy chief minister in BJP-ruled Rajasthan was quoted as saying that the party required a two-thirds majority in the Lok Sabha to amend the Constitution and put an end to the system of reservation.

Bhavsar opines that aggressive campaigning on this point by the INDIA bloc and Rahul Gandhi in particular has sharpened the message, which has percolated among Dalits, Adivasis, Christians and Muslims.

Having faced the brunt of Hindutva aggression, these communities seem to have had enough of polarised and communal campaigns. “Uddhav Thackeray’s soft Hindutva is more appealing in a peaceful state like Maharashtra,” says Bhavsar, adding that civil society groups among these communities have taken it upon themselves to campaign against the BJP and Modi without waiting for any party to back them.

Bhavsar says people also took umbrage to the BJP breaking up Maharashtra’s two regional parties, the Shiv Sena and the NCP.

While Marathas naturally found the BJP’s role in splintering the party founded by Balasaheb Thackeray unacceptable, even BJP supporters find it galling that Ajit Pawar, accused by PM Modi as the kingpin of a Rs 70,000-crore scam, today shares the platform with him and has been installed as the deputy chief minister. In one stroke, the BJP’s anti-corruption plank collapsed in the state, Bhavsar points out.

They have also fielded several tainted candidates who were being investigated by the ED and the CBI while they were in the Opposition. The moment they switched over to the BJP, their sins were forgotten, lending credence to the Opposition’s jibe that the BJP is a washing machine. No wonder BJP workers and supporters feel betrayed and have chosen to stay away from this election.

Most commentators in the state believe that the tussle between the BJP and chief minister Eknath Shinde over seat-sharing also damaged the alliance. The BJP had made no secret of its desire to contest in 35 seats, willing to let its two allies contest in the remaining 13.

Eventually, the BJP had to be content with 28 seats with Shiv Sena (Shinde) contesting in 15 constituencies and NCP (Ajit Pawar) in five. Shinde, conscious that the BJP could not afford to ditch him until the Assembly election, played his cards well and got his pound of flesh. He had warned the BJP that any attempt to make him look like a puppet would boomerang on the alliance, says political analyst Rajendra Thorat.

Political analyst Raja Adate and Bhavsar concur with this assessment. Bickering over seat adjustment led to bad blood, they point out. Internal surveys that hinted at strong anti-incumbency forced the BJP to drop seven of its sitting MPs, including three in Mumbai, while Shinde was also forced to drop four sitting MPs and had to fight until the last moment before fielding his son, sitting MP Shrikant Shinde, from Kalyan-Dombivali.

While Shinde wrested the Thane seat from the BJP, the latter forced him to part with Palghar and Ratnagiri-Sindhudurg. The bitterness is such that Marathi commentators say allies can now be seen undercutting each other in an effort to ensure the defeat of candidates that they themselves have fielded.

Bhavsar recounts a conversation with a BJP leader. “He clearly told me that the BJP was least concerned about the fate of Shinde and Ajit Pawar after the election. Its focus is on defending the 23 seats it won last time, plus the seat of Navneet Rana, who won in 2019 as an Independent and thereafter joined the BJP. He also confided that the party was ready to contest the Assembly election without Shinde and Pawar,” Bhavsar says.

The BJP’s plan is to contest for the bulk of the 288 Assembly seats so that it can form a government on its own. Shinde would be offered 40 Assembly seats and told to take it or leave it. In all previous elections, the national party had contested in alliance with the united Shiv Sena.

The BJP’s belligerence is being reciprocated by the Shiv Sena (Shinde), which is strong in Mumbai and pockets around it, with access to funds from builders and industry and enough muscle power to trouble the national party. This has cast a shadow over the NDA’s bid to retain its stranglehold on most of the Lok Sabha seats in Maharashtra.

Elections 2024 are also crucial for both factions of the Shiv Sena, each out to prove that it is the true representative of the Shiv Sainiks. The Election Commission recognised the Shinde faction as the real Shiv Sena on the grounds that a majority of MPs and MLAs had sided with it. However, if the Uddhav Thackeray-led Shiv Sena SS (UBT) manages to win more seats in the Lok Sabha, the legitimacy of the breakaway group will come into question, and strengthen the Thackerays’ bid to win back majority support in the Assembly and BMC (Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation).

There is much sympathy for Uddhav Thackeray whose dignified and restrained conduct and speech sets him apart from the brash leaders of the breakaway Shinde faction and the BJP. His compassionate handling of the crisis sparked by the sudden lockdown by Modi in 2020 is still fresh in people’s memory.

As chief minister of the then MVA (Maha Vikas Aghadi) coalition, Uddhav ensured that migrant workers from Uttar Pradesh and Bihar were fed and provided with shelter, until arrangements were made to send them back home. Surendra Yadav, a street vendor in Ghatkopar from Jaunpur in UP, recalls, “It was Uddhav Thackeray who helped us at a time when Yogi Adityanath had stopped us from entering Uttar Pradesh, which is why Uddhav has a special place in our hearts."

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