Mumbai: For a party that secured less than a fifth of the votes polled in the last assembly election and grudgingly became the junior partner in a coalition it once used to lead, the Shiv Sena is at least not missing something: Confidence.

Leaders of Shiv Sena, which has functioned more like an opposition party since the Bharatiya Janata party (BJP) led government came to power, claim the party will emerge the single largest in Maharashtra if snap assembly polls are held today.

Sanjay Raut, Shiv Sena MP and executive editor of Sena mouthpiece Saamna told Mint that Sena was “quite obviously the most popular party in Maharashtra with the best connect with people and their issues. You don’t need an astrologer to predict that."

A Sena minister went further: “We will win 140 to 150 seats (out of 288 seats) if polls are held today. But we will wait for our time and let the BJP slide deeper into crisis of its own making," he said, requesting anonymity. Raut said the Sena had completely occupied the opposition space in Maharashtra and executive president Uddhav Thackeray was “steadily taking the space vacated by Sena founder Balasaheb Thackeray and Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) chief Sharad Pawar." Thackeray refused an interview.

What explains this confidence?

Three major factors, say analysts and politicians from the Sena. One, corruption scandals; two, rural discontent; and three, the silent, large-scale protests by the Maratha community.

“People are getting disillusioned with the BJP governments. They feel that though there is a new government, it has brought only new slogans and a new sloganeer. Little has changed on ground," Raut added. BJP’s defeat in Delhi and Bihar elections proved its popularity was on the wane, and the Patel community may leave BJP in the next Gujarat polls, Raut said.

The Sena minister quoted above says BJP supporters themselves are “shocked and hurt" at the corruptions charges against BJP ministers. “Their own supporters are shocked that Gopinath Munde’s daughter Pankaja Munde, Eknath Khadse, and Vinod Tawde who all promised something else before coming to power have been accused of corruption so early in the tenure of this government," he said.

According to a BJP legislator from Marathwada, which saw its worst drought since 1972 in 2015-16, his party could not expect farm distress in Vidarbha and Marathwada to subside even after this year’s rainfall which was close to normal. “This is an accumulated discontent which, despite good initiatives by our government, has not gone away. One proof of this discontent is in the massive Maratha morchas," said this legislator, requesting anonymity.

Prakash Pawar, professor of political science at Kolhapur’s Shivaji University, thinks the Shiv Sena would benefit the most from the Maratha anger. “Shiv Sena is in the best position to exploit the Maratha unrest because despite being in the government, it is not in the direct line of Maratha fire unlike the BJP, NCP or Congress. On the ground, the Shiv Sena has got the machinery to channelize this anger. Maharashtra’s political history tells us that the Maratha versus Dalits or Dalits versus OBCs narrative has always helped the Sena most and I think the Maratha anger now will eventually help the Sena more than any other party because it has very carefully positioned itself on this issue," says Pawar. He pointed out that the agitation to rename Marathwada University as Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar Marathwada University in the 1980s had given the Sena a foothold in Marathwada. “In Marathwada then, the Sena built on the Maratha versus Dalit narrative and large sections of Marathas, who were already economically backward, moved to Shiv Sena," Pawar recalled.

Several Maratha groups have organised silent marches in the state after a 14-year-old Maratha girl was raped and murdered on 13 July. Three suspects arrested are Dalits. So far, the silent marches have been organised in five cities of Maharashtra.

On the Maratha protest, Thackeray has demanded that a special sitting of the state legislature for parties to take a position on the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act which is under attack by Maratha organizations. Maratha organizations have demanded amendments to this Act to prevent its misuse. Sanjay Raut said the Sena had never practised “caste-politics" but added the Maratha protest represented discontent due to several factors. “The Sena is expressing this discontent in its own ways. People in Maharashtra are looking for a leader who best represents their anger and anxieties and Uddhav saheb is becoming that leader," Raut said.

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