Maharashtra: The double-engine breakdown

More than a Narendra Modi vs Rahul Gandhi contest, voters see it as Uddhav Thackeray–Sharad Pawar over the Mahayuti menace

From left: Devendra Fadnavis, chief minister Eknath Shinde and Ajit Pawar in Mumbai
From left: Devendra Fadnavis, chief minister Eknath Shinde and Ajit Pawar in Mumbai

Navin Kumar

The stakes in Maharashtra, which has 48 Lok Sabha seats, are obviously high. The results here will determine not just the contours of the next government in New Delhi but also decide the contest between rival factions of the NCP (Nationalist Congress Party) and Shiv Sena.

This election is also a test of the Election Commission’s wisdom in allotting the original official symbols and ‘brand recognition’ to the breakaway factions of the Shiv Sena and the NCP, headed by Eknath Shinde and Ajit Pawar respectively — especially as the overwhelming opinion in the state is that the people’s support is still with the parent units headed by Uddhav Thackeray and Sharad Pawar, though a majority of legislators and MPs walked out with Shinde and Ajit Pawar.

The Lok Sabha results will also set the stage for the Assembly polls and the long-overdue BMC (Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation) elections later this year.

In 2019, the BJP had won 23 seats in the state and its ally, the undivided Shiv Sena, got 18. This time, the BJP is contesting in 28 constituencies and has left 15 and 4 seats respectively for Shinde and Ajit Pawar. One seat goes to the Rashtriya Samaj Paksha. While all the allies in the Mahayuti are flush with funds, they have struggled to find the right candidates.

The Shinde faction of the Shiv Sena has nominated Yamini Jadhav in Mumbai South and Ravindra Waikar in Mumbai North-West. Both Jadhav and Waikar were at one time under the scanner for alleged money laundering, and were being investigated by the Enforcement Directorate.

The BJP happily attacked them when they were with Uddhav Thackeray, but now both are Lok Sabha candidates as BJP allies. Kirit Somaiya of the BJP, once vocal against such tainted leaders in other parties, has been effectively silenced and sidelined.

As 11 constituencies go to the polls in the third phase on 7 May, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has stepped up his visits to the state and is campaigning hard. But while the BJP has historically been strong in Maharashtra, it is struggling for an emotionally effective narrative this time.

The Ram Mandir, to the BJP’s shock, has not become a rallying point for Hindus in the state. The party's attacks on Sharad Pawar and Uddhav Thackeray are not going down well with people either. Instead, the BJP is blamed for engineering splits in the NCP and Shiv Sena.

The prime minister has compounded its problems by calling Sharad Pawar a bhatakti aatma (meandering spirit). Pawar Sr, among the tallest leaders in the state, was also ridiculed for his age and people were called upon to give him a final farewell. None of this has endeared the BJP to voters. The prime minister calling the old faithfuls of the NCP (SP) and Shiv Sena (UBT) ‘fake’ rings patently false.

Meanwhile, deputy chief minister Devendra Fadnavis has been going around telling people that the Lok Sabha election is between Narendra Modi and Rahul Gandhi. While Modi has called for 400-plus seats, he points out, Gandhi was stoking controversy by saying the BJP would be reduced to 150 seats.

Other leaders have ended up looking more risible still. When the president of the BJP district women’s committee, Shomikh Mahadik, asked her audience at a public meeting whether they would hand over the country to Modi or Rahul Gandhi, a section of the crowd called out, “Rahul Gandhi!” Mahadik herself and other BJP leaders on the dais could be seen laughing along nervously.

On the other hand, the Opposition line that the BJP nurses an ambition to drastically change the Indian Constitution has seen surprisingly high traction with the people. The message that BJP leaders have long wanted to ‘end reservation’ has also been convincing.

Indeed, NCP (Ajit Pawar) leader Chhagan Bhujbal caused a stir by conceding in an interview that there was considerable sympathy for Sharad Pawar and Uddhav Thackeray. Therefore, he asserted, despite Narendra Modi’s popularity, it would not be easy for the NDA to repeat its 2019 tally this time. (He course-corrected once the interview went viral, saying the NDA would still win the highest number of seats.)

There is considerable anti-incumbency, with anger against the ‘double-engine’ BJP government. So much so that a group of poor tribal folk from Palghar returned the free saris and grains given by the state government under a new scheme. They would rather have jobs and the promised ‘development’, the women said. Inflation and water crises, the BJP government’s farm policies, and neglect of Maharashtra have also stoked people’s anger.

The Union government last year banned export of onions to manage domestic prices. But as a special case, Gujarat was allowed to export white onions, with exporters and farmers there making a killing, while growers in Maharashtra were forced to sell their produce at rock-bottom rates.

Once it became an election issue and both Sharad Pawar and Uddhav Thackeray raised their voices against it, the Union government lifted the export ban from Maharashtra too. But onion growers found the relief too little, too late. Indeed, they claim there is still no order to allow export of the new onion crop, leaving the growers nowhere.

Both Thackeray and Sharad Pawar have, naturally, been highlighting this sort of stepmotherly treatment by the Centre. With decisions to shift a number of Central government offices, new projects originally meant for Maharashtra, a diamond hub and other industries to Gujarat, the Marathi–Gujarati divide has become an election plank too.

A publicity video for the Shiv Sena (UBT) showed a young man waking up to find that an entire office had disappeared overnight and moved to Gujarat — it went viral.

Another video in Marathi circulated widely on social media, complaining that builders in Mumbai were reluctant to sell shops and homes to Marathis, that they preferred Marwari and Gujarati clients. The video openly called on people to vote against the BJP’s Gujarati and Marwari candidates. It also claimed that a Gujarati BJP leader seems to know beforehand where the Enforcement Directorate would conduct raids, hinting at an extortion racket.

The BJP has had to drop three sitting MPs in Mumbai — Punam Mahajan, Gopal Shetty and Manoj Kotak — and field lawyer Ujjwal Nikam, Union minister Piyush Goyal (considered an outsider in the constituency) and Manoj Kuteja in their places, respectively. Whether the gambit works remains to be seen.

The third phase of polling will also decide the fortunes of Sharad Pawar’s daughter and heir apparent Supriya Sule in Baramati, where she is pitted against cousin Ajit Pawar’s wife Sunetra.

Other constituencies in the third phase are Rajgad, Usmanabad, Latur, Solapur, Kolhapur, Sangli, Ratnagiri-Sindhudurg, Satara, Madha and Hatkanangale.

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