Since these assembly polls in Maharashtra were never about the incumbent Congress or the Nationalist Congress Party, the two clear takeaways from the outcome lie elsewhere. The first has to do with regional politics — voters in Maharashtra seem to have lost interest in the parochial, son-of-the-soil rhetoric. The second has a bearing on national politics — from now on, regional parties across India will face a serious challenge from a resurgent BJP.
First, the Maharashtra saga. Voters have pushed both the Shiv Sena and its offshoot, the Maharashtra Navnirman Sena, on the backfoot.
Indeed, the MNS has been made near redundant now. The electoral battering of the Senas is a statement on their credibility, which they have lacked from the start. Neither Sena has ever come across as an honest regional outfit.
The Shiv Sena initially worked as the B team of the Congress; its proximity to the Congress’s Vasantrao Naik, Maharashtra’s longest serving chief minister, even earned it the moniker of “Vasant Sena”. Later, it became even more Hindutvavadi than the BJP. Having changed its core agenda, it ended up being the B team of the BJP. The Shiv Sena’s posturing, first on the Marathi manoos and then on Hindutva, was always a facade, useful for extracting political mileage.
The Shiv Sena’s double-speak on the Marathi manoos became evident with the infamous mill strike of the 1980s. On the one hand, it espoused the Marathi cause, on the other, it was hand in glove with mill owners, helping them break the strike. In the Shiv Sena’s nearly five-decade-long history, this may have been its biggest mistake. It forced the party’s vote bank out of Mumbai. For, the 10-year-long mill strike not only changed the political colour of Mumbai, it also gave rise to a demographic shift in the megapolis. The mill worker community, mostly from the Konkan, was the largest Marathi group in Mumbai. And the working class was divided between two political groups, the Left and the Shiv Sena.
The Shiv Sena used its muscle power generously to help mill owners break the hold of the Left. Money and political support from mill owners and successive Congress governments also helped the Shiv Sena establish itself and oust the Left. But in the process, a large Marathi population was robbed of a living. This eventually resulted in the Marathi manoos migrating out of Mumbai. As of now, out of 36 assembly constituencies in Mumbai, the Marathi-speaking population is in a minority in as many as 26. The vacuum created by the exodus of the Marathi worker community was filled by “outsiders”, and history suggests that migrant populations support national parties. This explains the Shiv Sena’s dwindling influence in Mumbai. Later, as economic liberalisation triggered a boom in the service industry, large numbers of people from all over the country were drawn to Mumbai. This diluted the Shiv Sena’s vote bank even further.
Having realised its mistake, the Shiv Sena changed tack and joined the Hindutva bandwagon in the early 1990s. Ayodhya and its aftermath had helped the saffron surge. In response to the popular mood, the Shiv Sena’s Marathi tiger took on a saffron hue. Maharashtra now had two political parties in the same Hindutva robes. It worked for a while, especially in 1995, when the saffron combine was voted to power for the first time in the state. The point to be noted is that even at that time, when the Shiv Sena was at its political peak and Bal Thackeray at his fiery best, the party failed to strike a chord with the majority of Marathi people. This time, contesting on its own, it has failed yet again. The first to sense the Shiv Sena’s declining influence and, of course, utility, was the BJP veteran, the late Pramod Mahajan. It was he who charted the BJP’s growth plan.
So it’s naive to think that a disagreement over seat sharing drove the split in the 25-year-old saffron alliance. The BJP always had a larger picture in mind, and a plan to get rid of the Shiv Sena — the latter was restricting the BJP’s growth and spread across the state. According to the arrangement between the two parties, the Sena contested a majority of seats, leaving the BJP with just 117 in a 288-member house. The BJP had its wings clipped in as many as 171 constituencies, a situation it could not afford if it was to grow in the state. It played second fiddle as long as the Shiv Sena patriarch, Bal Thackeray, was around. After his demise, it found no reason to carry the Shiv Sena baggage. The rise of Narendra Modi, and the BJP’s majority at the Centre, expedited the separation. The election results have proved that the BJP was right to get rid of the Shiv Sena. In a post-poll alliance, it will now be senior partner.
That brings us to the second point — the BJP’s appetite for growth. It has a clear pan-India plan. Its two-pronged strategy is to neutralise the Congress wherever possible and go after regional parties that are arresting its growth. So it’s not a coincidence that Mamata Banerjee is feeling the heat in West Bengal, and the Shiromani Akali Dal in Punjab.
There is a reason why the BJP feels emboldened. It is aware that large-scale urbanisation and migration as well as a significantly higher number of young voters in almost all states have diluted the provincial agenda. Asmita, or local pride, is not as politically attractive as it was a few years back. A growing aspirational class cannot be fed the staple son-of-the-soil political rhetoric. The young, new-age voter wants growth and opportunities that can fulfil her ambitions. The insider-outsider theory holds no appeal for them. But it may be too early to write an epitaph for regionalism. The emerging situation demands that political parties amend their agenda.
The Shiv Sena failed to realise this. After the BJP compelled it to go it alone in Maharashtra, it only tried to repackage an agenda that had found few buyers previously. The outcome was a forgone conclusion. For the BJP, it’s one more regional player weakened. Who’s next is anybody’s guess.