It’s not just another investment that Maharashtra has lost to Gujarat in the Rs 21,935-crore Tata-Airbus plant — the development poses the danger of weakening the BJP’s Rate of Return (RoR) on political investment in Maharashtra, besides rendering the state leadership vulnerable like never before. Coming just after the Foxconn-Vedanta mega project spurning Maharashtra for Gujarat, Tata-Airbus’s move is bound to raise an important question: Where does the state BJP leadership go from here?
The Maharashtra BJP leadership had three leaders who played defining roles as the party charted its national ambitions. Each one from the troika of Pramod Mahajan, Gopinath Munde and Nitin Gadkari was instrumental in the BJP breaking its inherent barriers. Mahajan effortlessly steered the party away from the shadow of the RSS, Munde was the face of the BJP’s mission to bring OBCs into its fold and Gadkari was a vital bridge between the old and new BJP. Then emerged Devendra Fadnavis in the vacuum created by the untimely deaths of Mahajan and Munde, to share space with Gadkari. Incidentally, both Brahmins, equally suave and media-savvy, come from the same city Nagpur and have a strong allegiance to the RSS. A point to be noted: Fadnavis and Gadkari both possess excellent skills to lead the party at the national level and both have mastered statecraft.
So a bird’s eye view of the recent developments, where Eknath Shinde was handed the reins of the BJP-Sena breakaway group, followed by the Tata-Airbus project moving to election-bound Gujarat even though Gadkari was seen trying to get it to Maharashtra, offers one message: Anyone who comes closer to emerging as a national leader faces ignominy at the hands of the party’s masters in Delhi. Whether Congress or the BJP, no party likes its regional leadership to grow beyond permissible limits. Besides, the episode also says something about the BJP’s political exuberance.
For the BJP what matters more is the arithmetic for the 2024 general elections. Each and every seat counts. Earlier it had two big “safe” states: Uttar Pradesh and Bihar. Thanks to Nitish Kumar, it is now left with only UP. Having lost Bihar, the party was in search of a region that could make up for the damage that could be caused by an important alliance partner like the JD(U). With 48 seats, Maharashtra was the obvious choice. This numerical reality explains the BJP’s urgency in forming an alliance with the Shiv Sena breakaway group and installing Shinde as the chief minister.
Having secured Maharashtra and disarmed the Shiv Sena for the 2024 polls, the second most important state for the BJP’s central leadership is Gujarat, for obvious reasons. Though it is ruling the western state, the political situation there is far from being comfortable. Despite two of its tallest leaders coming from Gujarat, the circumstances of the BJP’s victory in the 2017 state elections were hardly reassuring. In the 182-member Gujarat assembly, the BJP, despite its leadership and all the resources at its command, barely managed a simple majority with 99 seats. On the other hand, the leaderless, rudderless Congress, with all its weaknesses, bagged as many as 77 seats. The BJP state leadership since then — first Vijay Rupani and now the incumbent chief minister Bhupendra Patel — has been anything but inspiring. It’s no wonder that the party is leaving no stone unturned to retain Gujarat.
Though the BJP’s desperation for and obsession with Gujarat is understandable, its move in Maharashtra — leaving its own state leadership bruised, if not battered — is intriguing. Right from the day both states came into being in 1960, Maharashtra and Gujarat have shared an acrimonious history. The fact of the then leadership of the Congress, Moraraji Desai and others, having an apparent bias against Maharashtrians, leading to the Shiv Sena’s rise, should have made the BJP leadership wary of being seen as so pro-Gujarati. However, the party seems totally unmindful. Or maybe the confidence of being able to “manage” states on its own, irrespective of the ground reality has blurred, if not blinded, the BJP leadership’s political vision.
Whatever the cause, the effect is twofold. On the one hand, it has put the state BJP leadership in an awkward position, and on the other, the party has placed itself, inadvertently maybe, next to Congress which ceded its political space in Maharashtra because of its apparent anti-Maharashtra politics. The difference this time, however, is the rise of the Sharad Pawar-led Nationalist Congress Party. On paper, it looks like yet another Congress off-shoot. However, in reality, it is a rural version of the Shiv Sena which is thriving on strong regional sentiments. It’s no wonder that it’s the NCP and not the Shiv Sena that is at the forefront in attacking the BJP for snatching investors from Maharashtra. The BJP, by blatantly taking two of Maharashtra’s mega projects away to Gujarat, has thus strengthened the NCP’s plank. It’s not for nothing that it’s the NCP leadership that is now facing constant attack from the BJP: The party knows that the NCP and the Shiv Sena — both playing the regional pride card, the former in rural Maharashtra and the latter in cities — continue to pose a formidable challenge.
It is this backdrop that makes the BJP leadership’s pro-Gujarati stand inexplicable, besides making for bad optics. In trying to win over Gujarat, the party may end up helping the opposition in Maharashtra. History shows that political hubris does not always lead to a happy ending.
The writer is editor, Loksatta