The 2014 elections saw the BJP and Shiv Sena sweep 42 of those seats, stunning the Congress and the NCP which lost from even their strongholds of Vidarbha and western Maharashtra regions respectively.
Now the battle is for the very soul of Maharashtra which, since the times of Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj, has had a socialist and secular ethos - the famed warrior king had taken all communities, including the backward classes along, had Muslim generals and bodyguards and Chitpavan Brahmins as Peshvas or prime ministers.
That all-encompassing nature of Maharashtrian society, described in modern times as the Phule-Shahu-Ambedkar ethos (after Jyotiba Phule, Shahu Maharaj and BR Ambedkar, three modern day reformists), was kept alive by the likes of Yashwant Rao Chavan, Maharashtra’s first Chief Minister and, in later years, by Sharad Pawar and other Congress chief ministers.
Since 2014, though, there has been an assault on that ethos with Maharashtra being the first state to ban the eating of beef that has drastically affected not just Muslims but also Dalits and nomadic tribes to whom beef, rather than daal which is five times more expensive, has been the staple for protein and nutrition. However, apart from interference with their food habits, Dalits and Muslims have also been under physical attack - the first lynching of a Muslim youth took place in Pune in 2014 and not even because he had been eating beef - he was killed simply for being a Muslim.
Apart from minor, largely unreported incidents of atrocities against Dalits, there was Bhima Koregaon in early 2018 instigated by BJP ideologues to pit the Maratha and Dalit communities against each other. The upper caste perpetrators are roaming free while several activists who supported Dalits are in jail with no specific charges brought against them.
Then of course, there are the farmers. They demanded a loan waiver which was given to them under duress but most have received no benefits to date while demonetisation and the refusal of the government to allow co-operative banks to convert demonetised notes into the new currency has hit the farming sector big time. The Congress and the NCP thus begin with an advantage while the Shiv Sena and the
BJP have an uphill task to overcome – and for more than just the above reasons. According to Raju Korde, a political observer with deep insights, the Shiv Sena has been somewhat unwise in allying with the BJP at the eleventh hour.
“Uddhav Thackeray’s constant attack on Narendra Modi and the BJP had earned him a lot of capital with the masses. We might have called him a hypocrite but to the grassroots people, he had appeared courageous in taking on a government he was part of. The opposition space was entirely his. Now he has conceded that space almost completely to the Congress and the NCP and made his party a shareholder in the anti-incumbency being faced by the BJP.
But while the secular allies might reclaim that opposition space, Professor Prakash Pawar of the Shivaji University at Kolhapur believes that the Sena will still benefit from the upper caste and sanatani votes that will stay with the BJP, no matter what.
“Hindu religious organisations are firmly committed to the BJP and things like an alliance with the Sena that had been abusive so far does not sway them from their loyalty to the BJP. Moreover, there are so many dissensions and rebellion in the Congress and NCP ranks,” he reasons.
But dissension is something that BJP and the Sena too have to cope with. The Shiv Sena is facing unrest in several constituencies like Nashik and Amravati where it has repeated its candidates and party workers have been looking for a change of guard.
The BJP also may have invited trouble by wanting some brownie points against the Congress and admitting, among others, Sujay Vikhe Patil, the son of the leader of the opposition Radhakrishna Vikhe Patil, of the Congress who wanted a ticket from Ahmednagar South, a seat taken by the NCP in their division of 24-20 (Congress-NCP). The BJP has a sitting MP on that seat and his supporters are up in arms against party leaders, and are likely to affect the fortunes of not just one seat but several in the region. Both the Congress and the NCP have seen defections of high profile leaders from the party to the BJP essentially because of disappointments in candidate selection.
Sharad Pawar this year is fielding more persons from his family than just his daughter - that has affected the ambitions of scions of several families – strangely this year ambitions of family members of leaders of all parties is at an all-time high.
Then there is Raj Thackeray of the Maharashtra Navnirman Sena who has emerged as a rabid opponent of Modi and is diverting all his supporters towards the NCP and, by association, also the Congress which, however, rejected an open alliance with the MNS.
On the flip side, the BJP is propping up Prakash Ambedkar of the Vanchit Bahujan Aghadi (deprived sections front) which is in alliance with Asaduddin Owaisi’s All India Majlis-e-Ittehad Muslimeen in the hope they will cut into the Congress-NCP vote bank.
But the secular allies this time have been wise to carry with them smaller parties of farmers and others who have been upset at not being given reservations while the Marathas who did get the reservations feel it is too little too late.
In a 24-20 division, the Congress-NCP will give one seat each to these parties while in a 25-23 share arrangement, the BJP has decided they will share no seat with anyone who cannot help them bring at least five seats to the Lok Sabha, disappointing many smaller allies, including their most loyal supporter, Ramdas Athawale of the Republican Party of India.
Things thus are evenly divided between both groupings. The picture might become clearer closer to polling. Parts of Maharashtra go to polls in the first phase on April 11. Other parts will vote in the next three phases