Poll Position

The BJP–Shiv Sena alliance gains ground ahead of the Maharashtra elections

Shiv Sena leader Uddhav Thackeray is seen as a credible chief ministerial candidate by many in Maharashtra. DINODIA
01 September, 2014

FOR THE LAST DECADE, the ever-smiling Sushilkumar Shinde, former Union minister, one-time Lok Sabha leader of the Congress party under the United Progressive Alliance government, and the Congress’s best-known Dalit face, operated largely out of Delhi. In that time, grass-roots politics and election management in his hometown of Solapur in western Maharashtra was left largely in the hands of the 78-year-old local Congressman Vishnupant Kothe. But in the months following this summer’s general election, which swept the UPA out of power and left the Congress facing an uncertain future in many of its former strongholds, it appeared that relations between Shinde and his political confidante had soured. Solapur buzzed with the question of how much longer their arrangement would hold.

Then, on the morning of 6 August, a statement appeared in the local media, in which Kothe pledged his loyalty to Shinde “till the last breath.” That also happened to be the day that Kothe’s son Mahesh, a former mayor of Solapur and leader of the Congress unit at the Solapur Municipal Corporation, travelled nearly 400 kilometres to Mumbai to meet the Shiv Sena chief Uddhav Thackeray, and be formally inducted into his party.

Ahead of the Maharashtra state elections, likely to be held around Diwali this year, the little drama playing out in Solapur is indicative of the malaise affecting the Congress and its chief partner in the state’s ruling alliance, Sharad Pawar’s Nationalist Congress Party. The Lok Sabha election results cast an ill omen for both parties; most observers in the state predict a comeback for the BJP–Shiv Sena alliance, which ruled Maharashtra between 1995 and 1999. Narendra Modi’s influence, which helped the BJP–Sena combine win 42 of the state’s 48 seats this summer, is likely to remain strong—and in spite of tensions between the two parties, now jockeying for power within their “Mahayuti,” or grand alliance, both stand to benefit from the after-effects of their sweeping Lok Sabha victory. For the ruling alliance, on the other hand, things look bleak. It is undermined by the competing aspirations of a plethora of caste organisations and individual politicians; and the Kothes’ fallout with Shinde—who is, among other things, the first and only Dalit to have served as the chief minister of Maharashtra—has only further dented, if not erased, its credibility.

Indeed, the government is so thoroughly beleaguered that it now seems the real question in Maharashtra is to what extent the BJP will get to play the big brother in the Mahayuti. “The Sena and Uddhav have benefitted from the alliance with BJP in the Lok Sabha polls,” the political scientist Suhas Palshikar told me. “But in the state elections, the BJP will be their main rival.”

For the last 25 years, the Sena was the acknowledged leader of its alliance with the BJP in the assembly; in 2009, it contested 169 seats, while the BJP contested 119. By an agreement of long standing, in the event of victory the Sena would nominate the chief minister, and the BJP would content itself with the post of deputy chief minister. Now, the “Modi wave” has given the BJP’s hopes an unprecedented boost. A BJP leader based in Delhi told me that the party was looking to expand its footprint in the state, and contest at least 60 more seats than it previously had. The BJP, which has not yet projected a chief ministerial candidate, may also wish to wrest that post away from the Sena—effectively, from Uddhav Thackeray—on the strength of its electoral performance. In an early sign of trouble last month, the two parties fell out over the Shiv Sena’s Utha Maharashtra—“Wake up, Maharashtra”—slogan. As a senior Sena leader told Mid Day: “UTha is the abbreviated form of ‘Uddhav Thackeray’ and, by adding Maharashtra to it, we have made it more catchy.”

“The alliance has still not decided who the CM will be,” the BJP leader Vinod Tawde recently told the Marathi newspaper Loksatta. “The Shiv Sena would want Uddhav to be CM, but the alliance will decide unanimously.”

The other allies in the Mahayuti may play a key role in deciding the balance of power if they win the state polls. Once, Bal Thackeray was responsible for bringing the influential Republican Party of India and its leader Ramdas Athawale into the fold. Now, smaller parties, many of them representing clusters of Maratha interests—including the Swabhimani Shetkari Sangathana, which came on board in January 2014, the Rashtriya Samaj Paksha led by Mahadeo Jankar, and the Shivsangram Sena led by Vinayak Mete—have joined in, all under the aegis of the BJP. The Shiv Sena has no great history of accommodating its allies; even Athawale owed his Rajya Sabha nomination this year to the BJP rather than the Sena.

But the BJP lacks a credible chief ministerial candidate to inspire confidence in these allies, and among voters. Gopinath Munde, the veteran who was to lead the party’s campaign, was killed in a road accident in June this year. Another potential challenger, Nitin Gadkari, has the support of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, and is active and influential in Maharashtra—but, as Modi’s minister for transport, he has refused to be drawn back into state politics, and insists that he is happy in Delhi.

In Solapur last month, even as Sushilkumar Shinde was locked in confabulations with his supporters in the local Congress unit, Mahesh Kothe arrived from Mumbai as an anointed Shiv Sainik in a grand procession that wound through the city’s main streets. When I asked Mahesh why he preferred the Sena to the BJP, he said: “With its many leaders, the BJP is as divided as the Congress in Maharashtra. In the Sena, Uddhav is in control and he is a reasonable and effective leader.”

“He may not be a rabble-rouser, and may not get media attention as his cousin Raj does,” Palshikar said of Uddhav, “but I think there is something more to him than the caricature, and he has his party’s network, which is still intact across the state.”

The party network Palshikar spoke of has more in common with those of the Sena’s opposition than might be supposed. For all their nominal ideological differences, both the right and the left derive their power from a support base whose socio-economic composition is now more or less the same. This explains why the Congress–NCP alliance made the drastic decision to reserve seats in government and educational institutions for Marathas earlier this year—and also why they are unlikely to benefit electorally from that move.

In June, the government approved five percent reservation for Muslims, packaged together with 16 percent reservation for the state’s politically influential Marathas. To all appearances, this quota ran contrary to the spirit of affirmative action. The Maratha community, which accounts for over 30 percent of the state’s population, has historically enjoyed political representation disproportionate to its numbers. “Traditionally, Maratha–Kunbis”—Kunbis are a generic caste grouping of cultivators often politically clustered with Marathas—“have been getting around 45 percent of seats in the assembly,” Palshikar explained. “Except in the 1980s, their share in the council of ministers has never gone below 52 percent.” Ten of the state’s 17 chief ministers have been Marathas, including the state’s first chief minister, Yashwantrao Chavan, and the post’s current occupant, Prithviraj Chavan. Palshikar’s research shows that Marathas control nearly 54 percent of the educational institutions, 70 percent of all cooperative institutions, and well above 70 percent of agricultural land in the state.

Chavan’s government denied that its new reservations were aimed at wooing voters. But it was telling that Sambhajiraje Bhonsale—a descendant of the iconic Maratha king Shivaji—who heads an umbrella group of 23 Maratha organisations demanding reservation, said during a press conference before the announcement that “If the Maratha quota is not announced, we will take an anti-government stand in assembly polls.”

And yet, the usually vocal BJP–Sena bloc remained silent on the reservation question, except to issue a routine protest stating that the reservations for Muslims were “politically motivated” and “unconstitutional.” The truth is that the saffron parties were faced with a challenge identical to that of their rivals—shoring up their core Maratha support, while attempting to fulfil the growing political aspirations of other caste groups, especially the OBCs and Dalits.

There is an idea in the state, Palshikar told me, that “this ‘Maratha vote’ is crumbling. You see a fragmentation of the Maratha elite—the established Marathas with interests in land, business and trade, not the upper castes alone.” This is also true of ordinary Marathas, usually tillers by occupation, concentrated in rural Maharashtra. “It’s not as if the Marathas’ votes are going en bloc to a particular party or ideology, which is a good thing.” But, as things stand, this is also true of Maharashtra’s Dalits and OBCs.

“Caste isn’t relevant anymore in Maharashtra,” Palshikar argued. “The Sena’s Maratha leaders are of the same socio-economic character as the Congress’s.”

The Congress held sway over Maharashtra politics throughout the state’s early decades, deriving political legitimacy by claiming to represent the Bahujan Samaj—an euphemism for non-Brahmin castes—led by the Marathas. This hegemony went virtually unchallenged until the 1990s, when the BJP–Sena alliance reconfigured politics and won its first, and so far only, victory in state polls. The Congress came roaring back in the 1999 elections, and has remained in power for 15 years. But, as Palshikar pointed out, the party “squandered a golden opportunity” to revive the state’s fortunes. In the cities, it has failed to create or maintain the infrastructure to support rampant urban growth. In the villages, the administration has not sustained agricultural productivity. Nearly half of the state’s 11.24 crore residents live in rural and economically backward areas, where basic housing, education and healthcare facilites are still absent or severely lacking. Maharashtra continues to be the top employer among India’s states, and also remains the most prosperous, but as an editorial in The Economist warned in 2012: “The state’s lead is not a given. Another 20 years of misrule—venal coalition politics, delayed airports and roads, slums and rural poverty—would be ruinous.”

I spoke to Baba Adhav, a socialist leader who advocates for the rights of porters, construction workers and labourers in unorganised sectors. “Politics in Maharashtra was once grounded in progressive ideologies of the reformist trio of Mahatma Phule, Shahu Maharaj and Babasaheb Ambedkar,” he told me, echoing a common sentiment among the state’s leftists and liberals. “That is at its lowest ebb. This election could hardly be expected to restore its former glory.” Adhav was waiting to see is if the state’s “educated electorate”—Maharashtra is 82 percent literate—rejected what he called “divisive politics.” The summer’s parliamentary polls did deal a blow to Raj Thackeray’s Maharashtra Navnirman Sena and its politics of aggression and regional chauvinism. But there is no getting away from the fact that the ruling alliance and its major opponents are both responsible for Maharashtra’s culture of intolerance, and its entrenchment in the state’s consciousness. The political terrain may appear placid, but regardless of who comes to power, the ground will remain, in many senses, a battlefield.