OPINION: Last phase of Maharashtra LS Polls – Will BJP-Sena retain its stronghold?

Abhilash Khandekar
FILE: Prime Minister Narendra Modi along with CM Devendra Fadnavis and Shiv Sena President Uddhav Thackarey in Mumbai, December 2016. Photo - PTI

FILE: Prime Minister Narendra Modi along with CM Devendra Fadnavis and Shiv Sena President Uddhav Thackeray in Mumbai, December 2016. Photo – PTI

As the 72 Lok Sabha seats go to polls across nine states today all eyes are on Mumbai, the financial capital of India, completely dominated by BJP-Shiv Sena alliance in 2014.

The fourth phase of the seven-phase voting will see as many as nine states’ electors shaping the destiny of many top leaders. In Maharashtra, the last phase will witness contests figuring BJYM chief Poonam Mahajan, Congress leader Priya Dutt, Bollywood star turned-politician Urmila Matondkar, former Union Minister Milind Deora, Union Minister of State for Defence Subhash Bhamre, among others.

Maharashtra is politically significant among the states going to polls in this round as the state has a maximum number of seats (48) following Uttar Pradesh’s 80 and the outcome will, in some measure, decide Narendra Modi’s fate. All of the 17 seats in the last phase of Maharashtra were won by the BJP-Shiv Sena alliance in 2014. So the question looms large whether the alliance will be able to retain its stranglehold?

Between 2014 and 2019, Maharashtra has seen many political ups and downs, especially the shrill Maratha reservation protests, ostensibly organised to destabilise the Bramhin Chief Minister Devendra Fadanvis and secondly, the strained ties between an anti-Congress coalition of the right-wing parties who are partners in the state government. The five years also saw Fadanvis going from strength to strength and Sharad Pawar-led Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) loosening its grip across Maharashtra. Political observers had said that the massive ‘ apolitical ‘ agitation by Maratha community launched in almost all districts demanding reservation in government jobs last year, was at the behest of past master Pawar who was guiding it from behind. But the OBCs also gave a tit for tat by organising equally strong protest agitation against Marathas. Both will have some impact on these elections.

Mumbai: Congress's candidate from Mumbai North constituency Urmila Matondkar with Nationalist Congress Party President Sharad Pawar during an election rally for Lok Sabha polls, at Borivali West in Mumbai, Saturday, April 27, 2019. (PTI Photo)

Mumbai: Congress’s candidate from Mumbai North constituency Urmila Matondkar with Nationalist Congress Party President Sharad Pawar during an election rally for Lok Sabha polls, at Borivali West in Mumbai, Saturday, April 27, 2019. (PTI Photo)

The LS constituencies going to polls not only include all six Mumbai segments, but also four of the north Maharashtra seats, including tribal dominated Nandurbar, Dhule, Dindori and wine capital of India–Nashik. It was in the Nashik district that the Malegaon blasts had taken place in 2008 and which are now casting their long, dark shadow over Maharashtra and Madhya Pradesh, thanks to BJP’s last-minute decision to field controversial candidate Sadhvi Pragya Thakur from Bhopal against Congress stalwart Digvijaya Singh.She is one of the accused in the blasts case and is out on bail. Her bewildering statement that her shrap (curse) had killed Maharashtra police officer Hemant Karkare in the terrorist attack is sure to jolt the Marathi vote bank across Maharashtra, feel observers in Mumbai. Even BJP was stunned by the remark and quickly distanced from it, officially.

The 17 seats of which BJP had bagged eight and Uddhav Thackeray’s Shiv Sena had won nine seats, leaving Congress and NCP nowhere, was the best ever performance of the saffron parties. In fact, Congress had finished pathetically in the state winning only two seats, including Nanded from where PCC chief and former CM Ashok Chavan had won in the Modi wave. The other was Hingoli, also in Marathwada.

The political pendulum has swung considerably since the last polls. Bala Saheb Thackeray had passed away in 2012 and the general election held two years later proved to be an acid test for Uddhav’s leadership. Riding on Modi wave and sympathy factor, both BJP and Shiv Sena did extremely well. The Congress-NCP was in government in Mumbai and the massive irrigation scam plus the anti-incumbency factor had helped the opposition in the general elections in a big way.

That the BJP government did not touch Ajit Pawar, then deputy chief minister and allegedly involved in the multi-crore scam is a different story. BJP insiders, in fact, wonder why the Modi government chose Sharad Pawar for the top civilian award of Padma Vibhushan three years ago. But clearly, these are not the polling issues today.

While largely Fadanvis government has done well in four and half years in Maharashtra, the tense relationship between the two alliance partners had confused the party cadres as also the voters for the most part of the five years. On the eve of the elections the two patched up. ”  Hath to mil gaye, lekin dil mile hai kya ”  asked a Congress leader from Mumbai while taking a dig at BJP and Shiv Sena stitching up the tattered alliance. However, to show that Sena is in sync with BJP, Thackeray was there in toe when Amit Shah filed his nomination from Gandhinagar and then two days ago at Kashi, with Modi. The optics were perfect.

The region going to polls on Monday is though far away from Marathwada and Vidarbha, the two regions known for farmers distress, it’s not that the ruling alliance will have things going easy for them. Farmers suicides continue in Nashik, the onion and grapes producing belt. In the past few days a number of farmers ended their life, said Jay Prakash Pawar, editor of leading Marathi daily Divya Marathi, while talking to RSTV.

Mumbai (six seats), Nashik, Thane, Kalyan, Bhiwandi and Shirur and Maval ( Pune district ) are largely urban centres or satellite cities of Mumbai. Here the issues are not directly connected to farmers, though a few belts in Nashik, Maval and Dindori seats have large tracts of agriculture. Jobless growth, nationalism, GDP are easily understandable in the highly educated and fairly rich area in and around Mumbai. Shirdi, one of largest religious centres of India, falls in the agro rich district of Ahmednagar. But the farmers here are slightly off than their counterparts in Vidarbha and Marathwada due to better irrigation facilities.

Keen contests being followed by political observers are between Milind Deora, supported openly by richest Indian businessman Mukesh Ambani, and sitting Shiv Sena candidate Arvind Sawant and Congress debutant Urmila Matondkar versus BJP veteran Gopal Shetty. Priya, a reluctant candidate, is taking on BJP’s Poonam Mahajan who is known to be very active all these years whereas Dutt was inactive since her loss last time round. She was unwilling to contest but Rahul Gandhi reportedly persuaded her. The two attractive young ladies battle it out again in 2019 for control over the posh Mumbai North Central.

While both Modi and Rahul Gandhi have visited Maharashtra for rallies, Modi held his public rally in the financial hub of BKC to talk about what Mumbaikars understand best–GDP growth and infrastructure development.

Mumbai is well represented in Modi cabinet with Suresh Prabhu and powerful Piyush Goyal, both RS members, holding important portfolios of Commerce and Railways. And with unblemished Fadanvis Government, Mumbai should return a good number of seats all over again.

Poll observers point out to interesting statistics which say Mumbaikars normally do not go to vote in big numbers. In 1999, only 45% voted while the next time it grew by two per cent to 47%; in 2005 and in 2009 it dipped again to 40-41% to rise to a record 53.66% in 2014.

Mumbai votes on Monday again but amidst conflicting reports of the economy growing under Modi or India going through a slowdown especially in real estate and jewellery sector with jobs disappearing fast.

Hence the doubt over the 6-0 performance persists, this time around.

-Abhilash Khandekar, Senior Journalist