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Multi-cornered fights, clandestine deals between past enemies, friendly fights and dummy candidates make this Maharashtra election resemble UP of the Mandal era. One outcome can however be predicted with certainty: the Congress is doomed

 

There are three features of Maharashtra’s electoral history that are unique.

 

1. It is the richest state in the country, and therefore has a stable governance system.

 

2. The state has an inherent Congress DNA.

 

3. The primacy of one man in its polity since the 1980s, Sharad Pawar. All this could change dramatically in 2014.

 

The BJP-Shiv Sena (SS) alliance which had been the only viable counter to Congress and Sharad Pawar’s Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) in Maharashtra, which tasted power once in the 1990s, now stands dissolved. The breakdown of this 25-year-old alliance is baffling in many ways because the seemingly intelligent BJP strategists chose this “opportune” moment to seek divorce when the saffron surge is at such a crucial inflection point of history.

 

So, is there a method to madness in Amit Shah’s Maharashtra strategy? If we go by history, especially recent history of UP, then one must agree that there always is sound strategic thinking behind such moves. Lest we forget, many of the candidate choices in UP were equally baffling at first, but Shah had the last laugh at the cost of us analysts and political pundits (one striking example was the much ridiculed choice of Sakshi Maharaj to take on the formidable Anu Tandon–but turned out to be a masterstroke eventually).

 

 

If we analyse the vote-share of the saffron alliance of the last few elections, what is strining is that the BJP’s vote-share has remained absolutely static at about 14% whereas Shiv Sena’s wobbled between 16 to 20% (in assembly polls). Now, in 2014 LS polls BJP suddenly took a quantum leap and doubled its vote share to 28% (previous high being 22% in national elections for the party). Although at the outset it may appear that we are comparing oranges to apples as assembly polls tend to differ from national elections, there is some merit in BJP’s thinking that it is a party in the ascendancy.

 

If that is the thinking of the BJP, then Sharad Pawar’s incentive to break away from the Congress is somewhat different. At this point of time, anti-Congressism is at its peak in India and anybody associated with the party is liable to suffer collateral damage. So it indeed makes sense for Pawar to fight a multi-cornered battle and hope for a miraculous recovery in an otherwise gloomy scenario. Consequently, the biggest loser of this emerging scenario in this most prosperous state could be Congress. That leaves BJP, Sena and the NCP as the top three contenders for power (not necessarily in that order).

 

The primary reason for Congress ending up a distant fourth is because it is no longer the main claimant of what we in psephological parlance term as the “National Vote”. This is an aspect that is seldom analysed because it cannot be quantified classically like we do in demographic terms using caste, economic and geographic boundaries, but that doesn’t mean it does not exist, far from it. If anything, the National Vote has only increased in importance and relative size over the last five years with the proliferation of mobile telephony, and social media connecting vast parts of India (in fact, the National Vote is one of the lesser understood reasons of the unprecedented Modi success story).

 

 

The vote differential between national parties and local parties as compared to LS polls versus the state assembly elections is the National Vote. Taking the average of last three electoral cycles as our benchmark we can safely assume that Maharashtra is home to about 7-10% of national vote. This is a substantial percentile which may be a decisive factor in a multi-cornered electoral battle. Furthermore, we must understand that the National Vote has never been more active than in the current Modi era. In contrast, the National Vote was at its weakest during the Manmohan Singh regime as is borne out by the mere 2% vote difference in the 2009 set of polls. With increased size of the National Vote and the decreasing appeal of the Congress party, BJP hopes to reap rich dividends in the upcoming assembly polls at the cost of the Congress. In other words, the extent of decline of the Congress in Maharashtra could be proportional to the gains that BJP makes.

 

There are enough signals from the ground to indicate such a change of vote pattern. For instance, in and around Mumbai, a substantial section of non-natives (emigrant population) who hitherto voted for Congress chose a Modi-led BJP in the LS elections and that process may find further impetus after BJP’s break with Sena and no formal alliance with Raj Thackeray. What should also aid BJP’s bid to capture the National Vote is a rumoured high decibel campaign by Prime Minister Modi who happens to be the most popular leader in India today.

 

That is where BJP’s good fortune ends and the problems begin. As a counter to the National Vote, there also exists a local Marathi vote which is being wooed by the regional satraps as is the case with state political setups all over. The symbiotic relationship that existed between BJP-SS on the one hand and Congress-NCP on the other hand where the counter votes of national and local complimented each other now stands shattered. It is quite possible that both the national parties may suffer due to the break-up of these alliances.

 

For the Congress party, this is a double whammy and some more. At one level it is facing huge anti-incumbency and is out of power at the centre; whilst it had faced the previous two assembly elections with the advantage of being in power in Delhi; at another level it has been left to fend for itself in vast tracts of Western Maharashtra and Marathwada where it depended on NCP to deliver the goods so far. For the first time in many decades the party is going to elections without powerful local leaders to back its bid for power.

 

BJP’s problems are more structural as the party simply lacks the backbone beyond Vidharba and Nashik divisions. It must be noted here that in most districts of Konkan and Pune divisions, BJP always depended on the Shiv Sena to even provide polling booth agents during elections. Just how the party is going to build an organization in a fortnight is a puzzle that only Amit Bhai can answer. There is a danger that the party is overestimating its own strength and reading too much into the LS poll result. For instance, in the words of one former BJP corporator, “the Modi wave is a cheque which has already been encashed in May, we cannot keep on depositing it again and again… it may bounce this Diwali”.

 

What is even more baffling is the BJP’s inability to find a leader to lead the party in the states. This lack of bench strength beyond Gopinath Munde in an important state like Maharashtra and the over-dependence on just one man does not augur well for the party’s long term health, even if that one man goes by the name of Narendra Modi.

 

 

BJP’s problems will get compounded if Shiv Sena and Uddhav Thackeray take their “Utha Maharashtra” (Utha standing for Uddhav Thackeray) campaign a notch higher and bring in the emotional connect of Marathi pride vis-à-vis the old wounds of division of the state. In fact, this is likely to be a very emotionally charged campaign at all levels as there is very little time for the political parties to engage on more substantive issues. Uddhav has a good chance of really connecting with his target voters and if he manages the ticket distribution well. His erstwhile alliance partner then could be in far greater trouble than many people seem to envisage.

 

This is how Maharashtra now resembles Mandal territory with multi-cornered fights, tacit understandings between enemies of the past, friendly fights and dummy candidates (there is already a rumour flying around about BJP having an underhand seat sharing arrangement with Sharad Pawar and Raj Thackeray). Multi-cornered fights tend to produce interesting results, when we have started to see clear single party majorities with just about 25 odd percentage of popular votes. This is indeed going to be an interesting fortnight in Mumbai, and emotionally charged one too.