Three things stand out about the 2019 Lok Sabha elections in Maharashtra. One, it is a new avatar of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) that is seeking votes. Two, the dominant agenda is informed by old and new narratives. Three, 2019 Lok Sabha elections could be the last significant electoral battle for Maharashtra satrap and Nationalist Congress Party chief Sharad Pawar.
In many ways, the 2014 Lok Sabha elections created a powerful momentum for the BJP in Maharashtra. The Modi wave helped the BJP win a record 23 seats, and also aided the Shiv Sena’s tally of 18 seats. The National Democratic Alliance’s success was evenly distributed across major regions.
Congress-NCP bastions such as Pune, Solapur, Nandurbar and Nagpur fell to the BJP. After Uttar Pradesh, Maharashtra in 2014 was arguably the BJP’s biggest success, given the fact that the state had never backed the party so solidly before, despite being the headquarters of the BJP’s ideological mentor, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS).
That Modi wave raised the hope of an unfulfilled ambition for the BJP—capture Maharashtra not only from the Congress-NCP but also possibly from ally Shiv Sena. In a bygone era, the BJP ruled the state from 1995 to 1999 but as a junior partner to the Shiv Sena. In the late Pramod Mahajan and Gopinath Munde, the BJP had leaders with pan-Maharashtra appeal, but no one in the league of Shiv Sena founder Balasaheb Thackeray and Sharad Pawar. The RSS had to lobby hard to make Nitin Gadkari a minister in the Manohar Joshi-led government, when Devendra Fadnavis was merely mayor of Nagpur.
The 2014 elections changed everything. The BJP, now firmly under the Gadkari-Fadnavis duo after the demise of Gopinath Munde, took a shot at power on its own in Maharashtra in the October 2014 Maharashtra assembly elections. It was this ambition that led to the snapping of ties with the Shiv Sena, which was still stunned by the magnitude of the Modi wave. Balasaheb Thackeray died in 2012 and his son and new Shiv Sena chief Uddhav Thackeray had not yet gained state-wide appeal.
The BJP decided to go solo in the assembly polls but fell short of majority by 23 seats. The Shiv Sena came around and joined the government. Fadnavis, though tentative initially, made quick moves later to become the face of the BJP in Maharashtra. He personified the new BJP not only in Maharashtra, but across the nation—ambitious with a killer instinct, socially and politically creative, and alive to the demographic dynamics.
There are many pointers to the rise of this new BJP, like the induction of powerful Congress-NCP politicians, the way the Fadnavis government handled the Maratha agitation and struck a balance between the numerically powerful Marathas and the Other Backward Castes (OBCs).
In 2014, the BJP here owed its success to Modi. In 2019, it is altogether a different animal—it has Modi, of course, but it is far more established than it ever was in the state. It in a position to set an agenda that even Shiv Sena follows. It is not afraid to face election under Gadkari and Fadnavis.
As in previous elections, caste, agrarian crisis and drought play a role. But there are new narratives as well—aspirations in rural parts of the state that border on urban conglomerates and national security. In Wardha and Latur, Modi sought to connect with the Hindutva constituency and aspirational first-time voters in a classic demonstration of the Lexus and olive tree metaphor—political commentator Thomas Friedman’s terms contrasting economic progress with old identity issues such as Hindutva.
For Pawar, this election has been an exercise in multi-tasking. He indicated that he would contest, but withdrew in favour of younger Pawars. This ambivalence upset the alliance. For a rudderless Congress-NCP, Pawar is the only state-wide face who could counter the BJP-Shiv Sena campaign. But his withdrawal after reports of dissension in the ranks have reduced Pawar to a campaigner without a larger narrative.
Abhiram Ghadyalpatil is national writer, Mint.
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