* The Republican Party of India, which has never subscribed to Hindutva, is showcasing Narendra Modi as a mascot to consolidate Dalit votes in favour of the BJP-Shiv Sena alliance in Maharashtra.
* The Swabhimani Shetkari Sanghatana, a powerful farmers’ organisation, is citing the “Gujarat model” to highlight the agrarian crisis in Maharashtra.
* Raj Thackeray’s Maharashtra Navnirman Sena opposes the Shiv Sena but supports the BJP’s prime ministerial candidate Modi.
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* Radical Maratha leader Vinayak Mete has quit the NCP to join the BJP-led alliance.
* With Bal Thackeray not around, the Shiv Sena’s own disgruntled MPs such as Anandrao Adsul in Amravati have found refuge in posters which have Modi on their side.
Whether it is putting together poll campaigns or election strategies, the Modi factor has become integral to every party in Maharashtra, a state that contributes 48 seats to Parliament, the most after Uttar Pradesh.
BJP poll managers are working overtime to meet the demands of party candidates who want Modi to address a rally in their constituency. It is not just curiosity that is attracting phenomenal crowds to his rallies, they say. The “un-preached”, they claim, are getting converted.
Instead of two rallies a day, BJP poll managers have now accommodated requests to have Modi speak at four rallies a day. And the BJP-Shiv Sena alliance is targeting 31-33 seats in the state to match their previous best of 33 in 1996.
Chief Minister Prithviraj Chavan does not undermine the impact of Modi. “Yes, Modi is a factor,” he says. “But polarisation will work to our advantage as Dalits and Muslims will consolidate in rural Maharashtra.” The ruling Congress-NCP alliance hopes to counter the “Modi wave” with caste, community and Muslim-Dalit polarisation.
In Maharashtra, the battle is essentially between the Congress-NCP and the BJP-Shiv Sena. Smaller regional forces such as the MNS, PWP, Aam Aadmi Party and Samajwadi Party are, at best, spoilers. Unlike in 1999, 2004 and 2009, the Hindutva, Marathi manoos or anti-migrant rhetoric is conspicuously missing.
In 2009, the Congress with 17 seats and NCP with eight ensured that the secular alliance was ahead. This time, the BJP-Sena alliance is banking largely on the Modi factor, particularly in rural Maharashtra, to increase its tally to 33 from 20, which no longer seems like the daunting task it is given the overwhelming response to Modi’s rallies from the lower strata of society, traditionally a Congress stronghold.
Shyam Laxman Markude, 38, a resident of Pardi village in Nanded and a die-hard Congress supporter, braved the 42 degrees Celsius heat to attend a Modi rally in the city although he has nothing to complain about Congress candidate Ashok Chavan.
“He is good for Maharashtra. But when it comes to the prime ministerial candidate, my support is for Narendra Modi,” Markude said. “I have 10 acres of farm land. I don’t aspire for a bungalow or car. I just want a change of government at the Centre. I want change because I feel extremely humiliated when I am asked to pay a bribe to get a loan from the district cooperative bank. Or pay donation for school admission in my village,” he added.
AICC general secretary Mohan Prakash claims the “traditional vote bank of the Congress and NCP, namely Dalits and Muslims, gives us a head start. The vote-spoilers, even with a 2-5 per cent share, work to our advantage”.
But the BJP’s Gopinath Munde claims that caste and community factors are becoming redundant due to Modi this time. Moreover, can they overlook Vinayak Mete’s campaign accusing the NCP of using the 30 per cent-strong Maratha community as a vote bank and ignoring its demands for quotas in education and employment, he asks.
“It will work to our advantage in Marathwada,” Munde said. In the last elections in the Marathwada region, BJP had won Beed and Jalna. The Sena got three seats. The Congress bagged Latur and Nanded and NCP, Osmanabad. To provide leadership in the region, the Congress had to sidestep the Adarsh scam and rehabilitate former CM Ashok Chavan.
The Congress-NCP’s tried and tested formula to revert to a secular-communal debate is being perceived within the BJP as a sign that the Modi factor is at work across Maharashtra. “Our calculations based on anti-incumbency coupled with Moditva suggest we will bag 33-35 seats,” said state BJP president Devendra Fadnavis. The party believes Modi has made inroads in the backward regions of Vidarbha and Marathwada, which together account for 18 seats.
“The overwhelming response and connect with Modi during ‘Kisano se charcha’ here should worry Congress-NCP,” said farmer leader Kishore Tiwari. The poor relief work in hailstorm-affected regions will further dent the ruling combine, he said.
The sugar belt of western Maharashtra, a stronghold of Sharad Pawar, is perhaps the biggest challenge for the BJP. The party could not win a single seat in the region in 2009. Despite support from Raju Shetty’s Swabhimani Shetkari Sanghatana and Rashtriya Samaj Party (RSP), the struggle to undermine the Congress and NCP — which together won six seats in 2009 — is worrying the BJP.
The party hopes to give a tough fight in Pawar’s bastions — Pune, Sangli, Kolhapur, Hathkanangale and Madha. “There will be surprises and I won’t exclude western Maharashtra,” says Fadnavis.
In Mumbai, the Congress realises the going is tough. “We had swept all six seats in Mumbai. Now we have to hold our turf,” said state Congress chief Manikrao Thakre. In Vidarbha, with four seats, Congress was ahead of Sena (3), BJP (2) and NCP (1). The BJP’s best bet this time is Vidarbha. Former BJP president Nitin Gadkari is contesting in Nagpur and with a higher voter turnout, is confident of a win.
Pawar, who is prepared to hold more than 100 rallies in the state, has tactically decided to play the secular-communal card to polaraise voters, hoping to boost the fortunes for the Congress and NCP.
Although taken aback by Modi’s advertising blitzkrieg, he says, “Modi’s projection could prove detrimental as it consolidates the secular votes.” But he reckons Modi certainly has an advantage as a prime ministerial candidate vis-à-vis Rahul Gandhi, who has been unable to create an impact. Pawar also has to tackle the poor image of his party, with charges of corruption against many leaders in the state. Taking the NCP’s tally to double-digits will be an uphill task for him.
Congress heavyweights too are wary. “We always had a cakewalk in Solapur. But now we are cautious as generation-next cannot be taken for granted in rural Solapur,” said Union home minister Sushilkumar Shinde’s campaign manager.
Maharashtra has 45 per cent urban and 55 per cent rural voters. Shreedhar Kamble, a young graduate in Beed said, “I believe we need change to revolutionise the education and employment sector which is controlled by a handful of Congress-NCP stalwarts.”
Govindrao Mhaske, 86, a farmer in rural Ausa (Osmanabad) said, “Today, my generation has deep bonds with Congress. We have seen Indira Gandhi. But I cannot influence my son and grandchild. They think differently.”
The Modi factor has not only made inroads in the state but also facilitated new permutations and combinations. “Raj Thackeray’s public support to Modi works against Congress and NCP,” said a senior Congress leader.
The poor response to rallies of Pawar, CM Chavan, and even Sonia Gandhi and Rahul Gandhi, has left the Congress and NCP worried about whether they can hold on to their tally in Maharashtra, if not increase it.