The Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP’s) sweep of Maharashtra in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections played an important role in its return to power with a thumping majority. Ahead of the Maharashtra Assembly elections, all indications suggest that there will be a repeat performance.

Along with its longstanding ally, the Shiv Sena, the BJP got 47.2% of the vote share in the 2014 Assembly elections to win 185 out of the 288 seats. In the 2019 Lok Sabha polls, the alliance improved on its performance to garner 51% of the votes to win 41 out of the 48 seats.

Maharashtra and the saffron surge
Maharashtra and the saffron surge

For the last 20 years, Maharashtra’s state elections have immediately followed the national elections and the party securing the most votes in the national elections usually repeats that performance in the state elections, except in 1999 when a BJP national win was followed by a Congress-Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) alliance government in the state.

As in other states, Maharashtra’s politics has been defined by the rise of the BJP along with the Shiv Sena, at the expense of the Congress and the NCP. The BJP’s popularity now transcends all levels of politics in the state. For instance, in the 2017 zila parishad elections (district-level) and the municipal corporation elections, the BJP secured most seats—more than even the regional parties such as the Shiv Sena and the NCP.

Both BJP and Shiv Sena are especially popular in Maharashtra’s urban areas. For instance, between the Lok Sabha elections of 2009 and 2019, the alliance’s vote share in urban areas more than doubled to 57%. As the state gets more urbanized, the BJP-Shiv Sena alliance’s stranglehold could get stronger.

Another reason for the rise of the BJP-Shiv Sena combine is the broad-based caste support it has begun to enjoy, despite the caste-based agitations in recent years. The alliance is now eating into the traditional support base of the Congress and NCP. The NCP, a Maratha-dominated party, could only get 28% of Maratha votes in the 2019 general elections compared to 39% for Shiv Sena, according to data from the Lokniti-CSDS research programme.

At the same time, the Congress has lost some of its Dalit vote base to both BJP and the Prakash Ambedkar-led Vanchit Bahujan Aghadi (VBA), a party launched in March 2018 to champion the cause of Dalits. All this, combined with a series of high-profile defections, are likely to hurt the prospects of the Congress-NCP in these elections. Differences within the BJP-Sena alliance, with the Sena publicly criticizing the government’s decisions, is perhaps the one big weakness in the alliance. However, so far, the opposition does not seem to have been able to capitalize on it.

The election outcome in Maharashtra will have important implications for the nation’s economy. Because of Mumbai, Maharashtra is India’s most important state economically, contributing a steady 14% of national output over the past decade. However, this masks significant disparities. Vidarbha and Marathwada, which are largely agrarian, are far poorer than the more industrialised western Maharashtra region. Yet, rural distress and a spate of farmer suicides in these areas has not hurt the alliance. Vidarbha has actually emerged as a stronghold for BJP, partly driven by the popularity of chief minister Devendra Fadnavis, who belongs to the region.

Besides, farm-related woes have been a constant in the region for many years and, according to political analysts, most farmers still view the BJP-led dispensation favourably because of the successful implementation of schemes such as the Pradhan Mantri Kisan Yojana and payment of sugarcane dues, because of which sugarcane production, a critical component of Maharashtra’s rural political economy, is flourishing.

Decoding Maharashtra
Decoding Maharashtra

With sugarcane farmers and sugar barons switching their alliances from the NCP to BJP-Shiv Sena, the last bastion of the NCP has also been breached.

Another major issue raised by the opposition has been unemployment. Data from the 2017-18 Periodic Labour Force Survey shows that, unemployment in Maharashtra is relatively lower at 5%, compared to 6% at the national level. Among 15- to 29-year olds, the unemployment rate, at 15%, is lower than the national average of 18%. However, Maharashtra’s share in total factories and number of factory workers has shrunk over the past few years, though it remains among India’s top three industrial states, as per data from Annual Survey of Industries.

One reason for Maharashtra’s steady economic performance lies in its ability to attract a steady flow of investments. In fact, it has weathered the investment slump in the country better than many other states.

More than these economic factors, though, emotional factors could help bring back the BJP-Sena alliance to power. The abrogation of Article 370 of the Constitution will be well-received by Maharashtra’s voters, said Prakash Joshi, a political analyst. “Article 370 will act as an undercurrent and provide the emotional base for the BJP-Shiv Sena’s return."

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