Maha Battle Begins
In Maharashtra, BJP is taxed more by ally Shiv Sena than rivals Congress and NCP
The ongoing seat sharing talks between BJP and Shiv Sena appear to be reaching a bend in the road with BJP pushing for contesting a majority of the seats. Such an outcome will formalise the changed political situation in Maharashtra since the 2014 assembly polls when BJP stunned Shiv Sena, till then the senior partner, by winning 122 seats against the latter’s 63. Needing 144 seats to stay in government, both parties have endured an uneasy relationship with Sena constantly sniping at BJP. Rancour gave way to pragmatism when Lok Sabha elections approached and an alliance was quickly stitched up allowing NDA to walk away with 41 of 48 Maharashtra seats earlier this year.
The big question is whether the same good sense will again prevail among the two partners who first bonded over Hindutva. The stakes are higher for Shiv Sena as its primary “Marathi manoos” identity keeps losing steam against BJP’s Hindu nationalistic political pitch. BJP is eyeing gains from its muscular positions on Article 370 and Pakistan and the popularity of Prime Minister Narendra Modi. BJP is also helped by its chief minister Devendra Fadnavis earning a reputation for deftly handling political minefields like Maratha reservation and farm distress while eschewing hardline Hindutva positions, unlike many of his party colleagues.
Not content to rest on its own organisational strengths, BJP has also unveiled a strategy of wooing over popular leaders and strongmen from NCP and Congress. NCP, which has been pushing for a 50:50 division of seats with a “leaderless” state Congress, will be more worried by the unending exodus from its own ranks. With a narrow leadership base that mostly draws influence from sugar cooperatives, those at the helm of Congress and NCP have been ineffective in holding the government to account for dwindling farm incomes, recurrent droughts and now flooding.
In the absence of a credible opposition, the likes of Prakash Ambedkar riding on a “vanchit bahujan” identity encompassing Dalits, Muslims and other deprived groups have been emboldened to set forbidding terms for an alliance with Congress-NCP. Yet, given the economic slump, there is no room for BJP to be complacent despite its success in eating into vote shares of the three other big parties. Winning Maharashtra, India’s second largest state by population and largest by GDP, is important for all sides. But BJP’s undiminishing appetite for success makes it the odds-on favourite.