Maharashtra polls: It’s BJP vs Sharad Pawar, Shiv Sena and Congress play second fiddle
NCP chief looks at regaining ground lost to BJP over the last two elections in western Maharashtra.
The Congress and Shiv Sena are mostly playing second fiddle to their respective allies in this region. While the BJP campaign is showcasing the achievements of the Fadnavis and Modi regimes, the Opposition is tapping on anti-incumbency issues, including an economic slowdown, rural distress, unemployment and drought, while also keeping an eye on the presence of some rebel candidates in the BJP-Sena fold.
Attempts by the BJP to keep Article 370, ‘Savarkar’, and Ayodhya issues on the boil are being viewed as a way to “keep the emotions working”, while it remains to be seen how a reported attack by the army on terror camps in Pakistan Occupied Kashmir on poll eve would play out on voting day Monday.
The agrarian region, known for its sugar mills, cooperative banks and industrial centres spanning Kolhapur, Pune, Satara, Sangli, and Solapur, threw up an interesting result in the 2014 Assembly polls, when both the NCP and BJP fought by disengaging from allies.
Then, the BJP had signaled its growth in the region by winning 19 seats, followed by NCP (16), Sena (12) and Congress (7), leaving the remaining four to smaller parties.
Going by the voting pattern in the 2019 Lok Sabha polls earlier in May, which the BJP-Sena alliance swept against the NCP-Congress, the BJP leads in 20 Assembly segments against NCP’s 15, followed by Sena (17) and Congress (2) and Swabhimani Paksha (4).
With the Enforcement Directorate naming Sharad Pawar and nephew Ajit in an alleged cooperative bank scam and the exodus of many NCPCongress leaders to the BJP, the region's election scene was always going to be exciting, with the BJP also highlighting its “Mission 2024” to capture Baramati, known as the stronghold of the Pawars.
Pawar senior has not been sitting quiet though. He has launched an aggressive effort — addressing around 60 rallies — to counter Modi-Shah’s active campaigning.
Many have viewed this as Pawar’s return to lead the Maharashtra battle, after mostly focusing on national politics since 2004, leaving Ajit Pawar to lead the NCP’s political battle in the state. "Pawar saheb is leading not only the NCP campaign but also of Congress this time. If Western Maharashtra, along with other parts of the State, had witnessed rapid progress due to Pawar saheb's developmental vision...,” said Vandana Chavan, an NCP MP.
The BJP has been systematically making inroads into the region, through the Sangh Parivar network.
While Modi, riding on the anti-UPA wave, helped the BJP crack the region in 2014, the subsequent assembly election victory in 2014, followed by the 2019 LS poll show, accelerated BJP’s expansionist drive, even though the NCP continues to put up a spirited resistance. However, the listless Congress is proving to be a burden on the Opposition alliance.
Many observers feel the BJP central leadership, especially Amit Shah, has been systematically building up state minister Chandrakant Patil as a ‘Maratha counter’ to the NCP.
This RSS-groomed leader’s recent appointment as BJP state president and being given a ticket to contest from a Pune seat (which saw NCPCongress backing an MNS candidate against the MLC) has led to speculation about him being propped up by certain quarters as a counter to Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis.
The state government’s handling of the agitation for reservation by the Marathas and subsequent legislation for a special quota in jobs and education, many say, has given the BJP a booster shot in the region.
“Our organisation has grown stronger in Western Maharashtra, the BJP-Sena alliance is in place in this poll and with the good works done by the Fadnavis regime, the so-called hold of Pawar and NCP here is a thing of the past,” said BJP state vice-president Yogesh Gogawale.
Politics and business work in tandem in Western Maharashtra and many established leaders of the region operate through the cash-rich cooperative banks, sugar factories and private educational networks which, in turn, require patronage from the government.
The recent defections of many NCP-Congress leaders to the BJP are also being seen as due to their inability to sustain their interests outside “the power system”.
Ajinkya Gatne, a local resident, thinks “inducting many NCP leaders and personally targeting Sharad Pawar are part of BJP’s efforts to expand and consolidate the anti-Pawar, non-NCP/Congress segments in this traditional Pawar bastion.”
The outcome of the fierce BJP-Pawar fight in the region will dictate the future of both Pawar and the BJP beyond the region.