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Demographics,Mumbai hobble opposition to Congress in Maharashtra

Written by Vinay Sitapati |
October 27, 2009 2:43:43 am

Why did the Congress-NCP win Maharashtra? If you say “Raj Thackeray,” you have a point. After all his Maharashtra Navnirman Sena won in 13 Assembly constituencies that would have otherwise returned Shiv Sainiks. Raj also played spoiler elsewhere — in a full 40-45 constituencies,bellowed the bellicose BJP spokesperson. If these (possibly inflated) claims are to believed,a Raj-less scorecard for Maharashtra’s 288-seater assembly would have been: BJP/Sena 136,Cong/NCP 112.

But think about it: after 10 years of universally agreed-upon poor governance by the Congress-NCP,is this all the state opposition can rustle up? Why does Maharashtra’s opposition,even when,hypothetically,Raj-less,still fall short of a majority,with just a few more MLAs than the Congress combine? Any answer also answers another question: why has the Congress ideology,official plus rebel,only lost power once in Maharashtra,in 1995 to the Shiv Sena-BJP? (The others were Congress rebels: realignments within Congress,not an ideological break.) Why has the opposition to the Congress in Maharashtra always been so weak?

For an answer,consider the parties that have successfully opposed the Congress in other states: backward-caste or OBC parties (the RJD in Bihar,SP in UP),the Communists (Bengal,Kerala),parties that appeal to regional pride (DMK in Tamil Nadu,or Telugu Desam in AP),and of course the BJP. Where are their analogues in Maharashtra?

An OBC party in Maharashtra is handicapped by numbers; studies suggest that OBCs form 14.5 of rural Maharashtra. That’s tiny compared to 37 per cent in Bihar and 55 per cent in Tamil Nadu. The largest caste formation in Maharashtra,the Maratha-Kumbis,consists of sub-castes that historians (and the sub-castes themselves) claim are analogous to OBCs. And they now dominate state politics without having to form their own party: of 2430 state legislators from 1962 to 2004,55 per cent were Marathas.

Dalit politics in the land of Ambedkar is hampered by a relatively low population base (Maharashtra has 10.2 per cent Dalits; Mayawati’s UP twice as many). This narrow base has to support multiple Republican Party of India factions whose personality-centric differences come in the way of any Dalit consolidation. The comrades have been even less of a factor in Maharashtra,despite the state’s rich legacy of Communist leadership (including S.A. Dange and B.T. Ranadive). The once-vibrant trade unions in central Mumbai were killed by collapsing mills and marauding Sainiks. Today,even the few red pocket boroughs in Maharashtra are under siege. In this Assembly election,the Communists lost bastion Nashik,and returned only one candidate.

So to the Shiv Sena,a regional party if there ever was one,and one that has bettered the Congress before. It won power once,in 1995,as a BJP wave swept other parts of India. But this has proved the exception. As a rule,the Thackerays’ urban (not to be confused with “urbane”) preoccupations resonate with only a particular kind of Mumbaikar. Trapped as their politics is in the grievance and melancholy of a specific geography,they have never really inspired the rest of Maharashtra. No matter how hard the Sena tries,the agrarian travails in Vidarbha or caste assertions in the hinterland (the Shiv Sena was perhaps the only political party to oppose Mandal I) never really animates it as much as going after tambis,bhaiyyas,Bangladeshis and other “outsiders” to Mumbai does. This is the Sena conundrum: its Mumbai-blinkers never permit it to dominate the rest of Maharashtra (if it wins some votes),and in Mumbai it is undercut by its distilled image,the MNS.

This is the real reason why the opposition has failed in Maharashtra: the failure to have a non-Congress vision that talks to both Girangaon as well as Gadchiroli. The only alternative vision is so Mumbai-centric that it can never really challenge the Congress-NCP outside Mumbai (more so after the Sena’s Konkan man Narayan Rane jumped ship).

That leaves the BJP,which has in Maharashtra allowed itself to be less visible than a more local shade of saffron. That could change. For the first time ever,it has won more Assembly seats than the Sena,despite contesting fewer seats. It is not the junior partner any more,and can legitimately stake claim to the Leader of the Opposition’s chair. Will it use this to break away from the Sena’s Mumbai-myopia and fashion a pan-Maharashtra alternative to the Congress?

The problem of course is that Raj Thackeray’s success might force the Sena to reclaim the extremist space it has ceded to him,a problem that political scientist Suhas Palshikar identified way back in 1995 as the Sena being “a prisoner of its own past”. If the Sena follows Raj,and the BJP follows the Sena,Maharashtra will continue to lack a non-Congress vision for the whole state — one that has a shot at power,one that keeps the government on its toes. No matter what your politics,that will be a genuine loss.

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