Amit Shah greets Uddhav Thackeray in Mumbai, on Feb. 18, 2019. (Photograph: PTI)

Elections 2019 ‘State Of Play’: Can BJP-Sena Retain The Erstwhile Congress Fortress?

BloombergQuintOpinion

Maharashtra sends 48 members to the Lok Sabha, the second highest after Uttar Pradesh. In 2014, BJP-Shiv Sena alliance swept the state bagging 42 out of 48 seats, which propelled NDA to get an absolute majority at the centre. The Congress-NCP alliance was decimated with the average margin of victory of NDA candidates being more than 2 lakh.

In 2019, while the National Democratic Alliance hopes to repeat its performance banking on the Modi factor, the Balakot air strike, and work done by the Devendra Fadnavis-led government in the state, the United Progressive Alliance is betting on farm-rural distress and unemployment to make a severe dent. The grandson of BR Ambedkar, Prakash Ambedkar’s Vanchit Bahujan Aghadi has formed a Third Front consisting of Bharip Bahujan Mahasangh, AIMIM and JD(S) and could play the role of spoilsport in many seats.

Congress Citadel Demolished In 2014

Maharashtra has been a Congress fortress since independence. It survived a scare in 1967 when non-Congress governments were formed in nine out of 21 states. Even in the aftermath of the Emergency, in 1977, Congress witnessed a crisis but not of the same magnitude as in most states of north India. In 1989-90, at the peak of Mandal and Kamandal movement, Congress managed to hold onto the state.

In Lok Sabha elections since 1991, people of the state have alternatively given a big chunk of seats to alliances led by Congress and BJP. Only in 2004 were honours shared almost equally by both alliances. In that election, UPA’s vote share was higher than NDA by 2.2 percent.

Elections 2019 ‘State Of Play’:  Can BJP-Sena Retain The Erstwhile Congress Fortress?

In the state’s assembly polls that were held in October 2014, five months after the Lok Sabha vote, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s charisma coupled with strong anti-incumbency against 15-year old Congress-NCP state government led to the installation of a BJP-Shiv Sena government.

BJP-Sena In Troubled Marriage, Kiss And Make Up For Survival

The election math didn’t favour Shiv Sena going alone as it had declared to do earlier.

If BJP and Sena would have contested separately in the 2014 Lok Sabha polls and NCP and Congress together, Sena would have struggled to even open its account.

The hypothetical loss for BJP would have been lesser, it would have potentially won 15 seats, from the 23 it actually did.

Elections 2019 ‘State Of Play’:  Can BJP-Sena Retain The Erstwhile Congress Fortress?

Contesting the state elections to be held later in 2019 in alliance with BJP as well offers Shiv Sena a better shot at government formation in Mumbai. Contesting alone would have further weakened the Sena’s position in the state. The party feared losing further vote share to BJP, as a large chunk of urban voters has already moved. After the Fadnavis government’s Maratha reservation decision, these voters could have also moved to BJP as well.

Caste Plays A Key Role, Like Most Other States

Upper caste and other backward classes, accounting for 26 percent of the population have emerged as anchor voting segments of the NDA. As Ramdas Athawale’s RPI(A) was with the NDA, even Dalits moved away from UPA to NDA.

Elections 2019 ‘State Of Play’:  Can BJP-Sena Retain The Erstwhile Congress Fortress?

In 2014, NDA’s support increased across caste groups: Dalit: +39 percent; upper caste: +30 percent; Adivasi: +29 percent.

Elections 2019 ‘State Of Play’:  Can BJP-Sena Retain The Erstwhile Congress Fortress?

UPA registered a decline in support from upper caste (-26 percent) and OBCs (-13 percent). However, it was able to consolidate its support amongst Muslims (+31 percent).

Elections 2019 ‘State Of Play’:  Can BJP-Sena Retain The Erstwhile Congress Fortress?
Prakash Ambedkar’s VBA is expected to make a dent in NDA’s Dalit vote bank and UPA’s Muslim vote bank in these 2019 elections.

Will Maratha Reservation Alienate OBCs?

With 10 out 17 chief ministers, half of the state’s 288 MLAs and nearly half the number of cabinet ministers from the community, Marathas have dominated the political scene in Maharashtra since the state’s formation in 1960. They account for roughly a third of the state’s population.

Once forming the backbone of Congress support structure, the Maratha vote has been split between UPA and NDA in the last two elections.

The community has always been close to the power corridors. In 2014, BJP surprised all by picking a Brahmin chief minister, risking antagonising the powerful Maratha community. However, the BJP hopes its decision to provide 16 percent reservation to Marathas will help consolidate their support in favour of NDA. This decision though has upset some of the other backward classes.

Elections 2019 ‘State Of Play’:  Can BJP-Sena Retain The Erstwhile Congress Fortress?

Also read: Elections 2019 ‘State Of Play’: Advantage Modi-Nitish Courtesy Lenient Lalu?

Regional Variations Will Map Out The Results

Western Maharashtra which is a sugarcane belt is a bastion of the NCP. Its tally of four seats in 2014 came entirely from this region. Vidarbha and Marathwada form the cotton belt of the state and are also the epicentre of farmer suicides. NDA swept Vidarbha in the 2014 elections. Marathwada used to be a Congress stronghold. The mere two seats Congress won in Maharashtra in 2014 were from this region. Konkan is a Shiv Sena stronghold so is the Thane region. Maharashtra’s per capita income of Rs. 1.47 lakh is higher than the national average.

The inequality among different districts is significant with per capita income in Mumbai at Rs 2.59 lakh and Nandurbar at Rs. 66,000.

The Vidarbha region suffers from low income levels as well. Mumbai-Thane and Western Maharashtra are the swing regions, supporting UPA in 2009 and NDA in 2014.

Elections 2019 ‘State Of Play’:  Can BJP-Sena Retain The Erstwhile Congress Fortress?
Elections 2019 ‘State Of Play’:  Can BJP-Sena Retain The Erstwhile Congress Fortress?

Also read: Elections 2019 ‘State Of Play’: Modi Versus Mini-Modi In Odisha 

High Urbanisation Double-Edged Sword For BJP

Maharashtra is the third most-urbanised state in India among major states, at 45.2 percent of its population. In terms of the absolute number of persons living in urban areas, Maharashtra continues to lead with 5 crore persons which comprises 13.5 percent of the total urban population of the country. It’s an established fact that BJP has traditionally performed well in urban areas compared to rural areas. BJP’s vote share in rural India was 30 percent versus 42 percent in urban India in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections.

Its success rate in urban India was higher at 84 percent versus 63 percent in rural areas.
Elections 2019 ‘State Of Play’:  Can BJP-Sena Retain The Erstwhile Congress Fortress?

49 percent of Maharashtra's urban voters backed NDA in 2014, compared to 30 percent for UPA. In that Lok Sabha election, NDA swept the Mumbai-Thane region (10/10) and won most of the seats (7/11) in Western Maharashtra, the two predominant urban centers of the state.

However, the urban vote is not loyal, as we saw in past Lok Sabha elections.

In 2009, UPA received higher support than NDA in Maharashtra’s urban centers. The loss of jobs, a slowdown in the economy post demonetisation, and the lack of employment opportunities may lead to dissatisfaction among the urban youth and spoil NDA’s prospects. Unemployment is the second most important issue in the state, as per an India Today survey, but at a lower rank that the national average.

Also read: Elections 2019 ‘State Of Play’: Tamil Nadu’s Game Of Musical Chairs

Farm Distress Top Issue, Will It Affect Electoral Outcome?

30 percent of respondents in that India Today survey identified farm distress as the most important issue in the state, higher than the national average.

Maharashtra tops the list for farmer suicides in the country.

But the political ramifications of farm distress are unclear. Here are the trends as the farmer suicide situation worsened after 2004:

  • On average, 3,685 farmers in Maharashtra took their lives every year between 2004-13. Despite this, the Congress-NCP government was re-elected in 2004 as well as in 2009.
  • Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh featured among the top five states with the highest farmer suicides, but BJP enjoyed an uninterrupted 15-years in power in those two states between 2003 and 2018.
  • Andhra Pradesh was in the top five states as well, but there too Congress had a 10-year stint from 2004 to 2014.

Whether the distress in 2019 is different from past cycles will be known on May 23.

Leadership Ratings Favour Modi, But National Security Not A Big Issue

Narendra Modi’s popularity ratings have increased over the past 6 months by 6 percent while Rahul Gandhi’s have declined over the same period by 4 percent. Combining the numbers for Congress-NCP as allies, Rahul Gandhi plus Sharad Pawar still trail Modi by 16 percent.

Elections 2019 ‘State Of Play’:  Can BJP-Sena Retain The Erstwhile Congress Fortress?

This gives an initial impression that the Pulwama attack and subsequent Balakot air strike Airstrike would have boosted Modi’s ratings.

But the ‘key issues’ survey shows that terrorism is the top issue for only 7 percent of those surveyed in Maharashtra, versus a national average of 23 percent.

A note of caution on polling here. Incumbent prime ministers and chief ministers usually get a higher rating than opponents. Madhya Pradesh’s Shivraj Singh Chouhan and Chhattisgarh’s Raman Singh were way ahead of Congress leaders in the popularity ratings but still lost elections in those states.

Similarly, satisfaction with the Modi government has increased from 43 percent in October 2018 to 51 percent in March 2019. If this is not a ‘national security’ boost as just discussed, it could perhaps be attributed to the 10 percent reservation for economically weaker sections in the general category.

Elections 2019 ‘State Of Play’:  Can BJP-Sena Retain The Erstwhile Congress Fortress?

To sum up, the contest will hinge on Maharashtra voters’ assessments on Prime Minister Modi’s leadership, the rural-urban divide, farm distress, unemployment, anti-incumbency against sitting MPs, and whether BSP and VBA cut into NDA or UPA votes.

Amitabh Tiwari is a political commentator, strategist and consultant advising political parties and leaders. He was a corporate and investment banker.

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of BloombergQuint or its editorial team.