IF the stupendous victory of the 2014 Lok Sabha elections was attributed to the wave of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, then the 2019 Lok Sabha elections at least in Maharashtra appears to be a test for his blue-eyed boy, Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis. After riding high on the 2014 wave, Fadnavis has since systematically begun demolishing the power structure in the cooperative sector that the Congress and its clone, the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP), had built in the state since 1960. It will also be an epitaph of NCP president Sharad Pawar and his grip on the cooperative sector, control over his own family, the state and national politics and on his own party.
For Fadnavis, it will be a test of the plan that he has executed to systematically demolish this source of power for the Congress and the NCP, by decontrolling the cooperative sector and grassroots local government bodies. It will also test his claim of adding on to the 2014 tally of 42 seats, and making a clean sweep of all the 48 Lok Sabha seats in Maharashtra. If he (Fadnavis) succeeds in his plans to rip out the heart and soul out of the Congress-NCP, it will catapult him to the national scene and raise his stature. It will be interesting to see whether the 2019 Lok Sabha elections proves to be a ‘endgame’ for the Congress-NCP or backfires miserably on the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).
Why Maharashtra is so crucial for the BJP in its bid to secure or even better its 2014 Lok Sabha mandate, is that besides Uttar Pradesh (80 seats), West Bengal (42 seats), Tamil Nadu (39 seats) and Bihar (40 seats), because there are eight other states that have 20 or more Lok Sabha seats which include – Andhra Pradesh (25 seats), Gujarat (26 seats), Karnataka (28 seats), Kerala (20 seats), Madhya Pradesh (29 seats), Odisha (21 seats) and Rajasthan (25 seats). These 12 states alone account for 423 out of the 543 Lok Sabha seats. The rest of the 10 states and Union Territories account for the rest of the 120 Lok Sabha seats.
HENCE, improving or bettering its electoral performance of 2014 in Uttar Pradesh, Maharashtra and Bihar, where it is in a better position of strength, is so crucial for the BJP to retain power in New Delhi. Any probable loss of seats in Uttar Pradesh if compensated in Gujarat, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Karnataka and Odisha can still put the BJP in pole position in 2019. But the recent electoral reverses or near scares in Gujarat, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Karnataka will be a matter of concern for the BJP. Hence, Maharashtra with its second largest 48 Lok Sabha seats is so crucial for the BJP in its quest for retaining power in New Delhi.
Political winds have certainly changed their directions at least in Maharashtra and for NCP chief Sharad Pawar. Of late, even Prime Minister Narendra Modi has been sarcastically hitting back hard at the NCP chief repeatedly referring to him being wily enough to gauge the directions of political winds and thinking hard before taking any decision. Pawar senior must have realised there is a marked difference between his late rival in the Congress, former Chief Minister Sudhakarrao Naik and BJP’s Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis. Late Sudhakarrao Naik had also almost steadily demolished the NCP chief’s power source and support base, i.e., the cooperative sector. The 1992-93 communal riots in Mumbai, post demolition of the Babri Masjid proved to be the undoing for Naik and provided an escape valve for Pawar to return to Maharashtra as the Chief Minister.
According to some political analysts in Maharashtra, Fadnavis has proved more crafty, wily and more than a match for the NCP chief. He has decontrolled the Agriculture Produce Market Committees (APMCs), allowing the farmers to sell their produce directly in the open market, bypassing the middlemen. Fadnavis has cracked down hard on Non-Performing Assets (NPAs) in the cooperative sugar mills and district cooperative banks, sending recovery notices to mill owners who had taken government subsidy but had failed to start their businesses on time. This made farmers the rightful stakeholders in the cooperative bodies in the state which until now were being controlled by the political cronies of the sugar and cooperative barons.
It is little wonder then that the NCP’s 2019 Lok Sabha manifesto talks about reintroducing the middlemen culture back into the APMC setup. Besides cracking down and trying to set things in order in the cooperative sector, Fadnavis introduced direct elections to top posts like Mayors, Chairmans and Presidents in grassroots civic bodies. Since 2014, the BJP has managed to dethrone the Congress and NCP from most of the civic bodies in the state, thereby politically crippling the Congress and NCP to a great extent. With their traditional support base gone, most of the Congress and NCP leaders, their sons and daughters have begun to queue up at the BJP’s doorstep in a bid to ensure their long-term political survival.
AS the proverbial last throw of the dice in a bid to throw the Fadnavis government off guard, agitations like the Maratha agitation for reservation quota, the Koregaon-Bhima riots, the farmers’ agitation for better remunerative and procurement prices for their produce, the alleged farmers’ suicides in Mantralaya, the official seat of the government, or the statewide farmers’ agitation for complete loan waiver were staged. But Fadnavis was more than a match deftly tackling every challenge thrown at him. Fadnavis granted the Marathas their job quota, even gave the upper castes a reservation quota, handled the Kopardi rape case pacifying the agitated Maratha community and gave the farmers probably one of the biggest loan waiver packages ever. Besides this, there is the big infrastructure push by Fadnavis in the Samruddhi corridor, spreading the Metro rail network in Mumbai, Thane, Pune and Nagpur.
Much to the dismay of the Congress and NCP chief Sharad Pawar, after four years of bickering and fighting, the Shiv Sena and the BJP re-stitched their alliance. The Sena-BJP was done with its seat sharing while the Congress-NCP cemented their poll pact much later. What is significant to note here is that despite the open verbal duels between the Sena-BJP leaders, both Sena president Uddhav Thackeray and Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis kept their friendship and their backdoor channels of communications open. So when the time came for rejoining the broken alliance, it was done without much ado from both the sides. That dashed half of the hopes of the Congress, NCP of any possible revival of their electoral fortunes.
As some political analysts sarcastically say this time around the BJP needs the Sena more than what the latter needs. The political grapevine here is that in order to ensure that every Lok Sabha seat is accounted for in its bid to retain power in New Delhi, the BJP might even run the errands, do the campaigning for the Sena to ensure that the Sena wins the 23 seats it is contesting this time.
While the Sena and the BJP is almost done with its selection of candidates, the Congress and the NCP has been struggling to find decent candidates to take on the Sena-BJP. The worst for the Congress came as Congress president Rahul Gandhi replaced Mumbai Congress president Sanjay Nirupam just as the battle for the 2019 Lok Sabha elections had begun. The BJP is already harping on the fact that the Congress had to change its general of the army even before the battle had begun, and the NCP chief was forced to pull out of the race, leaving the field wide open for the Sena-BJP.
To make matters worse, state Congress president Ashok Chavan in desperation confided privately that he could not have his say in candidate selection and was contemplating stepping down from his post. The fact that Congress president Rahul Gandhi was highly displeased with Dr Sujay Vikhe-Patil, son of Congress leader of opposition in legislative assembly, Radhakrishna Vikhe-Patil leaving the Congress fold and joining the BJP tells a lot of the state of affairs in the Congress.
Apparently, the wheels of fortune appear to be coming off, his grip on the state’s politics, on his own party and that on his own family seems to be loosening for NCP chief Sharad Pawar. Prime Minister Narendra Modi too harped on the turmoil within the Pawar family, warning the former BCCI president that his own cousin AjitPawar was trying to get him (Sharad Pawar) out by hit-wicket. It is an open secret by now, that the NCP chief after having announced his intentions to contest the Lok Sabha from Madha constituency, was forced to retract his decision and instead announce the candidature of Ajit Pawar’s son Parth.
Pawar senior was apparently forced to set aside the candidature of his own grandson Rohit Pawar in favour of Ajit Pawar’s son Parth Pawar, all indicative of the fact that the NCP is in the grip of an intense power struggle between Ajit Pawar and Sharad Pawar. Like any other political patriarch the NCP chief might well have longed for his daughter and Lok Sabha MP SupriyaSule to take on the mantle of leadership from him. But it does seem that AjitPawar is now slowly trying to exert his influence and trying to take control of party affairs into his own hands.
For a man who has been sarcastically taunted at being well versed in taking care of nephews of his political rivals, his inability to quell rebellion within his own family speaks volumes of the dwindling clout and the beginning of a downward slide in political fortunes for NCP chief Sharad Pawar. Or is it too early to predict the beginning of the end of an era? Pawar senior might well have his last laugh as the sword of Damocles of the investigation into the multi-crore Irrigation scam hangs dangerously over the head of Ajit Pawar.
IF one were to look at the performance of the opposition Congress, NCP alliance in the 2014 Lok Sabha polls and their steady downward electoral graph in the subsequent civic elections paints a grim picture. Out of the 6 seats the Congress and NCP won in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, 4 of the NCP wins came from its stronghold in Western Maharashtra that has 11 Lok Sabha seats, and two of the Lok Sabha seats for the Congress came from Marathwada region which has eight Lok Sabha seats. This time around, political analysts believe it will be an uphill task for both the Congress and the NCP to retain the Lok Sabha seats they won in 2014 Lok Sabha elections. Between the two, the Shiv Sena and BJP and its allies had mopped up 42 Lok Sabha seats. Given the disarray in the Congress, NCP camp, Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis is confident of a clean sweep of all the 48 Lok Sabha seats in Maharashtra.
Just as it seemed smooth sailing for the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) its estranged ruling ally the Shiv Sena extracted its pound of flesh by ensuring that the BJP bowed to its pressure and denied party ticket to its sitting Lok Sabha MP from Mumbai North-East, Dr Kirit Somaiya. In the run up to the 2017 elections to the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) Somaiya apparently acting on the instructions of his party bosses, took on the Sena ruled BMC leveling serious allegations of corruption and even calling Sena president Uddhav Thackeray “mafia” of Bandra. Sena used that as a pre-condition while re-establishing its fractured pre-poll alliance with the BJP.
If that was not enough, junior Sena minister of state for Textiles Arjun Khotkar almost threw a spanner in the wheels of state BJP president, sitting Lok Sabha MP from Jalna and former Union Minister, Raosaheb Danve. Khotkar too announced his intentions to revolt if the BJP renominated Danve. The BJP leadership somehow had to pacify Khotkar into withdrawing his revolt. Furthermore, sitting BJP Lok Sabha MP from Wardha, Ramdas Tadas has landed himself and the party in a soup after a sting operation revealed that he had allegedly propped up paid dummy Independent candidates to cut into votes of rival Congress, NCP candidate. The latest to raise the banner of revolt is state BJP treasurer and noted Fashion Designer Shaina NC who apparently sidelined in the party has now demanded more tickets be given to women candidates.
In Jalgaon too the BJP is facing revolt from within after it denied ticket to its sitting MP A T Nana Patil and instead gave the ticket to sitting MLC Smita Wagh. The party is now contemplating nominating its sitting MLA Unmesh Patil from Chalisgaon. Suddenly the BJP is now doing a fire-fighting job in its own backyard, but also trying to pacify its estranged NDA allies. This has given some hope for the faltering Congress, NCP led opposition. Already the sparse attendance to the first election rally of Prime Minister Narendra Modi in Wardha on All Fools Day, apparently has raised anxiety levels within the BJP.
Another reason for the BJP and more so for the Sena to worry about is that the Raj Thackeray led Maharashtra Navnirman Sena (MNS) has decided to support the Congress, NCP led opposition alliance. Its leaders are now openly seen joining campaign trails of Congress, NCP candidates in Mumbai. If that gains momentum then the MNS is expected to cut into the traditional vote bank of the Sena, upsetting its calculations in Mumbai, Thane, Nashik and Konkan region. After having whole-heartedly supporting Modi and BJP in 2014 polls, Raj Thackeray has done a complete U turn after meeting NCP chief Sharad Pawar and has since launched a tirade against the BJP and Modi. However, the flip-flops of Raj Thackeray has damaged his own image, the miniscule votes that he commands could well be enough to upset the BJPs apple cart.
All of a sudden Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis claim that the BJP-Sena alliance would sweep the stakes in Maharashtra appears to be wobbly. Political analysts feel that the NCP might somehow retain its strongholds in Western Maharashtra. According to sources, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) too is appearing apprehensive about BJPs chances of getting absolute majority on its own. Already plans are afoot to project Union Minister for Road Transport Nitin Gadkari as the man to replace Modi, should the BJP fall short of the majority mark on its own, minus its NDA allies.
According to some political analysts the Congress poll promise of Rs 72,000 per year into the accounts of the poor seems to be gaining ground in rural Maharashtra, which is another cause for worry for the BJP. The Congress, NCP led opposition alliance appears to have gained some winds in its sails now and is giving a tough fight to the ruling BJP-Sena alliance. Analysts opine that the Congress, NCP alliance is expected to give a tough fight and could even cause some upsets to the BJP-Sena in Mumbai, Thane, Nashik, Konkan region, in Vidarbha and Marathwada regions. If that happens, Fadnavis plans of elevating himself to the national political scene might have to be shelved for some time now. There is still some 25 days left for the polling to end in the four phased elections in Maharashtra and already the winds of political fortune are swinging wildly even before the polling in the first phase of polling is to end on April 11.