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Four big campaign trends shaping the Maharashtra assembly elections

No single party has a monopoly on Maratha votes. But by overcoming legal challenges to find a way to give the community a quota in jobs and education, the BJP and the Sena have posed further challenges to the NCP.

, ET Bureau|
Updated: Oct 20, 2019, 10.51 AM IST
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Maharashtra Polls
A BJP supporter at Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s campaign rally at Kharghar in Navi Mumbai on October 16
Satara & Pune
From Sharad Pawar leading the opposition’s campaign to the BJP cementing its status as a bigger force than the Shiv Sena. Here are the four factors that hold the key to Maharashtra polls:

‘Pawaring’ On
Wing, a village about 50 km from Pune, does not show any signs of the upcoming assembly elections other than an odd hoarding. That seems strange given that the village in Satara district is part of the sugarcane-growing region in western Maharashtra — a region that is likely to be the most closely watched battlefront for the October 21 assembly elections. It falls in the stronghold of Sharad Govindrao Pawar, the chief of the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP).

“We don’t know how many elections he will be able to campaign in after this,” says Dashrath Talekar, a 62-year-old farmer in Wing, as he takes a mid-day break from working his fields. “This election is crucial for the NCP.”

Pawar has emerged as the de facto leader of the Congress-NCP combine in its fight against the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party-Shiv Sena coalition. He has been leading the opposition’s attacks. The Congress, however, has largely been missing in the campaign discourse, giving the impression that the party has thrown in the towel already. “Sharad Pawar is trying to put up a fight even though he knows the coalition is going to lose,” says Madhav Bhandari, a BJP spokesperson.

But Prithviraj Chavan, a former Congress chief minister, says there is a strategy behind putting Pawar in the forefront. “He is the senior-most leader in both the Congress and the NCP. Since Pawar is not contesting, he is free to campaign across the state. Almost all senior Congress leaders are contesting. It is important for us to focus on our seats.” Chavan is fighting to retain Karad (South) in Satara district.

Defectios

One of India’s canniest politicians and a former CM of Maharashtra, Pawar, 78, has a lot at stake in this elections. The BJP-Sena alliance’s support in the Maratha community, once believed to be loyal to Pawar and the NCP, is growing. The NCP has also lost some senior leaders to the BJP. Pawar, his nephew Ajit and others are also battling charges filed by the Enforcement Directorate in a case related to alleged irregularities at a co-operative bank. The opposition has called the investigation against the Pawars a case of political vendetta. “This government is trying to achieve everything by force,” says Dilip Walse-Patil, an NCP member of the assembly and a former state minister.

Sharad Pawar

The NCP won one seat less than the Congress in the 2014 assembly polls, when they fought separately. But Pawar would like his party to better the Congress’ tally this time. That would mean even if the coalition does not win, the NCP would like to be the largest opposition party.

Sena Plays Second Fiddle
The Shiv Sena, despite being in the ruling coalition, has played the role of an opposition more than the Congress or the NCP, say political observers. The Sena was often at loggerheads with the BJP and this could partly be ascribed to its discomfort at being reduced to a junior party in the alliance.

Ever since the two parties joined hands in 1989, the understanding was that the BJP would get more seats in the Lok Sabha elections and the Sena would get a larger share during the assembly polls. But in the 2009 assembly elections, the BJP won more seats than the Sena.

In 2014, in light of its impressive performance in the Lok Sabha polls, the BJP demanded that the arrangement be revised. But the Sena refused and both the parties fought on their own. The BJP ended up winning nearly twice as many seats as the Sena. The parties then came together to form the government. This time, the BJP is fighting 150 seats and the Sena 124. The remaining 14 have been given to smaller allies.
1 aa

Though both the parties are on a common ground as far as Hindutva and nationalism planks are concerned (the BJP has promised the Bharat Ratna for Vinayak Savarkar), there is reason for the Sena to be worried. “The BJP does not believe in coalition politics,” says Prakash Pawar, professor of political science at Kolhapur’s Shivaji University. “It eventually wants to form the government on its own.”

What works in the BJP’s favour is that it is a national party fast spreading its footprint to various corners of the country, while the Sena is a Maharashtra-centric party. “The issue of regional pride is not working in Maharashtra, unlike in Tamil Nadu,” says Nitin Birmal, a political analyst.

Shiv Sena chief Uddhav Thackeray proved his doubters wrong by keeping most of his party together after his cousin Raj left the Sena in 2005 to form the Maharashtra Navnirman Sena. But he now has a bigger challenge: maintaining his party’s identity and support base in the face of a rapidly expanding BJP. “Even at a time when regional parties are dying, the Sena won 63 seats in 2014,” says Vinayak Raut, leader of the Shiv Sena in the Lok Sabha. “There is no question of the BJP’s growth coming at the cost of the Sena.”

With Thackeray’s son Aaditya fighting this election from Mumbai — the first Thackeray to enter the electoral fray — the transition to the next generation of the party’s leadership has begun. But it may not be smooth sailing for the Sena in the future.

Fight for Maratha Vote
One thing that has gone in the Sena’s favour is that it garnered the highest share of Maratha votes, at 29%, in the 2014 assembly elections, according to studies by political scientists Suhas Palshikar, Rajeshwari Deshpande and Nitin Birmal (all associated with Lokniti). The BJP got 24%, the NCP 17% and the Congress 11%.

The Congress-NCP combine’s vote share among Marathas in the assembly elections declined from 47% in 1999 to 35% in 2009, the studies showed. This could be cause of worry for the combine as Marathas account for a third of the state’s population. Marathas’ demand for reservation in education and jobs in Maharashtra, which dates back to the 1980s, was accepted by the previous Congress-NCP government.

Just before the assembly elections in 2014, that coalition government had announced a 16% quota for the community. But the decision ran into a legal hurdle. The BJP-Shiv Sena government, led by Devendra Fadnavis, earlier this year introduced a 12% quota in education and 13% in jobs for Marathas, after the Bombay High Court did not agree to 16%. The Supreme Court has said the reservation cannot be applied retrospectively.

Modi
PM Modi pays tributes to Shivaji Maharaj during an election rally in Panvel

The BJP and the Sena hope that this will drive more voters away from the NCP, a party associated with Marathas. Pravin Talekar, a Maratha farmer and a food kiosk owner in Wing, welcomes the move but is sceptical of its impact in the current elections. “It may not benefit BJP-Sena because not much has changed on the ground for the community yet.”

No single party has a monopoly on Maratha votes. But by overcoming legal challenges to find a way to give the community a quota in jobs and education, the BJP and the Sena have posed further challenges to the NCP. Eleven of Maharashtra’s 18 chief ministers have been Marathas, including the three who preceded Fadnavis, who is a Brahmin.

Elections
Note: BJP-Sena and Congress-NCP fought together in all elections except 2014 Source: Suhas Palshikar, Rajeshwari Deshpande, Nitin Birmal, Lokniti-CSDS

In the 2014 assembly polls, the BJP relied mostly on PM Narendra Modi and anti-incumbency. But it is a different situation now, says Gopal Shetty, a BJP MP from Mumbai. “Fadnavis has done a wonderful job. He has faced every allegation from the opposition and every agitation calmly and found a solution to it.” During Fadnavis’s tenure, the state saw protests by Marathas, Dhangars (whose demand for inclusion in Scheduled Tribes list remains unfulfilled) and farmers.

Agri & Job Woes vs Modi Factor
Agrarian distress is another issue the opposition hopes will work against the ruling coalition, despite the government announcing a Rs 34,000 crore farmloan waiver in 2017. Growth in agriculture & allied activities in Maharashtra, which has the largest economy among states, is expected to have slowed to 0.4% in 2018-19, from 3.1% in 2017-18, according to the state economic survey. Moreover, there were over 12,000 farmer suicides between 2015 and 2018, according to the government.Another issue could be job loss.

When Rahul Patil started working as a temporary worker in the auto industry in 2015, he had no clue it would be such a struggle to get a permanent job. He worked with Maruti Suzuki in Gurgaon, and Tata Motors and Volkswagen near Pune, but not for longer than seven months at each company. Now the 26-year-old is with another automaker, whose name he does not want disclosed, in Pune. He is not sure if he will find another job once this contract ends next year. “It looks like I have to leave the auto industry and do some business.”

Elections

Patil makes Rs 12,000 a month, and pays a rent of Rs 5,000. He has to support a family of five. But he plans to travel 300 km north to his village in Dhule district to cast his vote. “A party becomes complacent if it is in power for more than five years. We should keep changing the government.” The auto sector is going through one of its worst crises, with passenger vehicle sales declining for the eleventh straight month in September.

This has led to reduction in production and, consequently, demand for labour. According to the Society of Indian Automobile Manufacturers, around 15,000 contractual workers had lost their jobs in the sector as of August and another million are at risk. Mahendra Kadam, former general secretary of the Tata Motors Employees Union in Pune, says the loss of jobs in the auto sector is a serious issue.

TATA

“But it does not have an impact on elections because of factors like caste and the state of the opposition.” Just outside the Tata plant, a young man on a motorcycle asks us in Marathi if we know where he should queue up to find temporary work.

Elections

But PM Modi’s popularity seems to overshadow such economic concerns, especially among women in Satara district. Sheetal Bharat Mahangre, who runs a stationery shop in Shirwal, says women have benefited from the Centre’s schemes to provide gas connections, accident insurance and a subsidy to build toilets. “Women here no longer listen to their husbands on whom to vote for.”

Modi and Home Minister Amit Shah have also spoken of their government’s revocation of Article 370, which granted special status to Kashmir, at rallies in Maharashtra. Former CM Chavan says: “They are trying to deflect attention from the agri crisis and the industrial slowdown by focussing on Article 370.”

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