Maharashtra has been transitioning into a new party system over the past few years, with the BJP trying hard to replace the Congress as the dominant party in the State. In the run-up to the Assembly election on October 21, the big question, therefore, is not about the possible electoral victory of the BJP-Shiv Sena alliance. Given the scale of the BJP’s victories in two consecutive Lok Sabha elections and with evident political frustrations in the Opposition camp, the victory of the saffron alliance is, in fact, a foregone conclusion. The real question is whether, and to what extent, the Assembly election will help the BJP in its ambitious mission of ‘shat pratishat Bhajapa’ (100% BJP) and of making the State the new Gujarat of the party.
It is an interesting poser at this juncture. On the one hand, the BJP has already acquired a leading role in the State’s politics. If the 2014 election symbolised the demise of the regional Congress system, the resounding electoral success of the BJP (and the Shiv Sena) in 2019 converted Maharashtra into a BJP stronghold along with other States like Gujarat. These successes were mostly in tune with the overall national mood of the time. However, even at the State level, the party’s prudent management of the pro-incumbency sentiment during the five years of its rule, clever manipulations of its long-term association with the Sena, and its ability to diffuse the potential opposition emerging out of simmering social conflicts seem to have paid off. The BJP’s growing control over urban local bodies and financial institutions along with its national-level clout has attracted — and continues to attract — many big and small leaders of the Congress to its fold, effectively neutralising political opposition.
Yet, the party is running a high-voltage campaign in the State. Even before the announcement of the elections, it had organised the ‘Mahajanadesh Yatra’ (literally, a mega march for the people’s verdict) in order to showcase the achievements of the State government over the past five years. The election campaign has seen multiple rallies of many national leaders including the Prime Minister and the party president. Chief Minister Devendra Fadanvis is keen to cover as many constituencies as possible to ensure that the party wins a majority of seats on its own. Such aggressive campaigning indicates recognition of the somewhat shaky, contingent nature of BJP’s hold over Maharashtra politics despite its recent electoral successes.
Impact of small parties
The long-standing dominance of the Congress in Maharashtra was an outcome of a neat management of complex political, social and economic factors. As the post-Congress polity gradually unfolded in Maharashtra’s politics, changes made the social, political and economic management increasingly unwieldy not only for the Congress but for any single political party. Unless the BJP is able to repair these torn equations, it may not be able to effectively establish its political dominance in Maharashtra despite its immediate poll successes.
The changing patterns of political competition in the State are only one kind of manifestation of the unwieldy state of affairs. After its decisive decline in 2014, no party has been able to claim the political space evacuated by the Congress on its own. Unlike Gujarat or Rajasthan, Maharashtra never witnessed a straightforward electoral contest between the Congress and the BJP. Instead, the regional party system in Maharashtra was woven around two rival alliances. It has retained a vibrant multi-nodal character in the post-Congress phase and has witnessed proliferation of many small parties. Given the closed nature of political competition in parliamentary elections, the BJP could use the presence of these small parties to its advantage in the Lok Sabha election in 2019. However, this may not be the case in the Assembly election. If one goes by sheer arithmetic calculations on the basis of Lok Sabha outcomes, the BJP-Sena alliance seems to have control over nearly 230 (out of 288) Vidhan Sabha constituencies. However, these calculations stand seriously compromised for the Assembly election.
The BJP-Sena alliance has always been an outcome of political compulsions, which may lead to a two-fold problem for the BJP. The Sena will work hard to preserve its independent identity and, at the same time, may face the wrath of disgruntled elements within its own ranks. Internal factionalism is rampant within the BJP too. The overall structuring of the contemporary party system in Maharashtra is marred by weak party organisation and lack of effective leadership. The organisational weakness combined with social and material frustrations of different social groups has resulted in localisation and fragmentation of the party system. The resurrection of the Raj Thackrey-led Maharashtra Navnirman Sena, the rise of Vanchit Bahujan Aghadi as a new political platform and the possible outbursts of suppressed political ambitions of aspirants in each party may create further difficulties for the BJP.
More importantly, the project of consolidation of political dominance requires effective control over the regional political economy and civil society. The Congress of yesteryears in Maharashtra presided over a well-knit social coalition under the hegemonic leadership of the Marathas. At present, the BJP has neither been able to mend Maharashtra’s torn social fabric nor has it been able to initiate effective policy interventions in economic and social arenas. If the BJP was somewhat successful in pacifying the Marathas with reservations, the Dhangars (shepherds who constitute another influential group among the OBCs) and many other small communities are still angry with the government.
On its part, the BJP has been trying to make the social coalition work in its favour by creating a new (aspiring) middle class, urban constituency. However, these strategies will not be successful unless they effectively address the material anxieties of both urban and rural voters. Instead, during its first term in office, the BJP-Sena government mostly resorted to knee-jerk policy responses to demands of various social groups. Such policy discourse in the social and the economic realm does not point to effective command of the party over the regional political economy and society. The BJP’s ambitious political project of a Congress-mukt (free) Maharashtra is about creating effective controls. Despite its possible electoral victory next week, it seems that this project still remains too ambitious for the party.
Rajeshwari Deshpande teaches Political Science at Savitribai Phule Pune University, Pune