The development of Maharashtra brought about by the “double engine” of Narendra (Modi) and Devendra (Fadnavis) may be a matter of contention, but this engine is surely pumping in a lot of political energy into the BJP’s electoral campaign in the state, which votes on October 21. Election outcomes tend to spring surprises, but it will be a real surprise if the Maharashtra assembly results are not what they are generally expected to be.
The campaign would be remembered as among the most lacklustre ones in the state. The 2019 election to the Maharashtra assembly election has been marked by a lack of curiosity and the absence of an alternative to the BJP. This was not the case in 2014 when the party managed to form a government with the Shiv Sena’s support. It is true that the past cannot be explained in terms of ifs and buts. Nevertheless, the Shiv Sena’s capitulation in 2014, and consistently thereafter, has helped the BJP jockey itself into a position of advantage. The victory of Modi’s BJP in the 2019 parliamentary elections not only enthused the party’s state unit but also demoralised the Congress in Maharashtra completely.
This is not to take any credit away from the state BJP and the Fadnavis government. The strategies adopted by them are instructive not only to understand the BJP’s possible victory in next week’s election; they are also useful to comprehend the BJP’s overall approach to competitive politics — and the dilemma of overcoming issues specific to a state.
To begin with, the entrapment of the Shiv Sena, and the Congress and NCP’s demoralisation, are not merely the failures of these parties. The predicaments of these parties have been systematically orchestrated. Both in 2014 and now in 2019, the BJP has accommodated defectors. The entry of a variety of characters into the BJP may invite criticism, but it has ensured the weakening of the Opposition parties and created confusion among them. This open-door policy has been the hallmark of the BJP across states — Assam, Haryana, West Bengal and Maharashtra.
At the same time, various corruption-related enquiries have kept the Opposition under stress.
Such moves often cause analytical confusion as to how an ideological party like the BJP keeps amalgamating power-seekers from competing parties. But in reality, such moves only represent the party’s willingness to employ political force and, at the same time, shine a light on its long-term objective of building social acceptability. While the party is busy crafting hegemony in the societal realm, it is equally busy crushing competition, threatening its opponents and coercing non-BJP politicians into deploying their political energies in favour of the BJP. A ruthless fortress of dominance is under construction along with creating a suave and sophisticated image that befits a hegemonic power.
The Fadnavis government has also ensured that it does not slip below the minimum governance standards —- it could be favourably compared with the Congress-NCP government of the past without necessarily faring very well on the criteria of welfare, programme delivery, law and order or development. The prime minister could extol the Fadnavis government’s development record not necessarily because Maharashtra has seen any great development but because the state did not decline from where it stood in 2014. Moreover, the state’s publicity machinery has been smart in presenting the government’s achievements, real and imagined.
At the same time, the Fadnavis government has kept away from ideological controversies. This was possible due to a complex differentiation between the government and party. While BJP functionaries did not abjure ideological assaults, the government would claim that it was engaged in governance. The recent statement by the BJP’s Mumbai chief is an instance of such duality — crassness among party workers but caution within the formal circles of power.
But the more important factor leading to the BJP’s ascendance pertains to the party’s handling of the dominant caste syndrome. For long, the BJP has adopted the strategy of mobilising the non-dominant — and mainly OBC — communities. This helped the party to evolve a social base and make it electorally competitive. Once that stage was reached, it took on the task of neutralising the politics of the dominant caste. The BJP has been flexible about absorbing political actors from the dominant community. This ensured the fragmentation of the Maratha political elite. At the same time, through the lure of reservations as well as through the deployment of grand narratives of Hindutva and masculine nationalism, the BJP left members of the dominant community scarcely any option other than extending support to the party.
Riding on its success in the Lok Sabha election, the BJP knows that its real strength is the construction of a new all-India politics. The party has carefully woven the national element into the state assembly election. While talking of unprecedented development in the state under the Fadnavis government, the prime minister took a doob maro jibe at those who question the relevance of the Kashmir issue to Maharashtra’s elections — he talked about the sacrifices of Maharashtra’s sons fighting terrorism in Kashmir. The one thing the BJP is wary about — not just in Maharashtra, but in all state elections — is that state specificity can upset its electoral chances, especially if local issues and local factors rear their head. This explains its strategy of intermixing local/regional issues with national ones.
The elevation of V D Savarkar certainly suits the BJP’s ideological position. But it is significant that the Bharat Ratna for Savarkar has entered the discourse around the time of the state assembly elections and found a mention in the party’s manifesto. This is an instance of appropriating the regional space — neutralising state specificity — and also tactically pushing the Opposition to participate in debates that are bound to be counterproductive for them. The double engine analogy, thus, fits the BJP’s approach to resolving the dilemma of balancing regional aspirations with the party’s all-India perspective.
These strategic and tactical moves have created favourable prospects for the BJP in Maharashtra. The failures of the state government are obvious, both on rural and urban issues. But the ruling parties are banking on an edge in the war of perceptions. One, they are trying to create a perception that the state government has done well. Two, they are hoping to be assessed as better than their predecessors. And three, in the time of the politics of images, the BJP is relying on its all-India image and its all-India leadership — key handicaps of the Opposition.
This election has not been marked by any great voter excitement but an absence of explicit voter disaffection is all that the BJP needs for the moment. With the Opposition clueless and bankrupt, this factor alone could help the BJP — and its piggyback partner — wade through the electoral challenge. It is another matter that victories in the backdrop of voter disinterest do not represent a mandate. But when majorities are enough to form a government, who cares for mandates?
The writer taught political science at the Savitribai Phule Pune University and is chief editor of Studies in Indian Politics