Between Marathas & Mahars

The die is cast. Parties in Maharashtra play musical chairs as caste politics churns implacably.
Between Marathas & Mahars
Combative
Sena chief Uddhav Thackeray last week
Photograph by PTI
Between Marathas & Mahars
outlookindia.com
2018-04-09T15:33:20+0530

Maharashtra Assembly Poll 2014

122 ⁄ 288

  • The BJP became the largest party in the assembly for the first time in 2014, bagging 122 of 288 seats. But they still needed the Sena’s 63 seats to form a government.

***

Some things simply don’t change, some do. In the past couple of years, the BJP almost matched Shiv Sena seat for seat in BMC elections, ­Maharashtra saw caste relations go through a tortuous vortex, and farmers now attempt suicide not in their farms but at the secretariat in ­Mumbai. Irony too could commit suicide as ­sundry political permutations and combinations are mulled over, with all parties innocent of the charge of ideology. The numbers in 2019 could be a matter of who’s sitting on which chair when the music stops.

The Shiv Sena set the game rolling, declaring it will go solo in elections. Now every party is readying its cadre for online and offline fights, though some parties may only be ­pretending to be sure of which side they’ll fight on. One ­dominant theme on everyone’s lips: they are determined to make victory difficult for the ruling BJP. And it’s building up some formidable momentum.

“We were the first to quit the alliance…we saw this ­government’s intentions. One by one, all allies are moving away,” says former MP Raju Shetti, leader of the Swabhimani Shetkari Sanghtana. “Yes, the opposition has much to sort out, but the BJP will lose at least 10-15 Lok Sabha seats in all major states. They won’t be able to form a government even if they get close to 200 because they won’t have any allies left.” Shetti was recently there for the ‘Sanvidhan Bachao Yatra’ with Congress and NCP leaders, including Sharad Pawar.

Maharashtra’s mood will be crucial in 2019. It has 48 Lok Sabha seats. Of this, the BJP-Sena, then in alliance, had bagged a whopping 42 in 2014. The Congress was skittled down from 17 seats to just two; the NCP tally halved to four. Experts now speculate whether the latter two, together, can wrest back 12-15 seats, leaving only 25 or so for the rest to fight over.

In October 2014, the BJP also took the state assembly as a majority partner for the first time, bagging 122 of the total 288 seats. But there was no time for triumphalism—it had to wait for the Sena, which had 63, to join the government. Since then the BJP’s fiercest critic has been its ally. Help had then come from Pawar’s NCP, which, tantalisingly, offered outside support. That’s why Neelam Gorhe, senior leader of Shiv Sena, admits: “It’s too early to speculate. Things change every three months.”

The political tic-tac-toe among parties happens at one ­rem­ove from social events. On the ground, it’s the Maratha agitation and incidents like Bhima Koregaon that will ­polarise voting patterns. On the Dalit side, Ramdas Athawale is still with the BJP, but Prakash Ambedkar has moved on to agitating with the young icon Jignesh Mevani. “The ­government won’t be able to deal with opposition from ­Marathas and Dalits at the same time, as they are both num­erically assertive,” says Girish Kuber, editor, Loksatta.

Deep symbolic themes are overlaid on more material ­concerns. Issues like reservations or farm procurement, MSPs and loan waiver—all of which affect the Maratha community—remain unresolved. This time last year the state government had thwarted the idea of a loan waiver as farmers struggled with a surplus toor dal crop. This year, six months after the biggest loan waiver announcement, its implementation is highly contested.

What of the Congress and its proposed ­all­iance? “We have challenges but we are also galvanised enough to make use of the current momentum,” says former MP Milind Deora. “Two kinds of voters suppor­ted the BJP: one believed in their polarising agenda; the other, a significant section, believed in their promise of development. The latter is disillusioned.”

But Sharad Pawar, the state’s tallest leader, is an enigma. And rumours are rife over the BJP taking action against his nephew Ajit as and when “required.” A Congress-NCP-Sen­a alliance is a theoretical possibility, but analysts reckon, even in this free-for-all, ideology can’t be shown to be as dead as that.


By Prachi Pinglay-Plumber in Mumbai

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