We got less number of seats but won’t play second fiddle to anybody: Prithviraj Chavan

Credit: Kunal Patil / Hindustan Times / Getty Images
30 October, 2019

In the 2019 Maharashtra assembly elections, the Bharatiya Janata Party and Shiv Sena alliance won a majority in the 288-member house. But both the parties failed to match their electoral tally of the 2014 assembly elections. The BJP won in 105 constituencies this year, as opposed to 122 seats in 2014, and the Shiv Sena clocked 56 seats, seven less than the previous election. Meanwhile, the Congress and the Nationalist Congress Party combine—the state’s main opposition parties—surpassed their 2014 performance. The Congress won 44 seats, two more than in 2014, whereas the NCP clocked 54 seats, compared to the 41 it won in the previous election.

Ever since the result was announced on 24 October, fissures started to appear in the BJP-Shiv Sena alliance, leading to speculation that the combine may not form the government. In an interview with Tushar Dhara, a reporting fellow at The Caravan, the senior Congress leader Prithviraj Chavan, a former chief minister of Maharashtra and a minister of state in the prime minister’s office, discussed the political implications of the assembly election results.

Tushar Dhara: What political message does the Maharashtra electoral verdict convey?
Prithviraj Chavan: The message is clear—people have voted on the performance of the [chief minister Devendra] Fadnavis’ government in the last five years. It is a very dismal performance, in spite of the fact that he had absolute power. [During] Manohar Joshi’s government [between 1995–1999] and then the fifteen years of the Congress-NCP rule, there was always a chief minister and a deputy CM, and the important portfolios were shared. [Fadnavis] was the chief minister by himself, there was no deputy CM. All the important portfolios were with the CM. He was absolutely unhindered and unfettered.

The farm sector continues to underperform. The agricultural growth-rate continues to plummet, and farmers’ suicides continue unabated. All the promises to farmers remain unfulfilled. Unemployment is a major challenge. No new investment is happening on the ground, although there are tall claims. If you ask about the proof of where the investment is, or district-wise details, there is a big silence. Maharashtra has lost its pre-eminent position as the number one industrial state in the country. Mumbai has lost its pre-eminence as the financial capital of the country. Not a single infrastructure project got completed in the last five years.

People realised that nobody was talking about the performance of the Fadnavis government during the election campaign. The national leaders who came here—particularly, the prime minister and the home minister—kept talking about Article 370 and NRC [National Register of Citizens, a list of Assam’s Indian citizens] and VD Savarkar [the Hindutva ideologue] and Ram Mandir. They did not talk about a single issue that concerned the people of Maharashtra—livelihood, bread and butter issues. So, the opposition took [this] to the ruling party, saying, “why are you not discussing the current challenges before that state? Handling of the drought, handling of the flood, disaster management”—everywhere, the government and ministers were found wanting. The people have expressed their dissatisfaction with the BJP-SS government by pulling their numbers down.

TD: The BJP and Shiv Sena contested separately in 2014, and in an alliance this time. The BJP's strike rate—ratio of the seats won to the seats contested—increased in 2019. Is it still accurate to say the BJP has performed badly?
PC: The BJP’s numbers have come down even as they raised expectations. They said they will win 220 seats together; they got about one hundred and sixty, so that is much lesser than the hype they created. Some of their leaders also said that it will go up to 250 seats. Just like the Lok Sabha 2019 bravado, where they said they will get 300 seats and they got 300 plus, they wanted to create a similar atmosphere—compared to that, they have done badly.

So, because the Shiv Sena will be a much more dominant partner, their ability to govern will be proportionately reduced. Another factor is that there are a lot of detractors of Mr Fadnavis within the BJP because he tried to finish the [union minister Nitin] Gadkari group completely, denied tickets to some very senior colleagues of his. And so, there is seething anger against him. There is infighting within the BJP.

TD: The BJP’s numbers have come down and, consequently the Shiv Sena’s bargaining power has gone up. How do you think this will play out?
PC: Fadnavis had a very strong government in the last five years. He will not be as strong even if he becomes the chief minister. There is a question mark on that also because the Shiv Sena has been asking for the chief ministership for a very long time. They have the numbers to stop Fadnavis from occupying the chair. It is not a straightforward situation where Fadnavis just goes out and takes oath [as the] chief minister, like in 2014. It is a far more complicated situation. One cannot rule out the possibility of Shiv Sena deciding to sit in the opposition.

TD: Stalwarts from the Congress-NCP who defected to the BJP and Shiv Sena lost heavily. How do you think that happened?
PC: The voters were upset with the treachery of the people who enjoyed power for a really long time and suddenly when their party is no longer in power, moved to greener pastures. [They could have also defected] either because there were huge corruption scandals in their enterprises or they fell prey to inducements or coercion. People saw through it.

Udayanraje [Bhonsle, the thirteenth descendant of Chhatrapati Shivaji, who switched from the NCP to the BJP before the polls] won three elections in a row and he mistook it for his personal popularity. It was not his personal popularity alone. Of course, he has a legacy, [but] his elections were won by the NCP and Congress workers working close together. He mistook that support for his personal popularity and that myth has been busted. It was always the NCP that won.

TD: What does the result mean for the opposition parties?
PC: The opposition benches are already larger in numbers. Almost all the stalwarts of Congress-NCP have got elected. The opposition is stronger, both qualitatively and quantitatively.

TD: Is there a possibility of an NCP, Congress and Shiv Sena combine forming the government?
PC: No, I do not think, no such proposal has been made by the Shiv Sena. The proposal has to come from the Shiv Sena. If at all that proposal comes, we will discuss it with our alliance partner NCP and other friendly parties. And, of course, the Congress would like to seek concurrence from the national leadership.

TD: So, neither is there a proposal from the Shiv Sena nor has Sharad Pawar, the president of the NCP, reached out to it?
PC: There has to be a proposal from the Shiv Sena to our parties, only then can further talks happen. We cannot talk about hypothetical possibilities.

TD: But you are not ruling out the possibility?
PC: I cannot comment on what the Shiv Sena might do.

TD: The Congress’ central leadership barely campaigned in Maharashtra. How did this impact the state unit?
PC: I would not comment on the central leadership, it is for them to decide what to do.

TD: Why wasn’t the Congress campaign more aggressive?
PC: Basically, all of us were contesting. It was important to make sure that we save our regions, and districts and constituencies, because if you lose that, there is nothing left. The only person who could have campaigned, who was not contesting, was [the senior Congress leader] Sushil Kumar Shinde. But he was campaigning for his daughter [Praniti Shinde], so he got stuck in his own area [Solapur]. Mr Sharad Pawar campaigned in a larger area. It appeared that Delhi is not wholeheartedly supporting the campaign—it’s not true, but that impression was created. A meeting by Mrs [Sonia] Gandhi or a roadshow by Priyanka Gandhi would have added to it. Rahul Gandhi [had] just five meetings, but compared to 18 by Amit Shah and 9 by Modi, it was a subdued performance.

TD: Your party has won just two additional seats. Its vote share has dipped from 18.10-percent in the 2014 assembly elections to 15.87-percent this year. Why did this happen?
PC: Two things. Last time, in 2014, the Congress contested all 288 seats. So, the vote share will be affected—even if you collected three thousand or four thousand votes [in each seat], one percent, two percent or three percent gets added to the vote share. [This time], we contested only one hundred and forty something seats, so that explains the decline in vote share.

But, yes, the NCP has done better than us, no doubt about that. And the reason is that there were some massive victories—like, Ajit Pawar won by around one lakh and sixty five thousand votes. We lost 19 seats in Vidarbha by a margin of less than ten thousand. So, yes, we could have done better, we could have campaigned more aggressively—at least ten more seats could have been won. The NCP focused on their areas of strength, while we spread our resources all over the state. It’s a matter of a little bit of strategy. But it doesn’t mean, although we got less number of seats, playing second fiddle to anybody. One additional factor is that Sharad Pawar campaigned very aggressively, particularly to defeat Udayanraje Bhonsale. Even the NCP could have done better—they could have got another four–five seats.

This interview has been edited and condensed.