Political judgements based on opinion polls are hazardous at the best of times, but when there is a five-cornered fight like in Maharashtra, pollsters are often whistling in the dark. There were almost 50 constituencies in Maharashtra in 2009 where the margin was less than 5,000 votes, making any conclusive poll prediction a nightmare. And yet, let me stick my neck out on my home state: The BJP will be almost certainly the single-largest party and, in fact, should get a clear majority.
Forecasting a majority for the BJP in the 288-member Maharashtra assembly is as big a call as predicting the BJP winning a majority on its own in the 2014 general election. Then too, the BJP was operating in a relatively limited geographical area of north and western India and yet with an 80% plus strike rate in key states, the party scored a spectacular win. In Maharashtra too, the BJP once had a limited base, especially in rural Maharashtra, and yet, there is reason enough to believe that the party is poised to make a remarkable leap in this election.
Let’s put this in some context. The BJP’s best performance in Maharashtra till now has been the 65 seats it won in 1999, that too in alliance with the Shiv Sena. Its vote percentage has hovered between 13 and 17. Now, the party is looking at doubling its seats and its vote share, that too without any alliance with the Sena. In other words, the BJP is poised to become Maharashtra’s number one party, a feat considered unthinkable even a few months ago.
In 1990, I had tracked the length and breadth of Maharashtra in the first state election the BJP and Shiv Sena fought together. This was the height of the Ram Janmabhoomi movement and one could sense a certain energy in the cadre of the party. Accompanying me on a train journey into Vidarbha was a local BJP leader, Dharamchand Choradia. As a young journalist, I was being swept by the saffron surge around me: Bal Thackeray and LK Advani were attracting large crowds. “Looks like the saffron alliance will come to power,” I told Choradia. The veteran politician smiled: “Rajdeep, this is Maharashtra, not neighbouring Gujarat. Here, the people will come for our rallies but will go and vote for the Congress.” Why, I asked.
“Tradition. It will take more than one election to break it,” was his explanation.
He was right. From 1952 through to 1990, the Congress dominated Maharashtra politics. There were more seats in this state that the Congress had never lost than any other in the country. Maharashtra did not see a non-Congress chief minister till 1995 when Manohar Joshi of the Shiv Sena was sworn in, that too with the help of independents.
The far-sighted politics of post-Independence Congress leaders like YB Chavan, the consolidation of the co-operative movement, the ability of the Congress to embrace reformist Dalit and backward caste movements and the strong patron-client relations between the agrarian bourgeoisie and the industrial elite meant that Maharashtra was a Congress fortress. Even leaders like Sharad Pawar who stepped out of the Congress fold were eventually forced to return to the party.
Now, the one state which has stood by the Congress in the worst of times is set to shift towards the BJP. Narendra Modi and his Sancho Panza, Amit Shah, could well have done in Maharashtra what they so successfully managed in Uttar Pradesh in the general elections. Indeed, the similarities between UP and Maharashtra are uncanny. If the Akhilesh Yadav-led Samajwadi Party government stood discredited, so is the Congress-NCP government in Maharashtra. The state chief minister, Prithviraj Chavan, is being positioned as a Manmohan Singh-like figure: An honest, well-educated gent but also a political ‘bechara’ who has been unable to impose his presence on the state. Deputy chief minister Ajit Pawar’s plight is a shade worse: His remark asking people to urinate to fill dams during a drought last year still haunts him. In the public imagination, the Maharashtra government has been corrupt and callous.
The regional parties like the Shiv Sena and the MNS have also fallen into the same trap as identity-driven parties like the BSP in UP. By appealing to regional pride and attacking the prime minister as a ‘Gujarati’ leading Afzal Khan’s army, the two Senas have failed to understand the changing demographics of the electorate. The younger voter is less driven by the idea of ‘Marathi manoos’ and more attracted by the idea of jobs and rapid growth. More inclusive ‘identity-plus’ politics is the new success mantra.
The Modi-Shah combine has been astute enough in understanding the logic of this changing voter profile. Their formula is clear: Create a larger than life persona around Modi as an icon of governance. This involves a blitzkrieg of rallies and a sustained media exposure that penetrates right down to smaller villages; create sub-regional issues that will have a direct appeal to a voter (separate statehood in a Vidarbha, water scarcity in a Marathwada); strike micro-level alliances (example, with the Swabhimani Shetkari Sanghatana in western Maharashtra); and finally, use the RSS cadre as last-mile operators for an intensive door-to-door campaign.
By contrast, the Opposition has unwisely chosen to make ‘target Modi’ their single-point poll agenda. This might work to a limited extent in a Bihar by-election where the entire opposition was united; it is doomed in a state like Maharashtra, where the anti-Modi vote is being badly splintered. Indeed, if the BJP does win Maharashtra, the message is clear: Only a united Opposition and a credible local leadership (like a Naveen Patnaik in Odisha) have any chance of stopping the Modi-Shah juggernaut. As was the case with Indira Gandhi in the 1970s, state elections too could now begin to reflect a new reality: Modi versus the rest.