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Maharashtra may be in for a radical reconfiguration as BJP looks at winning on its own

In Maharashtra, besides retaining the Shiv Sena in the alliance, the BJP government will also have to deal with the Maratha issue carefully.

, ET Bureau|
Feb 18, 2018, 06.47 AM IST
The Sena is unnerved by the rise of the BJP in Maharashtra.
It has been an eventful month in Maharashtra politics. First, Shiv Sena chief Uddhav Thackeray announced on the birth anniversary of his father Bal Thackeray that his party would snap ties with the Bharatiya Janata Party for the national and state elections scheduled in 2019.

That was followed, a few days later, by the Nationalist Congress Party president Sharad Pawar leading a rally of leaders like Hardik Patel, Omar Abdullah, Sharad Yadav and D Raja to “save the Constitution”.

While this was an attempt to unite the Opposition against the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance in the general election, the presence of former Maharashtra chief ministers Prithviraj Chavan and Ashok Chavan, both from the Congress, also signalled an alliance between the NCP and the Congress in the assembly polls. On February 6, leaders from both the parties said as much, after a meeting in Mumbai, though the alliance is not formal yet. The Congress and the NCP were allies for 15 years from 1999, when the NCP was formed.


They won three state elections together and the NCP was also part of the Congress-led United ed Progressive Alliance government in Delhi between 2004 and 2014. But they parted ways before the October 2014 assembly election. Was the regrouping of the two parties timed to take advantage of Uddhav Thackeray’s statement?

Bargaining Tactic?
Prithviraj Chavan does not think so. “Shiv Sena’s calculation is not really a factor (in our decision).

Defeating the BJP will not be possible if we fight separately.” The two parties won 83 seats between them, out of a total 288, and polled over 35% of the votes in 2014. “Whether they (the BJP and the Shiv Sena) fight together or separately does not matter. Together, we have always defeated them,” says NCP member of the legislative assembly and spokesperson Nawab Malik, referring to the elections of 1999, 2004 and 2009.

Pawar, a four-time chief minister, offered outside support to the BJP in 2014, when the latter fell short of a simple majority. But then the Sena joined the government. Despite being part of the ruling dispensation, the Sena has acted more like an opposition, with Thackeray and his partymen criticising the BJP’s state and central leadership constantly.

(The Shiv Sena is also part of the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance at the Centre.) The Sena is unnerved by the rise of the BJP in Maharashtra.


In 2009, for the first time in their 20-year alliance, the BJP won more assembly seats than the Sena. After the BJP won a simple majority in the 2014 general election, the party was not happy with the old seat-sharing agreement and sought more seats to contest in the state polls. When the Sena did not budge, the national party decided to go it alone and ended up winning almost twice as many seats as the Sena. Some say Thackeray is unhappy about having to play second fiddle to the BJP in the state and that he often resorts to posturing and his latest announcement could be just that. When the alliance was in power in 1995-99, the Shiv Sena held the chief ministerial post.

Nitin Birmal, a political analyst, calls the Sena’s recent decision a bargaining tactic for the assembly election.

There have been reports of discussions between the BJP and the Shiv Sena after Thackeray’s announcement.

But Arvind Sawant, a Shiv Sena MP and spokesperson, says he is not aware of any such meetings. “The question of fighting the election with the BJP does not arise when our leader has said we will fight it alone.”

State BJP spokesperson Madhav Bhandari also denies attempts to placate the Sena. The two parties took each other on in last year’s municipal corporation elections and the BJP won eight out of ten corporations and bagged just two seats fewer than the Sena in Mumbai.

Tricky Politics
Besides retaining the Sena in the alliance, the BJP government will also have to deal with the Maratha issue carefully. Marathas who, along with an associate community called Kunbis, are believed to account for a third of the state’s population, took out 58 rallies across the state between August 2016 and August 2017. They called for a slew of demands to be fulfilled by February 10. The protests began as a response to the alleged rape and murder of a 15-year-old Maratha girl by three Dalit men in Kopardi in Ahmednagar district in July 2016.


Among the key demands are capital punishment for the three men; amendments to the SC/ST Prevention of Atrocities Act, 1989, to prevent Dalits and tribals from misusing it; and quotas in education and jobs. A special court in November convicted the accused and awarded them the death sentence, which they can appeal against in the Bombay High Court. Amendments to the SC/ST Act, a Central law, will require the approval of Parliament. And, while chief minister Devendra Fadnavis has assured the protestors of a positive outcome on their reservation demand, it is not going to be easy.

The previous government, just before the 2014 election, introduced a 16% reservation in education and jobs for Marathas under the “economically and socially backward category” but it was stayed by the Bombay High Court five months later, as the cumulative quotas were way beyond the Supreme Court-mandated ceiling of 50%. The matter is still sub judice.

Virendra Pawar, an organiser of the Maratha rally in Mumbai, says the government will grant reservation at a time politically advantageous for the BJP. “Even the Congress-NCP government did it after they lost the Lok Sabha election.”


Leaders of the movement will meet in Jalgaon on February 24 to decide the next course of action.

“Our movement has not been violent like the Jat, Gujjar and Patel protests. But if our demands are not met by March-April, we can’t say what people will do,” says Aurangabad-based Vinod Patil, who has been part of the protests.

The Maratha community is mostly agrarian and at the root of their demand for quotas is farm distress, which will be the opposition’s key plank in the election, which some speculate may be clubbed with the Lok Sabha polls, scheduled for April-May 2019 but could be advanced. Around 80% of the area used to grow cotton, a key cash crop, which is affected by pink bollworms, and the government has been criticised for its poor implementation of its farm loan waiver scheme. Just over a third of the 89 lakh eligible farmers have reportedly been covered under the scheme.

As a result, the rural voter is now leaning toward the Congress and the NCP, believes Birmal. “Marathas in western Maharashtra and Marathwada are returning to the NCP.”

The NCP got 25% and 32% of the Maratha-Kunbi votes, respectively, in the two regions in the last state election. Birmal says the next election will be similar to the recent polls in Gujarat, where the BJP did well in urban constituencies, but the Congress gained in rural areas.

“The Congress and the NCP have tried to raise the Maratha issue in the local elections. This divisive politics will not help them,” says Bhandari.

The BJP will also closely monitor the fallout of the mishandling of the Bhima Koregaon controversy.

On January 1, clashes broke out between Dalits and Marathas at Bhima Koregaon near Pune when the former gathered in large numbers to mark the 150th anniversary of a battle in which soldiers from the Mahar community helped the British defeat Peshwa Baji Rao II of the Maratha confederacy. Protests by Dalits followed in Mumbai and Thane.

The issue could be raked up closer to the election as Dalits comprise more than a tenth of Maharashtra’s population. Ramdas Athavale, a Dalit leader in Maharashtra, is a junior minister in the NDA government.

The Congress-NCP combine is wooing smaller parties which were or are part of the BJP coalition.

Maharashtra Swabhiman Paksh’s Raju Shetti, a Lok Sabha MP and former BJP ally, has been criticising the BJP and has been making overtures to the opposition.

Moreover, Nana Patole, a former BJP Lok Sabha MP from the state, recently quit the party and joined the Congress, and there is speculation about what sidelined BJP leader Eknath Khadse’s next step will be, though he has said he will not quit the party.

The BJP and the Shiv Sena could still fight the polls together and cracks could develop in the Congress-NCP relations. It is still early days. And there is no telling — at least not yet — which way the voters will lean.

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