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Elections in Maharashtra: Have the fires of nativism subsided?

The desire of the voter to look beyond traditional considerations is the reason why Maharashtra (and also Haryana) are the first states to throw up a verdict that challenges preconceived notions about the eternal power of old hatreds. Photo: Hindustan TimesPremium
The desire of the voter to look beyond traditional considerations is the reason why Maharashtra (and also Haryana) are the first states to throw up a verdict that challenges preconceived notions about the eternal power of old hatreds. Photo: Hindustan Times

An InstaVaani poll shows that the electorate has moved on from the sentiments of Maratha pride that Shiv Sena and MNS had tapped into so far

Mumbai: After the two principal alliances in Maharashtra broke up ahead of the assembly election, political parties have been quick to rouse nativist sentiments to secure the Marathi vote. Each political party contesting in Maharashtra, and especially in Mumbai, has been vying for the Marathi manoos, the son of the soil—the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) by bringing together Narendra Modi and Chhatrapati Shivaji, and the Shiv Sena and the Maharashtra Navnirman Sena (MNS) reacting strongly against such a comparison, and comparing the BJP leaders to foot soldiers of Afzal Khan, the commander of the Adil Shahi dynasty, who was killed by Shivaji. At heart of their campaign seemed to be the idea that the son of the soil will never prefer an outsider as ruler of the state.

The roots of this angst date back to the Samyukta Maharashtra Movement launched in 1955 in Pune. As journalist Kumar Ketkar said in the Asian Age: “The business lobbies, mostly consisting of Gujaratis and Marwaris, wanted Mumbai to be an independent city-state or a bilingual or autonomous city-state. But the mass movement led by Samyukta Maharashtra Samiti foiled that plan. The Marathi angst of the time was one of the reasons behind the Shiv Sena’s rise, and continues to be the reason for the undeclared hostility between the Gujarati-Marwari business community and the Marathi working class."

The Gujarati-Marathi antagonism was mostly restricted to Mumbai.

In other parts of Maharashtra, it has always been a Maratha vote, something that the Congress and the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) had capitalized on over the last few decades.

In the 54 years since Maharashtra was formed, the Congress has ruled the state for 49 years. Of its 17 chief ministers, 10 have been Marathis. The outgoing cabinet did not have a single non-Marathi.

By this logic, you would have expected that a national party, with a low support base in Maharashtra in the past, with a Gujarati leader and a Gujarati campaign manager, would not fare that well in the coming elections.

Several commentators have, however, argued that the new Marathi middle class has moved on in its economic and cultural ambitions. It no longer shares the sense of injustice that was the cornerstone of the Samyukta movement and is, in fact, brimming with enthusiasm to participate in the new India.

In addition, over the years, migration on a large scale has taken place into Mumbai and its environs, and into Pune, which has created a new set of immigrant voters.

How relevant is the issue of the Marathi manoos?

FourthLion Technologies has been conducting message testing polls in the run-up to the elections in Maharashtra to tease out voter preferences using its InstaVaani (see charts on the right).

The methodology involves using a control and multiple treatments, and comparing the treatments to the control to get a relative understanding of the persuasion power of different messages.

In a message testing poll, the control is a simple horse-race poll that asks voters to pick the party or candidate of their choice.

The poll on 1 October 2014 showed 41% voters preferred the BJP, 11% Congress, 14% Shiv Sena and 11% the NCP. The BJP was comfortably in the lead. This is the control.

In each treatment, a particular message is read out to the listener, and then the horse-race question is asked again. Differences from the control give us a sense of the immediate short-term impact of this message on the minds of the populace.

These polls are conducted by randomly sampling phone numbers across the entire state. The poll typically strives for 200-400 observations. With assumptions of perfect random sampling of a small sample from a representative population, the margin of error is 0.98/sqrt(n).

At 200 samples, the margin of error is 7%, and at 400 samples, it is 5%. These polls are typically carried out as soon as news breaks out and situations develop in real time, allowing the observation of the mood of the people within hours after an event.


We may conjecture that three things are going on:

1. Part of the reason for this move away from nativist sentiment is the personal appeal of the prime minister.

His approval ratings are soaring; measured in a survey FourthLion Technologies conducted for Mint on 16 August 2014, they were the highest in Maharashtra and West Bengal.

In the bypolls, there was very little involvement of the prime minister, and the BJP did not do well. It is no surprise then that the BJP asked for votes under the Modi banner, with messages like “Chalo chale Modi ke saath" (Let’s walk with Modi) and “Ab ki bar Modi sarkar" (This time let’s make it a Modi administration).

2. Anti-incumbency against the parties that jointly governed the state for 15 years had voters looking for an alternative. Given the BJP’s own brand, and its assessment of being the largest party by seats in Maharashtra, it had an edge in asking voters in Maharashtra and Haryana to give it a clear mandate in the states, too. The message was that the BJP in the state will work well with the BJP at the centre. This worked in Haryana and gave it a majority, while it emerged as the dominant party in Maharashtra, but without majority.

3. The most important is the fact that the Indian electorate has moved on. The desire of the voter to look beyond traditional considerations is the reason why Maharashtra (and also Haryana) are the first states to throw up a verdict that challenges preconceived notions about the eternal power of old hatreds.

Does this have implications for regional parties elsewhere in India? Many regional parties may have to go in for radical reconstruction if nativist fires are subsiding. Some, like the Bahujan Samaj Party, have begun doing this.

The entire eastern and southern belt, which see strong regional parties—West Bengal, Odisha, Telangana, Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu—could see change. While Jammu and Kashmir and Jharkhand will give us some more intuition in the coming few months, Bihar is going to be the next big test in 2015.

These election results are conclusive evidence that the electorate has moved beyond traditional caste- and community-driven politics and is instead looking for politicians that deliver on the aspirations of the people.

A version of this article by the same authors appeared on Ajay Shah’s blog on 18 October.

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