Maharashtra Elections: Why The ‘Narendra + Devendra’ Formula Has Been Potent
Around nine crore voters in Maharashtra will be exercising their franchise on Oct. 21 and the results will be declared on Oct. 24. After publicly voicing differences for months, the Bharatiya Janata Party and Shiv Sena kept their National Democratic Alliance intact, as did the United Progressive Alliance duo—Congress and Nationalist Congress Party.
Early opinion polls conducted before the model code of conduct took effect, suggest that the NDA is likely to retain power on the popularity of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis, fusing their public image with the flagship schemes launched by the BJP-led governments at the centre and the state. The NDA has also tuned its poll pitch to ride on the steps taken by Delhi to dilute Article 370. Meanwhile, the UPA has been hit by an exodus of leaders, indicating their loss of confidence about winning on Congress or NCP tickets. A word of caution, opinion polls can go wrong and have done so a few times in the past.
While the BJP-led NDA repeated its winning streak in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, bagging 41 out of 48 seats, the Congress-NCP alliance suffered its third-straight big defeat in the state.
Maharashtra, which has been a Congress citadel since the state’s formation in 1960, is now clearly becoming a saffron fortress.
Role Reversal In NDA, BJP Now The Big Brother
On paper, the Shiv Sena-BJP alliance has completed 30 years. For much of that time, until 2014 to be precise, Shiv Sena was the dominant partner in the relationship. It used to contest on a higher number of seats. In 1995, when the first Sena-BJP government was formed in Maharashtra, senior Sena leader Manohar Joshi became the chief minister. The Modi victory in the 2014 general election changed this equation forever. In the assembly elections which followed six months later, BJP demanded an equal number of seats, which was rejected outright by the Sena. The partners split and contested separately.
BJP emerged as the single-largest party, bagging almost double the tally of the Sena. The two partners came together to form the government with BJP taking the chief minister’s chair. Initially, the Sena wasn’t able to digest this. It became a bitter critic of the government.
Things came to such a pass that the Shiv Sena was playing the role of an opposition party, within the NDA.
It was uncertain whether the alliance would continue for the 2019 Lok Sabha elections. A year earlier, the Sena had announced it would contest alone. However, the two parties patched-up, on the condition that they will contest an equal number of seats in the Lok Sabha and forthcoming assembly elections.
However, after its massive victory in the Lok Sabha polls, BJP gained an upper hand. The BJP had won 23 out of 25 Lok Sabha seats it contested, while Sena won 18 out of 23. The BJP subsequently pushed for a departure from the months-old equal-seats arrangement, and got its way. While BJP is contesting in 164 constituencies, including 14 for smaller allies like RPI which are contesting on the BJP’s lotus symbol, the Shiv Sena is contesting only in 124 seats.
Even after deducting seats for allies, BJP is contesting on 150 seats, 26 more than Sena.
In the interest of keeping the party together and sharing power, the Sena leadership has decided to go ahead with the alliance and accept the fact that it is a junior partner now.
With Marathas In The Fold, BJP Completes Its Caste Coalition
Like most states in India, caste plays a big role in elections in Maharashtra. Marathas, who account for one-third of the population, have dominated the political map in the state for decades. 45 percent of all cabinet ministers the state has had from 1960 to 2010 belonged to the Maratha-Kunbi community, as per a CSDS study.
The rich and powerful in the Maratha community have always been close to the corridors of power. Congress has been the dominant party and Marathas the dominant caste for much of Maharashtra’s 59-year history. In the 1990s, when BJP started spreading its wings in the state, it targeted other backward classes and upper-caste voters, accounting for 26 percent of the population. Meanwhile, the Shiv Sena’s call to the Marathi Manoos was more linguistic and ethnic, than caste-based.
In the Amit Shah era, the BJP has successfully followed a strategy of not focusing on the dominant caste, consolidating all the other caste groups and then forcing the dominant caste to make amends with the party to enjoy powers of position – in government and organisation.
Think of how the BJP now enjoys support among Yadavs in Uttar Pradesh, Vokkaligas in Karnataka, Patidars in Gujarat... and Marathas in Maharashtra.
In 2014, BJP surprised many by picking a brahmin chief minister in Devendra Fadnavis, which risked antagonising the powerful Maratha community. However, with the Fadnavis government’s 16 percent Maratha reservation decision that has been upheld by the courts, the BJP has been able to bring Maratha leaders and voters into its fold.
It’s also likely that Marathas, like other dominant groups elsewhere in India, cannot sustain being out of power for very long. Anticipating a poor outcome for Congress-NCP, Marathas have switched loyalties. Many top leaders of the community including Shivaji’s descendants have joined the BJP over the last few years.
Through its innovative social engineering, the NDA now boasts of support from an unbeatable coalition of upper-caste, Marathas, OBCs, and Dalits.
NDA Now Completely Dominant Across Regions
In many ways, a Maharashtra election is six elections rolled into one.
The six regions – North, Konkan, Mumbai-Thane, Western, Vidarbha and Marathwada – have different caste profiles, food habits, cultures, and prosperity levels.
Western Maharashtra, which is a sugarcane belt, has been a bastion of Sharad Pawar’s NCP.
Vidarbha and Marathwada are the cotton belts of the state and have also been the epicentre of farmer suicides.
The Greater Mumbai region, which is the state’s primary urban centre, has traditionally been an NDA stronghold.
For many elections, Marathwada used to vote for the Congress.
Since its inception in 1966, the Sena got a dominant share of its seats from Konkan and Thane.
Three regions, Mumbai-Thane, Western Maharashtra and Vidharbha, account for two-thirds of the seats in the assembly.
Western Maharashtra has the highest number of seats (70), while Konkan the lowest (15). Even before the Modi-era, the BJP was the strongest in the state’s urban areas. The neo-aspirational middle class found the development agenda proposed by the BJP appealing.
Over the last 15 years, the NDA has consolidated its position in the Mumbai-Thane region.
Since 2014, the BJP has been displacing NCP as the dominant party in Western Maharashtra. This is the second most-urbanised and economically well-to-do region in the state, which has helped BJP make inroads.
Rural Vidarbha and Marathwada, which for decades were Congress bastions, have now turned toward the BJP as well.
Across all the six regions, NDA now enjoys a handsome lead versus UPA.
Fadnavis Has Consolidated His Hold Over Party And State
State assembly elections after Narendra Modi's 2014 Lok Sabha win have witnessed a new trend. The party whose leader is ahead in the opinion poll race for ‘who is best-suited to be CM?’ usually goes on to win the state elections.
A note of caution, though, incumbent chief minister rate a notch or two higher by default in such surveys because of higher name recall. This gets skewed further in situations where the opposition has not named a CM candidate.
At a time when a growing number of people are giving more weight to the leadership question while going out to cast their vote, this assumes significance.
In a recent ABP opinion poll, Devendra Fadnavis led the pack for ‘most preferred CM’. Fadnavis was the choice of 39 percent of respondents, with Congress' Ashok Chavan and NCP chief Sharad Pawar trailing by a big margin – with just 5 percent support for each. Fadnavis has come a long way since being the surprise choice for chief minister in 2014.
Fadnavis’ handling of the farmer crisis and the Maratha reservation agitation has cemented his position as the foremost leader in the state. His influence is clearly visible on the BJP’s ticket distribution, where a number of BJP state heavyweights have been excluded. He has handled the delicate relationship with Shiv Sena with care. Fadnavis has also effectively followed Amit Shah’s policy of poaching leaders in areas where the BJP organisation is weak. His soft, non-controversial and development-oriented image gives a boost to his rankings.
Fadnavis is only the second chief minister of Maharashtra to have completed a full five-year term.
To sum up, a listless opposition that is grappling with serious infighting, the continuing popularity of Narendra Modi and Amit Shah, the pro-poor schemes of the central and state governments, high leadership ratings for Devendra Fadnavis, and the ‘There Is No Alternative’ or TINA Factor, are all helping the BJP in its bid to retain power.
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.