Breathing space for secularists: Maharashtra election results bust some myths about how people now vote

There’s a long long struggle ahead for those working to counter the BJP’s divisive programme. All that can be said is that Maharashtra’s voters have given them some breathing space.

Maharashtra Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis with Shiv Sena Chief Uddhav Thackeray. (File)

Finally there’s reason to smile,’’ said a human rights activist in Mumbai after the Maharashtra Assembly results were declared. Indeed, there’s enough to rejoice for those who yearned to see light at the end of a seemingly endless tunnel filled with fumes of hate.

For one, three of the biggest BJP losers are those for whom the prime minister campaigned, invoking Article 370 and pouring contempt on the Congress for its “anti-national’’ stand on the issue. Union Home Minister Amit Shah’s efforts did not help all those he campaigned for. Neither the PM’s unmatched oratorial skills nor the BJP president’s vitriol could sway all voters.

This in itself would have been enough to repudiate the current popular belief that the ruling party’s communal politics holds sway over the majority. But Maharashtra’s voters have done more than demonstrate that, sometimes, other factors matter more. They have busted another myth that has been around since before 2014.

The myth that Hindus do not vote for Muslim candidates was used by the Congress in Maharashtra in the last two decades, to deny tickets to people from the community. But this myth assumed fresh relevance after the BJP’s successful use of the Hindu vote bank it created. Then, parties such as the AIMIM used this myth to convince Muslims that Muslims alone can represent the community.

Winners like the NCP’s Nawab Malik and Hasan Mushrif, both former ministers, the Congress’ Aslam Shaikh, who won for the third time, and the near-win of the party’s five-time MLA Naseem Arif Khan (he lost by just 409 votes), have busted this myth. But perhaps the biggest invalidation of this myth comes from the victory of the Shiv Sena candidate Abdul Sattar from Sillol, with a 52 per cent vote share. A two-term term Congress MLA and ex-CM Ashok Chavan’s right-hand man, Sattar, angry at being denied a ticket, left the party before the recent Lok Sabha polls and worked for his close associate Raosaheb Danve, the BJP’s state president. Finding no chance of a ticket from that party, he joined the Sena.

So some turncoats do win. While Sattar’s opportunist politics at least has one positive aspect to it, the victory of the five-term MLA Kalidas Kolambkar offers little comfort. The former Shiv Sainik was named in the Srikrishna Commisison Report on the 1992-93 Mumbai riots as having led a morcha demanding the release of his party men arrested for burning three Muslims alive. He joined the Congress in 2005, left it in 2017 and is now with the BJP.

Kolambkar’s victory is only a small pointer that the dip in the BJP-Sena’s performance cannot be seen as a victory of secular politics. The only MLA to receive a notice from the EC for a communal speech, the BJP’s city president Mangal Prabhat Lodha, retained his seat with a huge margin. That was expected. What wasn’t expected were statements made by the former PM and current favourite of the liberals, during his Mumbai election visit. What compulsion drove Manmohan Singh to remind voters that Indira Gandhi had issued a stamp in honour of V D Savarkar, adding that the party was only against Savarkar’s Hindutva creed? Did he have to clarify that the party was only against the manner in which Article 370 was abrogated and not the abrogation per se?

Then came former Congress CM Prithviraj Chavan’s photograph alongside Hindutva leader Sambhaji Bhide, the man originally accused of having instigated the Bhima Koregaon violence, and then given a clean chit by the CM in the Maharashtra assembly. Did the Congress, conspicuous by its absence from the poll campaign, think all this would win it Hindu votes? One was reminded of Rajiv Gandhi’s clumsy playing of the Ayodhya card at the start of his 1989 election campaign, which cost him his loyal Muslim vote without getting any Hindu votes.

Despairing at the Congress’ comatose state, many had hoped that Prakash Ambedkar’s alliance with Asaduddin Owaisi, who had won the Aurangabad Lok Sabha seat and received 14 per cent of the vote in the Lok Sabha elections, would be the fulfillment of an old dream: A secular alliance of the oppressed. Alas, the alliance broke off even before campaigning started.

But was it wise to have expected anything from this alliance? The AIMIM’s main objective since it entered Maharashtra has been to wipe out the Congress-NCP and replace it as the sole representative of Muslims. Ambedkar, who rejected an alliance with the Congress-NCP before the Lok Sabha polls to opt for the AIMIM, worked hard to defeat these parties and succeeded in costing them seven Lok Sabha seats. This time, a cursory glance at the results shows that his Vanchit Bahujan Aghadi spoilt the chances of a Congress-NCP victory in at least 25 seats. So much for a “secular front’’ against the Hindutva forces.

The AIMIM has been wiped out from Mumbai, but, its losing MLA Waris Pathan’s vote share went up. Mufti Ismail, one of the two AIMIM candidates who won, represented Malegaon on an NCP ticket earlier. These gentlemen, by all accounts, were non-performing MLAs. It seems a section of people voted for the Hyderabad MP Asaduddin Owaisi, whose every speech makes it easier for the RSS to spread its message.

There’s a long long struggle ahead for those working to counter the BJP’s divisive programme. All that can be said is that Maharashtra’s voters have given them some breathing space.

This article first appeared in the print edition on October 28, 2019 under the title ‘Breathing space for secularists’. The writer is a Mumbai-based journalist

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