Maharashtra Polls: Will ‘Saffron Wave’ End Congress Influence?

Among factors responsible for Congress-NCP’s diminishing influence is the defection of top Maratha leaders.

5 min read
Image of Maharashtra map & BJP symbol used for representational purposes.

Maharashtra is set to go to polls on 21 October, and the results are to be declared on 24 October. The Maharashtra assembly tenure ends on 7 November. The BJP is hoping to repeat its 2019 Lok Sabha election performance, where, together with its ally Shiv Sena, it had led in 227 assembly constituencies.


Maharashtra: A Congress Stronghold Since Independence

  1. 1967 saw what is considered to be the first blow to the Congress’s dominance, when non-Congress governments were formed in 9 out of 21 states. However, in Maharashtra, the party won 203 out of 270 seats in the 1967 state elections. Vasantrao Naik became the only chief minister in the state’s history to have been voted back to power.
  2. In the aftermath of the Emergency, in 1977, when the first non-Congress government was installed at the Centre, the party lost many state elections. It did witness a crisis in Maharashtra, but not of the same magnitude as in many north Indian states. In a hung assembly situation in 1978, the two Congress factions (one led by Indira Gandhi and the other by Yashwant Rao Chavan) joined hands to keep the Janata Party out of power. However, the Sharad Pawar-led faction broke ranks and joined the Janata Party, and Pawar became chief minister within five months. In 1980, the Congress stormed back to power.
  3. During 1989-1990, the country was in the grips of the Mandal (OBC reservation) and Kamandal (Ram Lalla) movements. The Janata Dal and BJP won elections in many states like UP, Bihar, Rajasthan, MP, Karnataka to name a few. However, the Congress managed to hold onto Maharashtra, winning 141 out of 288 seats. Only in 1995, the BJP-Sena alliance managed to win after communal riots in the early 1990s. Then, from 1999-2014, the Congress and NCP ruled the state for 15 years.

How BJP Turned the Tide

The BJP, however, made significant inroads with its ally, the Shiv Sena. In the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, the BJP along with ally Shiv Sena, riding the ‘Modi wave’, the anti-corruption plank and anti-incumbency against the 10-year old UPA government at the Centre, swept 42 out of 48 seats in Maharashtra.

In the state elections which followed six months later, the BJP emerged as the single largest party, riding on Modi’s popularity, the ‘feel-good’ factor of the central government, and strong anti-incumbency against the 15-year old Congress-NCP government. Post elections, BJP joined hands with Sena — with which it had divorced just before the polls — to form the government. In a repeat of the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, the NDA swept the state again in 2019.

Among the factors responsible for the victory was the satisfaction of the people of Maharashtra with the development work carried out by the Fadnavis government.

Currently, the BJP controls over 80 percent of the urban local self-government units in the state, and nearly 60 percent of the fully-urban Vidhan Sabha constituencies. Devendra Fadnavis is only the second chief minister to complete five years in office.

Even when Congress-NCP alliance was winning in the state, the Congress’s vote share kept on declining from 49.6 percent in 1999 to 39.8 percent in 2004, and 37.4 percent in the 2009 Vidhan Sabha elections, highlighting the gradual reduction in support base.


How Did BJP Secure its Place Firmly in Maharashtra?

  • Defection of Maratha Voters from Congress-NCP to BJP-Sena: The Marathas, accounting for 30 percent of the state’s population, have dominated Maharashtra’s politics for decades. 10 out 17 chief ministers of the state have been from the community. Congress was traditionally the dominant party, and Marathas the dominant caste. The rich and upper-class of the community have always been closer to the corridors of power. They formed the backbone of the Congress, and later, the NCP’s support structure.
Maharashtra Polls: Will ‘Saffron Wave’ End Congress Influence?
(Source: CSDS Reports)

Top Congress-NCP Leaders Defected to BJP-Sena

In 2014, the BJP sprung a surprise by installing a Brahmin CM at the cost of angering the Marathas. However, the decision to provide 16 percent reservation to Marathas in government jobs and technical institutes, helped calm their nerves. The poor and middle-class Marathas had already moved to the Sena and the BJP; now even the upper-class was left with no choice.

Top Maratha leaders thus switched loyalties.

Three of Shivaji’s descendants – Chhatrapati Sambhaji Raje, Shivendra Raje Bhosale, Udayan raje Bhosale – have joined the BJP, while the Congress party’s leader in assembly, Radhakrishna Patil, also joined the BJP along with his son.

BJP Maharashtra Vote Bank: Nearly 60% of State Population

  • BJP is Successfully Building a Social Coalition of Upper-Caste & OBCs: The BJP has always been a party backed by urban voters, traders, white collar sections and Brahmins. The party won 53 out of 100 urban seats in 2014 state elections bagging 35 percent vote share. With Marathas firmly behind the Congress, BJP eyed the OBCs in the early 1990s. It developed leaders from the community like Gopinath Munde, Parange, Dange, Eknath Khadse etc. Its support for OBC reservations helped the party establish a strong base. Along with upper-castes, OBCs account for 26 percent of population. PM Modi’s claim — that he belongs to the OBC community — has further cemented the party’s position within the group. With Marathas also veering towards the BJP — as it fulfilled their long pending demand of reservation — the party now has a catchment vote bank of 60 percent of the state’s population. Nationally, a section of SCs and STs have also moved to the BJP, further strengthening its position and broadening its social base. 53 percent Dalits and 34 percent Adivasis voted for the NDA in the general elections of 2019.

NCP’s Influence Reduced to Western Maharashtra

  • NCP’s Influence Reduced to Western Maharashtra, and Rocked by Scams: Sharad Pawar’s NCP has been reduced to a Western Maharashtra party. It won almost half of its tally in the 2014 state elections from this region (19/40). The mood against dynasty politics in the nation has not helped the Pawar family. 65 percent respondents in India Today Mood of the Nation survey for the 2019 general elections, stated that dynasty politics is “over” in India. It seems to have lost its utility in Maharashtra’s cooperative sector, that it once controlled and drew its strength from. Further, some NCP family members have been embroiled in scams and controversies. Both Sharad Pawar and nephew Ajit Pawar have been named in a Rs 25,000 crore money laundering case. NCP leader and ex Deputy CM Chagan Bhujbal was jailed in a corruption case, and is currently out on bail. Additionally, the party is facing heat from BJP in its stronghold. Western Maharashtra is second only to Mumbai-Thane region in urbanisation. It is relatively well off as compared to other regions. BJP won 25 out of 70 seats in the region in the 2014 state elections. NCP is fighting an existential crisis.

To sum up, the exodus of leaders from NCP-INC in hoards to the BJP-Sena has also given a boost to the saffron alliance fortunes. Once a Congress bastion, Maharashtra is set become a saffron fortress as NDA is expected to win the state elections with a thumping majority as per opinion polls.

(The author is an independent political commentator and can be reached at @politicalbaaba. This is an opinion piece. The views expressed above are the author’s own.The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

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