All Is Not Well in Maharashtra – But Fadnavis May Still Win

Maharashtra Polls: A feeble opposition, ie, Congress-NCP, means that power remains unchallenged and unaccountable.

Published11 Oct 2019, 09:34 PM IST
6 min read

On the day the Maharashtra Assembly election was announced, Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis declared at a conclave, among other things, that the Metro 3 car shed would definitely come up in Mumbai’s Aarey Colony. Minutes later, Yuva Sena leader and Thackeray scion Aaditya took the same stage, and emphatically said that the controversial car shed would be taken off Aarey’s map. At stake were 2,700 trees nestled in Mumbai’s largest open green area. The Metro 3 project demands a total of 33-35 hectares of Aarey.

Within two weeks, their statements were put to the ground test.

Thousands of trees were stealthily hacked last Friday night by the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation and Mumbai Metro Corporation. Fadnavis had had his way. Aaditya only tweeted regret, his father and Shiv Sena chief Uddhav Thackeray absurdly warned that those responsible would pay once his government was in power.

Enraged Mumbaikars — lawyers, activists, environmentalists, students, adivasis in the area — who gathered in hundreds to stop the indiscriminate cutting were manhandled, and 29 of them arrested with criminal charges. When the Aarey issue was taken to the Supreme Court by law students in New Delhi-Noida, it grabbed national attention.

Aarey had turned more political than Fadnavis had imagined. His oft-repeated commitment to environment protection was tested — it came up short.

Maharashtra Polls: ‘All Is Well’ Vs Growing Anger on the Ground

Days before the Aarey issue gathered steam, the Punjab and Maharashtra Cooperative Bank (PMC) was placed under restrictions by the Reserve Bank of India. Depositors were allowed to withdraw only Rs 1,000, a ridiculous amount subsequently raised to Rs 10,000 and Rs 25,000 in six months. In a familiar pattern, the bank had lent nearly 30 percent of its advances — Rs 2,500 crore, unofficial figure say Rs 6,500 crore — to a real estate company, HDIL, which defaulted on repayment. Its directors, the Wadhawans, owners of a sprawling bungalow and all-terrain vehicles in Alibaug, and popular in Mumbai’s glam circuit, had already defaulted on loans borrowed from other banks. They have since been arrested.

As details of the scam trickled out, depositors’ ire knew no bounds. It gradually spread to the average Mumbaikar.

Suburban train conversations, a good marker of public sentiment, centred on how Prime Minister Narendra Modi tweets about little things but did not have a word of sympathy for the middle and working class Mumbaikars who had lost their life’s savings. BJP President Amit Shah was in Mumbai on a couple of occasions, but he chose to speak about the nullification of Article 370 and national security.

Fadnavis too toed his bosses’ line.

This then is the story of Maharashtra’s assembly election — a distinct dichotomisation between the ‘all-is-well’ line heard from BJP’s headquarters, and the growing disquiet on the ground among different sections of the voters, an under-performing and over-advertising government which appears immune to anti-incumbency factor, and a non-functioning or limited opposition which is allowing Fadnavis an easy pass.

Opposition’s Political Articulation is Only Via Sharad Pawar

Several key leaders from the Congress and Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) were successfully wooed over to the BJP or Sena last two months. The little Opposition political articulation that exists, comes from an old war horse like NCP chief Sharad Pawar. Through thick and thin, Fadnavis kept a direct line of communication open with Uddhav Thackeray, and has used it to his advantage. Thackeray apologised to his party workers for not getting them more than 124 seats. A Thackeray politically retreating and compromising, would have been unthinkable in his father’s era.

Both Aarey and PMC Bank issues should turn dark for Fadnavis in the coming weeks as Mumbai and Maharashtra prepare to vote on 21 October.

But they will have limited traction. Outside Mumbai and urban Maharashtra, issues abound. The state’s rural landscape and its people have been devastated by four droughts of varying intensities in five years, flood fury not seen in decades in Kolhapur, Satara, Sangli and Pune, drinking water emergency and water tankers criss-crossing districts, stagnancy or unavailability of jobs and work, non-remunerative prices for crops that reached the markets, the onion crisis in Lasalgaon, and so on. Three of his cabinet colleagues have faced corruption charges.

In an Election Sans Contest, Cake Walk for Fadnavis?

Jal Yukt Shivar, Fadnavis’ favourite project started three years ago to recharge water reservoirs and make the state tanker-free by 2019, has not turned out to be the massive success he had projected it to be. From a community-driven programme, it became a contractor-driven one. The total expenditure has been Rs 8,000 crores covering 16,000 villages across the state. Yet, 151 of the state’s 358 talukas and 20 revenue circles were declared as drought-affected in February this year, well before summer could set in. More than 60 percent farmers have taken a hit. Nearly 6,000 tankers were pressed into service, a majority of them privately owned.

In a proper election, Fadnavis would have been running for cover. This is an election without contest.

It allows him to preen and predict that BJP-Sena could bag 220 of the state’s 288 seats. He knows the BJP’s election machinery has kicked in, and that there are no challengers within the party or in the alliance, or in the Opposition.

The election without contest might make Modi-Shah-Fadnavis deliriously happy but it cannot portend well for the state or its politics. A feeble opposition, or an opposition rendered feeble – by shenanigans like the leader of the Opposition in the assembly, Congress’ Radhakrishna Vikhe Patil embracing the BJP, followed by many others – and unipolar political power, means that people’s issues do not get politically articulated, power remains unchallenged and unaccountable.

Will Congress-NCP Sail to Half-Way Mark?

Modi-Shah-Fadnavis have been mocked for contesting the Maharashtra elections on issues of Kashmir, Article 370, and National Register of Citizens while excluding Maharashtra’s ground-level issues, but they seem unflustered by such talk or scornful cartoons. Their confidence now borders on arrogance.

The BJP and Sena won 122 and 64 of the 288 seats last election. The Congress-NCP, contesting independently five years ago, had won 42 and 41 seats respectively.

The Congress-NCP believe that their joint battle places them at an advantage this time and that people’s silent sentiment will sail them across the half-way mark.

But the Congress hardly has any leaders on the field. Pawar is drawing some support, and Raj Thackeray has girded his loins, so to speak, but that may not be enough.

Of the 36 seats in Mumbai, the BJP had won 15, and Sena 14, five years ago. In the latter’s citadel, it had been relegated to second place. Mumbai and Thane together have 60 seats in the assembly. The BJP wants to maximise its numbers here. Its infrastructure push, especially the nearly 340-km metro network, gives it an edge, Fadnavis believes. He will have to contend with the ire over Aarey and PMC Bank.

Will Maharashtra Govt’s ‘Damage Control’ Work This Election?

It is not that Aarey is untouched by human activity. It housed Mumbai’s cow sheds and milk units since the 1950s, the Film City, a private housing complex which was strongly protested but was blessed by the late Bal Thackeray in the 1990s. It is the site of institutional projects like Force One and State Reserve Police Force grounds, proposed slum rehabilitation and zoo relocation.

But the Metro car shed is seen as the beginning of the end of Aarey because it opens the green zone for future full-fledged commercial development.

More than three weeks after the PMC Bank went under, the government attempted damage control. Union Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman met some depositors in Mumbai on Thursday, and addressed a presser. She told them it was an RBI issue and out of the government’s domain – and then praised Fadnavis. They did not buy in, their complaint was that Modi had let them down.

All is not well, contrary to what Modi-Shah-Fadnavis want Maharashtra to believe. But will the sentiment translate into votes against the government?

(Smruti Koppikar is a Mumbai-based independent journalist, editor and chronicler. She tweets @smrutibombay. This is an opinion piece, and the views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

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