Why has Maharashtra turned 50 shades of saffron?

The BJP has tapped into the governance failure, most apparent in the last decade of the state’s politics, to harness the aspirational vote


Of the 10 corporations that were part of Maharashtra civic polls, the two saffron parties, BJP and Shiv Sena, accounted for nearly 70% of the 1,268 seats that were contested. Photo: Abhijit Bhatlekar/Mint
Of the 10 corporations that were part of Maharashtra civic polls, the two saffron parties, BJP and Shiv Sena, accounted for nearly 70% of the 1,268 seats that were contested. Photo: Abhijit Bhatlekar/Mint

Last week, we were treated to one of the greatest electoral comebacks (wish the Indian cricket team had done the same in its first face-off against Australia) in recent memory.

In the contest for the control of the powerful Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC)—whose annual budget is a staggering Rs40,000 crore—the count at 12:30pm showed the Shiv Sena comfortably outpacing its ally-turned-foe the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) on its way to the magic number of 114 seats; the score at that stage showed the Sena leading in 86 out of the 182 trends available compared to 56 seats for the BJP.

Flash forward four hours and the final count of wins reads: 84 seats for the Sena and 82 for the BJP—indeed, a stunning turnaround.

This comeback was part of a larger trend of an outstanding performance by the BJP, which till recently was better known as the lesser partner of the Sena. The result is significant not just because it signals a clear structural shift in the politics of Maharashtra, but also how in the era of localization of fiscal powers (following the recommendations of the recent Finance Commissions, particularly the 14th Finance Commission) control of the third tier of governance (the other two being the Union and state governments) will be key to influencing future politics at the state level.

Another matter though that split verdict in the BMC polls further complicates what is already a dysfunctional arrangement between the two political parties; for 25 years, the Sena was the dominant partner—but all of it changed with the assembly poll of 2014 when the two formally parted and the BJP, riding the momentum of its audacious performance in the 16th general election, surprised everyone by emerging as the single largest party, just falling short of a majority.

The Sena has not reconciled to the new political reality. Though,eventually it joined the government to generate the desired numbers (and also enjoy the fruits of power), political differences continued—resulting in their contesting the just concluded local elections as bitter rivals.

This is however only part of the story. What these polls also tell us is that since 2014, Maharashtra has begun to steadily swing rightwards with the BJP, as it has done nationally, emerging as the principal pole of the state’s politics.

On Friday, this was taken to an entirely new level in the local elections. Of the 10 corporations that were part of these polls, the two saffron parties, BJP and Sena, accounted for nearly 70% of the 1,268 seats that were contested.

Why is this happening? Insights from my Mumbai-based colleague, Abhiram Ghadiyalpatil, suggest that an obvious reason is the progressive decline of the Congress since the 1990s and its stunning unwinding in the last two years.

Alongside, the BJP, inspired by its ideological parent Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, has steadily pursued a social reengineering which allowed for greater inclusion of the electorally powerful Other Backward Classes (OBCs) forcing a political rebalancing of the status of Marathas; in this, the late OBC leader Gopinath Munde played a crucial role for the BJP. This delicate caste rebalancing has been further optimized with the elevation of Devendra Fadnavis as the chief minister and in the process kept the Brahmins, influential in key cities like Nagpur and Pune, appeased.

At the same time by continuing to play on the theme of Hindu identity, the BJP has also succeeded in weaning the Marathas away from Congress and the Nationalist Congress Party. Effectively, the BJP has managed to stitch together a rainbow coalition.

And, finally, the BJP has tapped into the governance failure, most apparent in the last decade of the state’s politics, to harness the aspirational vote. The very same formula it employed at the national level in 2014 and continues to do in various state polls thereafter.

The future will depend a lot on how the Fadnavis government delivers on its promises to meet the aspirations of the people of Maharashtra, particularly with respect to generating jobs. The chief minister can take solace from the fact that an identical challenge awaits the BJP at the national level as it readies for the general election of 2019; it will fight this and several state polls as the incumbent, the dynamics of which are fundamentally different from being a challenger.

Anil Padmanabhan is executive editor of Mint and writes every week on the intersection of politics and economics.

His Twitter handle is @capitalcalculus

Respond to this column at anil.p@livemint.com

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