A curious election littered with many firsts is taking place in Maharashtra. A 49 year old Brahmin from Nagpur appears set to be re-elected for a second five year term in a Maratha-dominated polity. A 29 year old member of the Thackeray family is actually contesting an election. The BJP has pushed the original sons of the soil regional force, Shiv Sena to a secondary position in its long-standing alliance. The ageing Sharad Pawar, Maharashtra’s tallest leader over nearly half a century, is fighting hard to keep his family, leave aside his party, together. And the Congress, once Maharashtra’s premier political party, is now battling for relevance.
Indeed, if there is one state that perhaps best exemplifies the decline of the Congress and the rise of the BJP, it is Maharashtra. This, after all, is a state where the combined Congress-NCP vote share has never gone below 30 per cent. This isn’t UP where the Congress is a single digit party nor a state which has seen a SP-BSP style political revolution. This is a state where the non-Congress opposition has never won a majority on its own: in 1995, the BJP-Sena came to power with the support of independents and rebels and in 2014, the two parties came together only after the results to form a government. Maharashtra is the ultimate Congress citadel; now, the fortress has not just been breached but is in danger of totally crumbling.
To understand this dramatic transformation, it is necessary to realise how Maharashtra became a Congress dominant state. The concept of the Congress as a ‘sarva-samaj’ umbrella party which could accommodate different interest groups within its fold was the basis for Congress hegemony in Maharashtra in the post independence era. An enlightened leadership, including the likes of YB Chavan, were able to build multiple social, economic and political alliances with caste, community and rural-urban forces and weld them together into a durable, seemingly impregnable power sharing coalition. That coalition now has been dismantled, perhaps forever.
The first blow was struck when the Hindutva alliance in the early 90s legitimised the politics of religious polarisation, especially in urban Maharashtra. The second breach came from within when Sharad Pawar in 1999 broke away for a second time from the Congress and took away a number of younger Congress leaders, especially from western Maharashtra, with him. The third break came when the social churning among non Maratha OBC groups found space within the BJP and Sena, especially in the more backward regions of the state like Vidarbha and Marathwada. The fourth jolt came with increased Dalit assertion, especially among empowered Dalit youth, who are unwilling to be co-opted by traditional elites and are grouping under alternate forces like the Prakash Ambedkar-led Vanchit Bahujan Aghadi. The final nail is being driven in 2019 with the Maratha leadership deserting the Congress for the BJP.
The Marathas were at the apex of the power pyramid, a dominant agrarian caste that used its numerical majority to monopolise power and resources for decades. No other single caste has exercised such a monopolistic control over power for such an extended period of time in any other part of the country. All battles for supremacy were fought within the Maratha factions with limited outside interference. Even the mighty Indira Gandhi was unable to rein in the warring Maratha groups: her attempts to impose chief ministers like AR Antulay never fully succeeded. Now it seems that the Narendra Modi-Amit Shah-Devendra Fadnavis troika may succeed where even the Indira-led Congress failed in dividing and ruling over the Marathas.
The crafty Fadnavis has followed a carrot and stick policy in dealing with the Maratha regional chieftains. Giving in to the vociferous demand for Maratha reservations was a key step in wooing the younger generation of Marathas who felt they were losing out in a competitive job market. The carrot of reservation was followed by the stick of systematically targeting the financial clout of local Maratha leaders who might offer political opposition. At the core of the Maratha financial muscle is the vast network of co-operatives – sugar, dairy, banks — that have been tightly controlled through a web of patron-client relationships with farmer-cultivators. The ‘cash and carry’ business model of the co-operative sector has seen many sugar co-operatives being pushed to the brink and even run foul of the law. With the withdrawal of state protection offered under Congress rule, the Fadnavis government was able to send a firm message to the sugar barons and their henchmen: fall in line or else. It should come as no surprise that several of the Maratha leaders who have switched to the BJP are those with a number of pending cases against their institutions.
In a sense, the Fadnavis-led government in Maharashtra, much like the Modi regime in Delhi, has shown itself to be the ‘new’ Congress, able to wield the levers of power with dexterity and a degree of ruthlessness. But where the Congress expended far too much of its political capital in internal squabbling, the Fadnavis government has shown a single-minded determination in using its tenure to demolish the opposition through artful political management . The Sena has been tamed by drawing a lakshman rekha to its role in government: the party has been reduced to a flailing opposition within, noise and fury signifying very little. Many of the Congress and NCP senior leaders have been compromised by their past deeds and are vulnerable to retail poaching.
Moreover, where the Congress high command did not empower state leaders — even Pawar was constantly undermined when in the party — the BJP has given the likes of Fadnavis a considerable degree of autonomy and authority. In a personality driven election eco system, the BJP has successfully nurtured a viable regional face. Which is why, despite no shortage of local issues from water scarcity to non performing legislators, the BJP is in pole position to sweep the state. If the 2019 national election was the TIMO election (there is Modi only), the Maharashtra may well be the TIFO mandate (there is Fadnavis only).
Post-script: At a recent media conclave, I asked Fadnavis as to why the BJP was embracing the very political leaders it had deemed corrupt when it was in the opposition in Maharashtra. “Show me one leader we have taken who has an ED case against him!” was his clear-cut response. Forget other cases of corruption, the Enforcement Directorate seems to be the new benchmark while determining political untouchability!