The Maharashtra Conundrum

Maharashtra politics over the last month has resembled a T-20 match which keeps ebbing and flowing and no one knows till the last ball/day as to who is aligning with whom and who is contesting how many seats. I think the drama will continue right through the election and even after the results are out, as government formation might be quite a tricky affair. Many believe that it will be tough for any party to cross 75-80 seats in a 288 member assembly where the target is 145. I doubt if any opinion poll has been conducted in the state with the assumption that all the 4 major parties contest separately, though parties must be doing their own ones of course. I am presenting my opinion on why the alliances broke, what the results could be and of course how the government will be formed. If anyone who got the Delhi prediction right last year was a genius, one who gets Maharashtra this time round has gotten plain lucky. I am saying this because I could go horribly wrong and hence better to put a caveat just in case.
The state’s politics has thus far been dominated by the Congress party which is the only one with a pan Maharashtra presence. The Shiv Sena is restricted to the Konakan belt, pockets in Marathwada and a few urban centres, the NCP to western Maharashtra and the BJP to northern Maharashtra, Marathwada and Viddarbha. If there is one state in the country which could be described as an old fashioned Congress state it is Maharashtra and if there is one word to describe its voter it is loyalty. In fact there are some seats in western Maharashtra which the Congress party has never lost since independence. The count would improve I am sure if we were to include the NCP or the erstwhile Congress (S) which are/were very much offshoots of the Congress. The hold which the NCP-Congress has had over the sugar co-operative belt of western Maharashtra is unbelievable and till a few years back they had no opposition. Often the contest here would be between the official party candidate and a rebel of one of the two parties. Similarly in urban areas especially the Mumbai-Thane region through the 80’s and 90’s the Shiv Sena under Balasaheb Thackeray had a committed, almost fanatical support base. It is only after the split that the party now appears a shadow of what it previously was. Unlike in all other large states, the patience, almost reverence of the Maharashtra voter is something else. But over the last five years following a disastrous UPA government in Delhi, the breakdown of Congress leadership in both centre and state, and a squabbling, corrupt and arrogant Congress-NCP government in Mumbai the situation has changed. And of course there also has been the little factor of Narendra Modi.

BJP-Shiv Sena ++++ alliance
In the 2014 Lok Sabha polls, the NDA fought with four new allies. Two of these, the Swabhiman Shetkari Sangathana led by Raju Shetty and the RSP of Mahadev Jankar played a key role in the alliance’s victory. Both these leaders have over the years developed a significant support base in 4-5 districts of western Maharashtra where the BJP-SS has not been able to make a mark thus far. Though Narendra Modi had a huge impact on the election and is likely to have some impact this time round too, the SSS and RSP ensured an almost total consolidation of the OBC vote behind the alliance across the state. Jankar, who contested against Supriya Sule, reduced her margin to less than 75,000. It is for this reason that these allies have today become more important to the BJP than the Shiv Sena. Together they would have swept the election, but the BJP state leadership believes that even without the Sena, the alliance will win close to 110-120 seats. What that means is that outside of the Mumbai-Thane-Konkan belt the BJP does not need the Sena in alliance. The losses made in this belt could be made up in the rest of the state. So there was no way a BJP under Modi and Amit Shah was going to concede 150 seats to the Sena. Also the untimely death of Gopinath Munde who was the tallest and the only true mass leader of the BJP ensured that there was no bridge left between the two allies. He was the No. 1 OBC leader of the state and no wonder the Shiv Sena has decided not to put up a candidate against his daughter.
The Sena on the other hand knows that this is the last chance for them to make a mark and remain relevant in Maharashtra politics. The MNS split has significantly weakened the party in its areas of traditional strength and it is only the massive anti-incumbency against the present government which gives it a ray of hope. Uddhav Thackeray in a very smart move decided to project himself as the CM candidate, which he thought to be natural after Munde’s death. He knew that even if the BJP fought fewer seats they would beat the Sena and take the CM post if there was no prior projection. He also knew that if the Sena contested less than 150 there was no chance of beating the BJP. If the BJP had a CM for 5 years who ran a performing government the Sena would be further marginalised. Hence there was the deadlock and the inevitable split.
My gut feel is that this was well planned and orchestrated by the BJP. They have often taken a much longer term view of things and see this as an opportunity to capture the entire anti Congress vote in the state. It wasn’t a surprise that all the four allies decided to go with the BJP rather than the Sena. In fact one could almost see this coming. Uddhav Thackeray’s public wooing of Ramdas Athavale and his RPI, by offering the deputy CM post shows how desperate the situation is for him. What the result of this parting will be we shall know in a few days, but regardless of how the BJP does, the Sena will not even be close to doing as well as it would have in an alliance.

Congress-NCP alliance
The NCP views this election a little differently from both the BJP and the Sena. Though they too are facing anti-incumbency, in a strange way they want to distance themselves from the Congress. Also by conceding seats to the Congress in western Maharashtra which is their area of strength, they risk losing rebel leaders to the growing BJP. They wish to consolidate their position here and if they win 50-60 seats they could well play king-maker. In fact all the parties want to make the most of a depleting Congress which has towered over the others for more than six decades now. The NCP believes that just as regional parties and Congress off-shoots completely took away the traditional Congress vote and finished the party in UP, Bihar, Bengal, Delhi and AP over the last 20 odd years, it is their turn to do so now. The rumour of a pact with the BJP is more to retain its traditional voter who impressed by Modi may move away from the party.
Though the Congress is a sinking ship, an election where there are going to be three, four and five cornered contests in many seats is the party’s best chance. It has always had a loyal voter base across the state and if even 75% of that remains intact they will be heading the next government. In fact this election will tell us a number of things; the extent of the Congress’ unpopularity, the impact of Modi on a state election where there is huge anti-incumbency, the strength of the Sena vis-à-vis the MNS in urban and the BJP in both urban and rural Maharashtra, the relevance of the Sena and MNS’s brand of politics and finally the value that Sharad Pawar commands in Maharashtra today.

Election results over the last decade have consistently surprised pundits, even politicians and I think this one will be no different. In a multi-cornered contest the selection of candidates is of prime importance and a difference of 15-20 seats is what could decide who gets pole position. We are going to see big upsets and surprise winners I am sure. Government formation will be decided by numbers alone and if the moment comes all secular and Hindutva ideologies will be buried in the dustbin. I see one of the two broken alliances being re-stitched to form the next government. The chances of NCP-BJP government though less, are not zero. If the outcome is akin to what I think will happen, the Thackeray cousins will eventually come much closer to each other for the sake of survival. Maharashtra politics is in a state of transition and the movement away from loyalty to aspiration and results has begun. The extent of it will decide who forms the next government and what shape its polity takes over the next decade.

Predictions for 2014 Maharashtra elections
BJP+           100-110
Congress+     65-75
NCP+             40-45
Shiv Sena      35-40
MNS              15-20
Others           10-15

Kunal Shah
September 2014

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