Maharashtra may be the biggest stumbling block in PM Modi getting reelected to the top office.
- Maharashtra has the second biggest electoral college after UP with 48 seats in the parliament.
- BJP-Shiv Sena coalition achieved a landslide victory in 2014 with 41 seats – but the coalition has since then seen infighting
- SP-BSP coalition and their affinity for Congress will hurt BJP’s vote share in UP- Maharashtra will be critical to majority in centre
- Narrative of strong national security worked for PM Modi in the wake of the Pulwama-Balakot row, but the effect has since subsided.
Maharashtra has been a historically powerful agent in the balance of power in India. The state represents one of India’s most prosperous models and significant national and international influence.
With electoral power second only to Uttar Pradesh, Maharashtra brings 48 representatives to the parliament. It houses the financial capital of the country and accounts for a formidable share of the agrarian produce.
Prime Minister Modi-led BJP, which seeks a second term in power has been basing the election narrative on national security – ending terrorism and structuring the immigration problems.
But in Maharashtra, what the voters are seething with are rural issues like rising unemployment and large drought-hit areas. The measures of the Phadnavis-led BJP government are seen as short of what the voters would term adequate.
Why winning in Maharashtra is critical to BJP’s fortunes?
Maharashtra, Gujarat and Uttar Pradesh represented the biggest bastions for BJP. In 2014, BJP- Shiv Sena led charge won 41 of 48 seats in Maharashtra.
Similarly, in the politically fractured Uttar Pradesh, BJP surprised all and sundry winning 71 seats out of 80. BJP’s victory transformed the politics of a state ruled by Samajwadi Party and Bahujan Samaj Party for decades.
The hard defeat prompted the two arch-rivals came together in 2019 and form a Mahagathbandhan (Mega-coalition) in the state.
The BSP-SP coalition in UP makes Maharashtra domination critical for BJP.
Analysts and psephologists feel BJP will find it tough to have the same impact in the state. The wave of expectation in voters has now changed hands with urge to see a report of performance.
With uncertainty around its hopes of having the same impact in UP, winning Maharasthra with Shiv Sena and RSS’ blessings will be paramount for BJP in 2019.
Political Current in Maharashtra voters
Maharashtra’s tilt will be determined by the sizable rural population which currently struggles with mounting livelihood problems. The state has nationalist tendency and politicians are known to appeal to the ‘Bharatiya’ and ‘Maratha’ sentiment here.
Reinforcing national security and taking a harder-than-as-yet line on cross-border terrorism and handling of noisy neighbour Pakistan is perhaps the biggest campaign issue for BJP in 2019.
As per a Mumbai-based political commentator Pratap Asbe:
“In March, it looked like the BJP-Shiv Sena alliance in Maharashtra had an edge due to the air strikes. But in the past few weeks the opposition has seized on issues such as unemployment and lower crop prices that have hurt voters,”
While the Pulwama sentiment and Modi’s strongman attitude in the Balakot strikes was admired by many, unemployment and agrarian dissatisfaction has again taken the driving seat in the state.
The agrarian dissatisfaction is a strong trigger
As per a ground report from Reuters which interviewed 48 farmers from 11 districts of Maharashtra between March-April, almost, and nearly two-thirds expressed dissatisfaction with the BJP-led government for not doing enough to support the agrarian crisis and falling rural income.
Maharashtra has seen a number of farmer protests and suicides in the last two years. Crop prices in the state have plunged to an all-time low.
The state bore as a terrified witness to 3,661 farm suicides in 2016. Stats of farmer suicides haven’t been revealed by the government in the last couple of years. But there have been numerous reports of suicide cases in the local media.
Madhav Pawase, a farmer in Nashik district told Reuters that he feels undone by Modi-led government to ensure farmers get the right price for their product and on time. Pawase voted for BJP’s ally Shiv Sena in the 2014 election.
Poor rainfall and subsequent droughts have stunned Maharashtra’s agrarian communities leading to premature crop-cutting, water shortage and bad produce.
The Maratha farmers feel both Fadnavis’ state government and Modi’s national government haven’t done enough.
The unemployment factor is another decider
The issue of unemployment and intense competition in the government jobs market has been behind an ever-present communal tension in the state. The Maratha sentiment against outsiders working in the city was a major flash point for Shiv Sena coming to prominence in the state.
But after having a strong hold in both centre and state, BJP is witnessing protests, shutdowns, and marches by the dominant Maratha community. Reservation in government jobs is a well-publicized demand in the state.
A youth leader representing unemployed youths of Chandrapur district in the drought-hit Vidarbha region, Shrikant Sao explains the state of the 1,35,000 unemployed youths in Chandrapur who enrolled with the employment exchange cell of the state government:
“No one is getting jobs. Neither government, nor private. We have a four-time BJP MP. Now, he is also a minister of state. But he has failed in bringing even a single industry to (the constituency) till now. How will the youth get jobs if there is no opportunity?”
Fadnavis government’s ‘Mega Recruitment’ program to fill 72,000 government jobs was hit with issues like court cases over reservation. This has hurt and disillusioned the youth in the state.
Cracks in the BJP-Shiv Sena Coalition
BJP has a long-term ally in Shiv Sena in Maharashtra but the two have a history of disagreements. Initially announcing that they would contest elections independently, BJP was able to persuade Shiv Sena to join hands just in time for the polls.
But the differences between top hierarchy and unforeseen changes in approach have arguably left the cadres of both parties in confusion. Sunil Chawake, Senior Assistant Editor, Maharashtra Times opines:
“It’s not clear if BJP and Shiv Sena cadres have embraced the renewed alliance on the campaign trail. The lower level workers of both parties have grudges against each other and don’t work together cohesively,”
The opposition is gaining headway
Congress coalition in the state with Sharad Pawar’s NCP is seen as a stronger affair. Their chances in the state received a boost from the decision of firebrand leader Raj Thackeray to not field his party Maharashtra Navnirman Sena in the general elections of 2019.
The formidable orator Raj Thackeray has instead ventured on a campaign to defeat BJP through fact-checking and ground reality observations. Thackeray has been busier than most candidates contesting in 2019, indirectly driving the fortunes of the Congress-NCP commission in Maharashtra.
The final seats in Maharashtra will see voters come out on 29th April as phase 4 wraps up the state. The state represents a critical factor in deciding who leads and who opposed in the next Lok Sabha. With more pointers standing against the BJP than in its favour, the prospect of losing Maharashtra would be a disaster for BJP’s grander plan.
- Voters in Maharashtra are seething with rural issues like rising unemployment and large drought-hit areas.
- The measures of the Phadnavis-led BJP government have been short of what the voters would term adequate.
- Ups and downs in the BJP-Shiv Sena coalitions has left the party cadres confused and the NCP-Congress opposition in a stronger position.
- Firebrand leader Raj Thackeray not contesting but relentlessly campaigning against BJP-Shiv Sena will have a big impact on the outcome in Maharashtra.