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BJP’s weakened showing in Maharashtra a lesson for over-confident party that ridiculed Opposition

It’s not surprising that several cabinet ministers in the Fadnavis government were sent packing by voters. The performance of the BJP’s alliance partner, Shiv Sena, has been underwhelming. Political observers have time and again pointed out the Sena’s helplessness in tagging along with the BJP.

Written by Girish Kuber | Updated: October 25, 2019 10:32:51 am
maharashtra elections, bjp shiv sena maharashtra, maharashtra election 2019, Maharashtra vidhan sabha, maharashtra chunav Illustration by CR Sasikumar

“Aag ke liye pani ka hona zaruri hai, satta ke liye santulan zaruri hai,” says Om Puri in his inimitable style in Vishal Bhardwaj’s Maqbool, based on Shakespeare’s Macbeth. Voters in Maharashtra have displayed what that santulan, or equanimity, is all about. The hubris with which the BJP-Shiv Sena conducted its business in the past few months has led to the saffron combine’s wings being clipped to a large extent — and rightfully so.

Before the electioneering began, the BJP seemed way ahead of the other parties. Maharashtra Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis had an unblemished record and his performance was nothing short of spectacular. However, just before the elections, he started showing signs of over-confidence, and times, this bordered on recklessness. The first indication of this attitude was the Maharashtra BJP’s “free-import” policy.

The party inducted all and sundry from other parties, forgetting that not so long ago, its leaders had dubbed some of the new recruits as corrupt. The height of the BJP’s brazenness was inducting the NCP MP from Satara, Udayan Raje Bhonsale, a descendent of the great Maratha warrior Chhatrapati Shivaji, and a controversial leader. The BJP made him resign just before the polls, forcing the Election Commission to hold by-polls in Satara along with the state assembly elections. The BJP had hoped that Shivaji’s descendent will bring in the much-needed Maratha votes.

But the Satara by-poll is a case study in BJP’s adventurism. Satara not only handed a resounding defeat to the BJP but hurt the party in adjoining constituencies as well. Barring a few exceptions, many of the newly-imported leaders bit the dust.

The BJP’s second mistake was dismissing — in some cases, even ridiculing — all those trying to raise economic and agrarian issues. The BJP’s response to such matters was “all is well” and “only the media is creating a fuss out of nothing”. This indifference to economic issues has cost the BJP a significant number of seats in rural and semi-urban areas.

Vidarbha, a stronghold of the BJP — thanks to the RSS headquarters being located at Nagpur and chief minister Devendra Fadnavis and party stalwart and Union Minister Nitin Gadkari hailing from the region — has turned away from the BJP. CM Fadnavis’ victory margin is significantly lower than in 2014.

The Marathwada region too has deserted the BJP and Sena. These regions have reported the maximum farmer suicides. The third and the most important lesson for the BJP from this election is: Never humiliate the Opposition. There may not be an opposition leader who can match the BJP’s leaders in stature, but it is the voter in whose minds the seeds of opposition are sowed.

And, when the voters realise that the time has come to rein in the party in office, they stand with anyone who is willing to take on the ruling dispensation. This is exactly what has happened in Maharashtra. While the BJP’s leaders — including Fadnavis, party chief Amit Shah and even Prime Minister Narendra Modi — kept harping on the fact that there is no challenger on the other side of the fence, voters in Maharashtra backed even rookies against the party’s stalwarts.

It’s not surprising that several cabinet ministers in the Fadnavis government were sent packing by voters. The performance of the BJP’s alliance partner, Shiv Sena, has been underwhelming. Political observers have time and again pointed out the Sena’s helplessness in tagging along with the BJP. The Sena did the most laughable thing in politics — have their cake and eat it too. Though sharing power with the BJP, the Sena tried to occupy the Opposition’s space. It was neither here, nor there. Voters have sent out a clear message to the Sena that it can not have the best of both worlds.

The Sena has been hopped from one agenda to other; in the process, it seems to be losing its identity. To begin with, the Sena talked about the Marathi Manoos, it then jumped onto the Hindutva bandwagon and in the current election, it tried to offer a mix of both. The election outcome suggests that both issues have slipped out of the party’s hands.

Not surprisingly, the only leader who can savour the election result is the old war horse, Sharad Pawar. When every other opposition leader was either giving in or joining the BJP, the Maratha strongman demonstrated how to tame the raging bull. The octogenarian leader criss-crossed the state and single handedly took on the BJP.

Fadnavis will rue the humiliation he handed out to the NCP chief at various platforms. Putting behind a life-threatening ailment and his advancing years, Pawar demonstrated how to convert challenge into an opportunity. For instance, Pawar converted the ill-timed ED notice to him into a media spectacle.

Under the glare of cameras, he walked into the ED office in Mumbai with hundreds of supporters to “surrender” before authorities. Caught completely off guard, the ED had to publicly give a “clean chit” to Pawar.

This was the turning point of this election campaign. By beating the ruling party with its own stick, Pawar also gave a lesson or two to the NCP’s alliance partner, the Congress. Virtually rudderless, the Congress was the most invisible political force in the current elections. It was Pawar who galvanised the Congress and towards the end of the electioneering, it at least resembled a political party.

The point to be noted here is that neither Sonia Gandhi nor Priyanka Gandhi had a single rally or meeting in Maharashtra. One can understand Sonia’s absence because of her ill-health, but the Congress could have deployed Priyanka in the Maharashtra election campaign.

This, in fact, makes the election outcome even more interesting. The message is very clear: No political party can — and should — take the electorate for granted. A ruling party’s slide begins the moment it gives a call for getting rid of the Opposition. Such hubris creates an opposition for the ruling dispensation in the voter’s mind. And, it is the voter who knows, Satta ke liye santulan ka hona zaruri hai.

The writer is editor, Loksatta

— This article first appeared in the October 25, 2019 print edition under the title ‘Restoring a balance’

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