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Biggest challenge for BJP, allies in Maharashtra assembly polls is...

By Shreyas Ubgade
July 09, 2024 09:00 IST
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‘The BJP alliance needs to handle the Maratha quota issue skilfully and address its root cause, which is agrarian distress. Then there is stalled industrialisation. If these issues are addressed, caste fault lines would wither away. But, this is next to impossible in a short span of three-four months.’

IMAGE: Maharashtra Chief Minister Eknath Shinde with Deputy Chief Ministers Devendra Fadnavis and Ajit Pawar. Photograph: ANI Photo

Now that he is in the twilight of his political career, the name of Rajabhau Ganeshrao Thakre, a Kunbi leader from the cotton-growing district Yavatmal in the Vidarbha region of Maharashtra, does not ring a bell. But, almost three decades ago, in 1996, Thakre had hit the national headlines.

In the Lok Sabha elections that year, the Congress overlooked its four-time sitting member of Parliament Uttamrao Deorao Patil, also a Kunbi leader, and parachuted then Union civil aviation minister Ghulam Nabi Azad to fight from Yavatmal. The Congress hoped it would be a “safe landing” for Azad in the constituency it had never lost. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) fielded Thakre.


In Vidarbha, the Kunbis, a dominant agrarian caste, traditionally support the Congress.

When the ballots were opened on the counting day, Thakre had trounced Azad by a margin of 38,000 votes. Stung by the defeat, the Congress made a course correction. In the next Lok Sabha (LS) election, it brought back Patil, who wrested the seat from Thakre.

The BJP too learnt its lessons. It sensed that with the right caste combination in the Mandal era, it could mount a serious challenge to the Congress.

“The BJP worked on the Mali-Dhangar-Vanjari (Madhav) caste combination in Maharashtra,” says Sudhir Pathak, former editor of Tarun Bharat, a newspaper seen sympathetic to the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS).

Part of the BJP-Shiv Sena (undivided) strategy was to counter what is seen by election watchers in Vidarbha as the Congress’s Dalit-Muslim-Kunbi formula.

According to sources in the BJP, things started falling into place for the party after the Ram Janmabhoomi movement gained traction in the early 1990s.

Sensing that the BJP was on the rise, a section of leaders of Other Backward Classes (OBCs) in the Congress wanted to jump ship, but were reluctant as they perceived the BJP as a “Brahmin-Bania” party. Gopinath Munde and Pramod Mahajan reached out to them and accommodated them in the Shiv Sena, projecting Balasaheb Thackeray, a non-Brahmin, as the “Hindutva” icon. Meanwhile, the BJP started silently mobilising the non-Kunbi OBC castes.

To entice the Kunbi voter, wherever the Congress fielded a Mahar (a dominant scheduled caste to which B R Ambedkar belonged) candidate, the BJP-Shiv Sena turned to a non-dominant Scheduled Caste candidate.

In the 2014 LS elections, this strategy of mobilising the non-dominant castes peaked, with the BJP-Shiv Sena (still undivided) winning all the 10 seats in the region. The erstwhile alliance bagged all but two seats in 2019 as well.

In 2024, things went into reverse in Vidarbha, seen as a bellwether region in the 2014 and 2019 LS polls. The BJP-led alliance (Mahayuti) won only three of the 10 seats.

“The BJP could not counter the narrative of the ‘Constitution is in danger’ set by the Opposition. Even some backward classes which supported it earlier voted against it,” says Pathak.

“People also did not like the politics of breaking parties. What was the need to take in Ajit Pawar when you already had the Shinde Sena?” he asks. “For the assembly polls, the BJP will need to find a counter to this narrative as quickly as possible and ramp up its organisation.”

With no nagar panchayat and gram panchayat polls post-Covid, the BJP cadre felt demoralised as the party was seen to be governing through bureaucrats, say sources.

Devanand Pawar, general secretary, Maharashtra Pradesh Congress Committee, says his party will win hands down in the assembly polls. “In the 2024 Lok Sabha polls, there was no division in the votes of backward classes, Scheduled Castes, and Scheduled Tribes. Also, with several bigwigs switching to the BJP, the Congress had less infighting.”

The Congress alliance, the Maharashtra Vikas Aghadi (MVA), bagged eight of the nine seats reserved for the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes in Maharashtra. In 2019, the BJP alliance had bagged eight of these seats and won all nine in 2014.

The Maratha might

If the Dalit-Muslim-Kunbi maths rocked the Mahayuti boat in Vidarbha, the Maratha-Muslim-Dalit consolidation singed it across Maharashtra.

In Marathwada, the nerve centre of the Maratha quota protests, the dominant Maratha community decisively voted out BJP candidates.

“Marathas voted against Mahayuti in Maratha vs Maratha contests. The only seat the BJP-led alliance could win in Marathwada was the one where the MVA had put up a non-Maratha candidate,” says Shantanu Lamdhade, a psephologist.

“Elsewhere, like in Pune, the BJP’s Maratha candidates won because the MVA had put up non-Maratha candidates,” he adds. 

Though the Election Commission (EC) website does not show a caste-wise break-up on winning candidates, the data collated from independent sources shows as many as 28 Maratha/Maratha-Kunbi candidates and seven OBC candidates were elected in the 2024 LS polls. Maharashtra always had a “residual Congress sympathy”, says Kedar Naik, professor of political science, Ajeenkya DY Patil University, Pune.

“The Maratha agitation has hit the BJP. An unforeseen number of Maratha candidates have been elected. Marathas do not simply wield raw muscle power, but it is also institutional like sugar factories, agriculture produce marketing committees and educational institutes. Some OBCs have to collaborate with this power. Even Maratha stalwarts like former chief minister Ashok Chavan, who switched over to the BJP, could not save the day,” says Naik, adding that the going would be tough for the BJP-led alliance in the assembly election.

“The BJP alliance needs to handle the Maratha quota issue skilfully and address its root cause, which is agrarian distress. Then there is stalled industrialisation. If these issues are addressed, caste fault lines would wither away. But, this is next to impossible in a short span of three-four months,” says Naik.

Beyond caste arithmetic, the floating voter seems to have gravitated towards the Congress alliance.

“There are legions of unemployed degree holders across rural and semi-urban belts in Maharashtra. Now, they aren’t finding brides. This issue has now snowballed into a social crisis. In 2014 and 2019, they had voted for the BJP,” says Jaideep Hardikar, a freelance journalist who has covered rural distress in Maharashtra for over two decades.

“When general despondency sets in, Rs 1,000-3,000 doles do not elevate living standards. You have to offer something concrete. Three-four months is too little time to make amends. The MVA has momentum. The BJP will try to ring-fence its vote share,” adds Hardikar.

Some realignment may be in the offing, says Naik.

“Now the MVA will fight harder than ever because they stand a fighting chance. Many turncoats who joined the BJP not because of any ideological affinity but just to save their fiefdom may return to the MVA fold.”

“But, MVA consolidation may see fragmentation. The possibility of the BJP’s victory was a unifying factor in the Lok Sabha. Now that they have tasted victory, seat sharing won’t be easy…the Congress has already started speaking like the Big Brother.”

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Shreyas Ubgade
Source: source
India Votes 2024

India Votes 2024