Maharashtra Turns Saffron, Hands Congress Its Worst Ever Drubbing

BJP-Shiv Sena, who often come across as opponents, will see their relationship put to test in the assembly polls.

5 min read
File image of Shiv Sena chief Uddhav Thackeray and PM Narendra Modi. Image used for representational purposes.

The Maharashtra story in the Lok Sabha elections 2019 is that of the near-complete collapse of the Congress, ceding the space for a repeat landslide for the BJP-Shiv Sena. It mirrors India’s story today.

Congress, the grand old party, established in Bombay in December 1885, could go past the line in only one of the state’s 48 seats; it had won two in the last election. Its ally, the Nationalist Congress Party, managed five seats. The staggering loss of the Congress, which BJP leaders likened to the sexist “vastraharan” (disrobing), was snatched from what should have been a great outing for it.

The party was crippled by a severe crisis of leadership in the state, failure to broaden the alliance to include other parties, and the inability to build a coherent narrative against the incumbent. The conditions were all there, but an unimaginative and uninspired Congress could not capitalise on them. In the end, it banked on Raj Thackeray to sail its ship home; that came a cropper.

BJP’s ‘Appeasement’ Of Uddhav Thackeray Seems To Have Paid Off

Bolstered by Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s narrative of hyper-nationalism coupled with communal polarisation, the BJP-Sena got 40-42 seats, nearly its tally five years ago. Never mind that the two parties bitterly bickered for much of the last five years, and Sena Chief Uddhav Thackeray even called Modi and BJP President Amit Shah all sorts of names.

But the BJP, after an internal survey last December, realised that it would have to placate and prostrate in front of Thackeray to get the numbers; it did.

The lone seat for the Congress was Chandrapur in Vidarbha, far away from Mumbai and Delhi. The story behind this lays bare the working of the party. State Congress President and former CM Ashok Chavan initially resisted giving the ticket to Bala Dhanorkar, but was forced to after his phone conversation on the subject was leaked to the media. Chavan was hardly seen campaigning across the state, his office often wore a forlorn look, and he was tied down to his constituency, Nanded, by a belligerent BJP. He lost the seat.

Congress’s Attempts At ‘Unviable’ Alliances

The Congress party’s lack of strategy was evident in at least three controversial decisions. One, its contestant in Ratnagiri-Sindhudurg, namely Navinchandra Bandiwadekar, was a man who had supported and organised a morcha for Vaibhav Raut, an accused in the arms haul case, with an affiliation to the Sanatan Sanstha. Its workers and others approached the party leadership pointing out the paradox in opposing the Sanstha’s ideology and making Bandiwadekar a party candidate, but this did not cut ice with Chavan or the central leadership. Factionalism and other considerations, rather than a coherent strategy, dictated its decisions on tickets.

Two, the Congress-NCP initially explored an alliance with the Vanchit Bahujan Aghadi (VBA) formed by Dalit leader Prakash Ambedkar and AIMIM leader Asaduddin Owaisi, but gave up mid-way.

Congress leaders said they were willing to share six seats but Ambedkar kept raising the bar to a point which made it unviable for the Congress. VBA candidates took a fair share of the non-BJP or non-Sena votes in nearly a dozen constituencies.

This was at least partly responsible for the defeat of Sushil Kumar Shinde, a Dalit Congress stalwart and India’s former home minister, on his home turf, Solapur. There have been allegations that Ambedkar and Owaisi played as the B-team of the BJP-Sena with the explicit purpose of tripping up the Congress. Ambedkar denied it, saying his party was “nobody’s slave or on rent”.

Sharad Pawar ‘Accepts’ People’s Mandate But Raises Doubts About EVMs

Three, the Congress had a leadership crisis. Chavan mostly limited himself to Nanded; virtually no leader of repute or stature took on state-wide responsibility. Leader of Opposition in the Assembly, Radhakrishna Vikhe Patil, all but joined the BJP after giving a free pass to Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis for four-and-half years. His son was a BJP candidate in Ahmednagar, and won. Mumbai’s Congress pulled in different directions for years; with less than a month before polling, Milind Deora was appointed in place of the divisive Sanjay Nirupam.

It was too late. Deora could not win even his seat, Mumbai South.

The NCP fared marginally better but nowhere close to its expectations. Its candidate in Maval, Parth Pawar, who was the third generation from the Pawar family to contest an election (against the wishes of his grand-uncle and party chief Sharad Pawar), lost to the Sena’s local leader and candidate Shrirang Barne, by more than a lakh votes.

Pawar, who was attempting to forge an alliance with regional leaders at the national level said, “I accept the people's decision. But it’s also a fact that people had their doubts about EVMs in this election. The Congress had performed really well in Rajiv Gandhi's time, but nobody doubted the election process then; it was the same when Atal Bihari Vajpayee won”.

For Raj Thackeray, who campaigned against Modi and Shah, and was believed to turn the tide in favour of the Congress-NCP remained a great entertainer at rallies with his Modi-videos and power point presentations. His rallies had a huge response; it did not help the Congress-NCP or did it hurt the BJP-Sena. Thackeray tweeted out a cryptic reaction to the results: “Beyond Rationale!” He would have to review his strategy for the assembly election five months from now.

BJP-Sena’s Relationship Will Be Put To The Test During Assembly Elections

The BJP-Sena celebrated the second stunning showing in a row with Fadnavis, Thackeray and their ally, Ramdas Athavale of the Republican Party of India, sharing mithai as results poured in. This is half the battle won for the two main partners, who often come across as opponents. They will be tested in the assembly election, but today’s result has given them a big boost.

The euphoria, they believe, will see them tide over state issues of agrarian crisis, farmers’ suicides, terrible drought conditions and lack of employment.

Fadnavis, of course, credited Modi and Shah for the repeat performance in Maharashtra. “This is a positive support and people’s thumbs-up for Modi ji’s work in the last five years,” he said to the media. Shah wanted him to get the party 45 of 48 seats including Pawar’s bastion Baramati. That he couldn’t bag those remains Fadnavis tiny twinge of regret.

With BJP-Sena winning nearly 88 percent of the LS seats twice in a row, Maharashtra, by all accounts, has turned saffron.

(Smruti Koppikar, Mumbai-based independent journalist and editor, has reported on politics, terror attacks, gender and development for nearly three decades for national publications. She tweets @smrutibombay. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same)

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