Maharashtra To Remain A Saffron Stronghold
As Congress members make a beeline for the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party in Karnataka to Goa, the election-bound state of Maharashtra is proving to be no exception. With less than three months to go for the assembly polls, cadres from both the Congress and the Sharad Pawar-led Nationalist Congress Party are scouting around for greener pastures and the BJP is proving to their preferred choice given that the saffron party is on the ascendant in this western state. The BJP-Shiv Sena alliance enjoys a massive majority in the assembly and, more recently, it swept the Lok Sabha polls.
What is particularly galling for the Congress-NCP alliance is the erosion in its support base as Dalits, backward classes, upper castes and, now even the dominant Maratha community, have shifted allegiance to the BJP.
The BJP’s success in winning over the Marathas follows the concerted efforts made by the saffron party over the last five years to reach out to them. The party’s focus on the Maratha community is understandable as it comprises nearly one-third of the population in the state and has always wielded strong political influence. Unlike Haryana where the BJP chose to ignore the dominant Jat community and consolidated the non-Jat vote, in Maharashtra the BJP strategized to win over the influential Marathas.
The BJP has been working on various fronts simultaneously to wean away the Marathas from the Congress-NCP alliance. The saffron camp worked hard to weaken the influence of the Marathas over the bank, sugar and milk cooperatives in the state. While draining them economically, the BJP made a special effort to touch base with the influential Maratha leaders in the Congress and the NCP, persuading many local leaders to switch sides. For instance, the Congress was dealt a severe blow on the eve of Lok Sabha elections when the leader of its legislative party Radhakrishna Vikhe-Patil and several others joined the BJP. The NCP also suffered a similar fate.
Then again, the saffron camp moved quickly on the demand for including the Marathas in backward class category to enable its members to avail quotas in government jobs and educational institutions. At the one stage, it appeared that the state-wide protests by the Marathas for reservations would spiral out of control and hurt the BJP’s electoral prospects. But Maharashtra chief minister Devender Fadnavis, under the guidance of BJP president Amit Shah, managed to snuff out the protests. They first identified the local leaders in districts who were spearheading this stir and then proceeded to give them tickets and positions to soften them. At the same time, it worked on meeting the Marathas demand for quotas.
The project, which began in 2014 when Fadnavis asked the State Backward Class Commission for a report detailing the extent of the social and economic backwardness of the Marathas, eventually culminated in the enactment of a law providing 16 percent quota for Marathas.
The BJP government got a shot in the arm when its move was endorsed by the Bombay High Court earlier this year though the quota was slashed down to 12 percent. The decision has since been challenged in the Supreme Court on the ground that this quota exceeds the 50 percent ceiling on reservations laid down by the apex court. The matter will come up for its next hearing later this month. The BJP is encouraged by the fact that the Supreme Court has not stayed the High Court order though it has ruled against its retrospective implementation. In fact, the saffron party is not worried about its decision being struck down as it believes it has succeeded in sending out the message that the Fadnavis government is indeed serious about providing quotas to Marathas and has been working in that direction for the last five years.
This effort is held out in sharp contrast to the previous Congress-NCP government’s decision on quotas which was struck down by the courts. The BJP also tom-toms the fact that a Brahmin chief minister has swung this deal while earlier Maratha leaders had failed to deliver on the long-pending demand. In fact, when the BJP appointed a Brahmin as chief minister, it was believed that he would fail as Maharashtra has traditionally always had a Maratha chief minister, But Fadnavis has proved his critics wrong and like his Haryana counterpart, has managed to hold his own and got widespread acceptance.
Having already won over the other castes, the BJP’s success in winning over the Marathas has underlined its dominant position in Maharashtra. Together with its partner, the Shiv Sena, this alliance looks set to continue its winning streak in the coming assembly elections. Coming a few months after its massive victory in the Lok Sabha polls, the momentum remains in favour of the BJP-Shiv Sena alliance. Besides getting its caste arithmetic right, the saffron camp also has the advantage of the strong religious polarization witnessed in the general election. The same sentiment will prevail in the October state polls.
“We are comfortably placed in Maharashtra. We have a strong party organization, our alliance with the Shiv Sena is on track and, more importantly, there is no anti-incumbency against our governmen,” a senior BJP leader told Lokmarg.
On the other hand, a demoralized Congress and NCP is in disarray. Not only has it lost its support base, but the Congress organization is also weak and faction-ridden. The leadership vacuum at the center, following Rahul Gandhi’s decision to step down as Congress president, has added to the party’s woes. The grand old party has a serious problem at hand as there is no visible or immediate let-up in the overriding anti-Congress mood. “Anti-Congressism has now become an ideology,” bemoaned a party leader.