Mumbai: The 28 May byelection for the Palghar Lok Sabha constituency in Maharashtra is significant for the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), both nationally and across the state.

The BJP, which stormed to power with 282 Lok Sabha seats in 2014 has since lost several byelections, resulting in its strength falling to 275. The Palghar byelection offers it a chance to improve its tally, especially after embarrassing losses in Uttar Pradesh’s Gorakhpur and Phulpur byelections in March. On the same day, bypolls will also be held to the Bhandara-Gondia Lok Sabha seat in Maharashtra.

In Maharashtra, the Palghar bypoll could also turn out to be a precursor to the bigger BJP-Shiv Sena face-off in the 2019 elections if Shiv Sena sticks to its position of going solo. The Shiv Sena has fielded Shriniwas Wanga, son of late BJP MP Chintaman Wanga whose death in January necessitated the bypoll. A stung BJP has fielded former Congress legislator Rajendra Gavit. But the BJP and Shiv Sena are not the only important actors here.

Reserved for the Scheduled Tribe (ST) candidates, the Palghar constituency was formed after the 2008 delimitation. It has a diverse social composition, including tribals, North Indians, Marathi-speakers, Gujarati and Marwari trade communities, and Christians in its 1.5 million-plus electorate.

The political geography is as diverse. Of its six assembly constituencies, four are reserved for STs—Dahanu, Vikramgarh, Palghar, and Boisar. Tribals, who account for 37% of Palghar’s population, are concentrated in these four seats. Two of these four ST-reserved seats are held by the BJP and one each by the Shiv Sena and Bahujan Vikas Aaghadi (BVA), a regional party that also holds the remaining two assembly constituencies of Vasai and Nalasopara. The Communist Party of India (Marxist) has had a significant presence in Dahanu and Vikramgarh segments, and in the 2014 Lok Sabha election, the CPM candidate polled 7.74% of the total votes.

In 2014, BJP’s Chintaman Wanga got 533,201 votes or 53.71% of the vote share, defeating Baliram Jadhav of the BVA who got 293,681 votes or 29.58%. Jadhav is contesting this time also on the BVA ticket, and with the addition of the Congress nominee Damodar Shingda, it has become a quadrangular fight among BJP, Shiv Sena, BVA, and Congress.

Development and “Shiv Sena’s back-stabbing" are the two themes driving the BJP campaign, according to veteran BJP worker Ashok Kulge. “Chief minister Devendra Fadnavis is himself leading the charge here. We are committed to make Palghar the first tribal district in India where each tribal native would have his own home by 2019," Kulge told Mint on the sidelines of an interaction between Fadnavis and Palghar citizens on 23 May. Fadnavis, who has said that “come what may the BJP would win the Palghar seat", has addressed six public meetings during the campaign, focusing on development works and Shiv Sena’s “betrayal".

Leaving nothing to chance, Fadnavis also got his Uttar Pradesh counterpart Yogi Adityanath to address a public meeting where the new Hindutva poster boy delivered his “development and prosperity under Modi" message with a generous dose of Hindutva.

The bypoll is also a litmus test for Shiv Sena chief Uddhav Thackeray, who took the gamble of fielding Chitaman Wanga’s son against the BJP. Leading a hectic campaign since then, Thackeray has sought to make the bypoll an emotional contest between “Wanga’s legacy" and BJP’s “arrogance". “This is a calculated risk Uddhav saheb has taken with an eye on the 2019 polls when we are unlikely to have an alliance with BJP. This bypoll is a kind of a dress rehearsal for us," said a local Shiv Sena worker who did not wish to be named.

A BJP strategist and Fadnavis’s confidante, who requested anonymity, said the byelection outcome would be determined by three factors—polling percentage (62.90% in 2014), division of votes among BVA and Shiv Sena, and aspiration for development.

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