Maharashtra has never seen such an intricate weave in its politics before this election. It is unprecedented as the state’s polity may prove traditional caste biases redundant. Historically, Maharashtra has been a Congress bastion. The Congress had always enjoyed strong support amongst the state’s Marathas who account for over 31 per cent of the population. But the Marathas are not only significant for their size. The community is synonymous with both money and muscle power. Maharashtra’s cooperative movement, which distinguishes it from other states, is almost entirely controlled by the Marathas. Control of these cooperatives — be it sugar factories, dairies or banks — was always the key to power.
But not anymore. Devendra Fadnavis’s rise and rise has changed the landscape. Fadnavis is a Brahmin — the community is just about 3.5 per cent of the state’s population: Brahmins in the pre-Mandal era dominated the bureaucracy, but when it came to political power, they were not even on the fringes. The state has had just two Brahmin chief ministers, Manohar Joshi and the incumbent Fadnavis. Before the Maharashtra state came into being on May 1, 1960, there was B G Kher, who was CM of Bombay State. To break the Congress’s hold over the Marathas, the BJP slowly won over OBCs, estimated to be around 30 per cent of the population. With Brahmins and upper castes already on their side, the BJP soon became a formidable force.
Then followed the breakdown of the Maratha power structure. To achieve this, the BJP adopted a two-pronged strategy: The ever-dangling carrot of Maratha reservation and engineering of near-en masse defections of leaders from the community. Fadnavis executed both with surgical skill. He dropped the reservation carrot at a time when the state was witnessing widespread Maratha mobilisations. Fadnavis’s move to give reservation — though the order is yet to be cleared by the Supreme Court — not only nipped political unrest in the bud, but it eventually triggered a large exodus of Marathas to the BJP. In recent times, the BJP has wiped out the Maratha leadership, barring a few who had some gumption left — like Sharad Pawar — to take on the “resourceful” ruling party. Those who initially refused to buckle were forced to change their mind, thanks to various investigation agencies. Now, the state BJP houses many such regional Maratha satraps who it earlier accused of corruption. More than comic relief — even as these once-upon-a-time “corrupt” appear on the BJP stage with saffron stoles — they offer a glimpse of an aggressive BJP.
Elections will prove whether such moves have been successful. They are unlikely to fail because the new-look BJP in Maharashtra has become a kind of conglomerate of winnable candidates, brought in from various parties. Though it will continue to serve the saffron juice, it will now have a dash of the Congress and NCP flavour.
Fadnavis has also skillfully — and completely — neutralised its troublesome ally, the Shiv Sena. In the saffron camp, the Sena dominated state politics as long as its founder, Balasaheb Thackeray, was around. Its marginalisation began with the Sena patriarch’s demise, and today, it is a pale shadow of its former self.
Fadnavis kept the Sena at bay with the carrot-and-stick approach: The carrot of offering them “lucrative” posts, while the stick was the fear of breaking the party. It may sound strange, but today a large number of Sena MLAs owe their allegiance to Fadnavis, not to Uddhav Thackeray. Such was the Sena’s plight that the BJP didn’t even bother to show the courtesy of making a joint pre-poll announcement. Instead, it unilaterally announced its decision to contest 164 seats, leaving a mere 124 of the 288 seats to the Sena. The Sena, which demanded an equal number of seats initially, lost steam — it was compelled to accept whatever was left by the BJP. Between the two, the arrangement was that the Sena will play a bigger role in Maharashtra while the BJP will dominate parliamentary seats. That is history now, with the Sena conceding its space to the BJP. The election outcome may further marginalise the Sena. Though it is too early to predict, the upcoming election could permanently convert the Sena into the B-team of the BJP.
On the opposite side of the fence, the Congress looks completely rudderless and demoralised. Not that it doesn’t have capable leaders. What’s holding it back is a complete absence of strategy. Like at the national level, it has failed miserably in creating its own counter-narrative, which voters can find credible. It is also rattled by the brazenness with which the BJP engineered defections. It appeared, for a while, that every Congress leader was up for grabs. And, barring a few, they were.
Adding to the Congress’s crisis is its dilemma vis-a-vis Sharad Pawar and his NCP. While the Congress’s Delhi leadership views the Maratha strongman as its secular saviour, the party’s Maharashtra unit refuses to buy in to this charitable view. The misgivings the state Congress has about Pawar continue to spoil the chances of Opposition unity. It’s rather unfortunate for India’s grand old party that the leader it loathed till a few years ago is now its only hope in Maharashtra. But Pawar’s problem is that his outfit is also an organisation of regional chieftains, many of whom have either joined the BJP or are scared of it, and hence, are reluctant to fight. Many of them have skeletons in their closets. The party has also failed to make inroads in cities, especially Mumbai and Thane, which have as many as 60 MLAs.
The Maharashtra Navanirman Sena made a promising start but soon faded into oblivion due to part-time politics by its founder, Raj Thackeray. The younger Thackeray displayed leadership qualities, but lost momentum even before the party could bloom. His early love for Narendra Modi, that later turned to hatred, also cost his party dearly.
Thus, the political situation in Maharashtra has become a conundrum for the voters. Candidates the people voted for the last time are now in the party they didn’t vote for. And, the party that voters may want to see ruling the state, is filled with candidates who were punished the last time for the party they represented. With defections reaching unprecedented heights, saner voters will find it difficult to decide the lesser evil. That’s certainly not a happy situation for democracy.
The writer is editor, Loksatta. The article appeared in print under the headline ‘Saffron side up’