The future of the BJP in Maharashtra

The 2019 Maharashtra elections may well have proven to be an utter shock for many people, particularly the supporters of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). Such disappointment is not unfounded — the largest party in Maharashtra is, after all, the opposition party today, and a coalition of highly disparate parties — the Shiv Sena (SS), Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) and Indian National Congress (INC) — is ruling the state with a Chief Minister inexperienced in politics, who has never contested an election, let alone winning one.

I personally know some individuals who were elated at the ouster of the BJP from government. To them, the return of the Pawars was as joyous an occasion as some of “their own” in control of the power corridors. The irony of those who normally lecture dissidents on democracy themselves celebrating the formation of an unmethodical alliance in a betrayal of popular mandate was not lost on me. I do not endorse such orchestrations; however, such a phenomenon is so common in Indian politics that one does not feel benumbed anymore, unless it were to be seen in times of gravity. The Madhya Pradesh government crisis, for instance, was a matter of even greater disbelief, for it was in motion even as the nation reeled under the COVID-19 pandemic. So soon as Jyotiraditya Scindia switched ranks from the INC to the BJP with a few others, the BJP workers in brazen contravention of the lockdown imposed by the Centre, congregated for Shivraj Singh Chouhan’s return to the position of Chief Minister.

Thankfully, no such pandemic afflicted Maharashtra as it faced a few days of political turmoil, for it was yet only November 2019. The aftermath of the government formation was the adulation of Sharad Pawar, the supremo of the ruling NCP, by some of my friends. Sharad Pawar has been understood to be instrumental in the orchestration of the SS-NCP-INC alliance. One of my friends went so far as to say that the NCP supremo has proven himself as the boss of Amit Shah in terms of political strategy. To the uninitiated, Amit Shah is the current Union Minister of Home Affairs, and was the president of the BJP from 2014 to 2019. He was popularly known as the “Chanakya” of Indian politics, given his perspicacity at political strategy, and has been instrumental in the growth of the BJP. Given the BJP’s failure to form government in Maharashtra, coupled with the inexplicable two-day failed stunt with a Devendra Fadnavis-Ajit Pawar alliance, the incident is viewed as a humiliation to the BJP by the SS, NCP and INC supporters, who also contend that Sharad Pawar has proven to be the true Chanakya.

Those who have been with the BJP since its inception, however, have a different perspective to offer. They say with certitude that the BJP is set to expand and win in Maharashtra all on its own in the long term. In other words, it would no longer need an alliance partner as it earlier did. To me, their observations appear valid on account of reasons I proceed to enumerate.

Should one pay attention to the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC), one would discern that it was a stronghold of the Shiv Sena for almost three decades. It ruled unchallenged, until the BJP became a discernible threat. It was a very narrow victory for Shiv Sena in the 2017 BMC elections as it won 84 seats with the BJP winning 82. The BJP today also the largest party in Maharashtra.

Signalled as it would have the growth of the BJP, this result would understandably have set off alarm bells ringing within not merely the SS but even NCP. Across India, regional parties have a propensity to capitalize on regional sentiment and caste politics more than actual policy. Ipso facto, they are more parochial in their paradigm. In Maharashtra, regional politics is restricted to exploiting Marathi pride, exploiting Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj’s name and raising farmers’ issues (as the NCP does, very much to its credit). However, all of it can help political parties only for so long and so far. Had Devendra Fadnavis continued as Chief Minister uninterrupted, NCP and Shiv Sena would probably have lost influence even further.

The BJP does not overtly exploit regional and linguistic sentiment — certainly not to the extent regional parties in Maharashtra do. It has been consistent in its nationalist paradigm. Yet, it has been gaining ground unimpeded.

That the political experience of Sharad Pawar is unsurpassed by anyone in Maharashtra is an apodictic truth, but he can prove influential only so far. Notwithstanding his leadership, the NCP has never been able to form a government all on its own in Maharashtra — it has always needed the Congress. The NCP has limited acceptance in the state.

It is in the best interests of the Mahavikasaghadi government to project Sharad Pawar as the architect of the alliance, for it then provides them with credence. A senior politician being the architect sends a message of firm command.

I, for one, do not see it as a tour de force. The parties found an opportunity to form the government with a common interest in stopping the BJP’s rise, and they made use of it. Perhaps a leader as percipient as Sharad Pawar knows, but perhaps the Shiv Sena does not, that the BJP’s rise is inevitable. A delay is not a permanent obstacle.

There is also one advantage to Devendra Fadnavis which hardly any other political leader has: his proficiency with statistics. He is habitually ready with statistics in order to project his governance in a manner not employed by anyone else.

This is an interview of Devendra Fadnavis on LokManch, a Marathi endeavour. I personally do not vouch for the veracity of the statistics that Fadnavis used, but he was the only leader to resort to statistics and no one controverted him. He explains that the low rainfall notwithstanding, Maharashtra’s agricultural yield had actually increased under his governance. He further goes on to explain his schemes at length.

He, therefore, can appeal to the educated lot in Maharashtra much better than any other leader. In the long run, this will ultimately prove more beneficial than caste-oriented politics.

When a political party campaigns against the BJP, it would do well to keep the following points into consideration:

  • it arose in its infancy in opposition to the dominant Congress which was almost unchallengeable under Indira Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi. Today, the BJP is the largest party in the world in terms of membership, numbering 180 million, surpassing the Communist Party of China.
  • its flawless cohesion with the pan-India sociocultural organization, namely, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), which heavily grooms its members in social service, social connectivity and understanding politics, keeps it in a constant state of long-term strategy. It is indubitably a political party which must compete for power and try its best to maintain it by such political means as possible, but the sheer scale of influence and manpower it possesses allows it to build contact with the masses in much easier a way than other political parties can. This enables the BJP to focus less on short-term gains and generate protracted strategy. It may sound strange, but the RSS actually grooms individuals to transcend their immediate interests. I say this on the basis of testimonies from family members and friends alike who have had a history of volunteering in the RSS.
  • the amount of financial support that the BJP has from the private sector cannot remotely be rivalled by other parties: regional parties in particular. The amount of money the BJP can spend on elections is often benumbing. Three months prior to the 2019 elections, the BJP had booked 20 private planes and 30 private helicopters for campaigning purposes. On one fine day, Amit Shah alone had flown a distance of 4,500 miles. Aircraft are typically booked for 45 days, with rent for a jet costing as much as $5,700 an hour, and up to $7,200 an hour for the more agile choppers. Understandably, such amounts of money would not be available for state elections, but it points to the abundance of resources in the BJP camp that can be marshalled to its advantage.

Added to it all is incumbent Prime Minister Narendra Modi — a man who was villainized by the media for the 2002 riots, which continues to date. Contrary to what the media expected, its portrayal of Modi as a villain backfired monumentally. Modi decided not to interact with the media at all. He instead created a positive image in the minds of the people through sheer administrative hard-work in Gujarat, adept use of social media in the eve of the 2014 Lok Sabha elections and communicating directly with the masses. The media had hitherto decided the public narrative, but the public saw that it did not need the media’s interpretations anymore.

What Maharashtra saw was the popularity of the national leadership to capitalize on for Devendra Fadnavis, which is not to belittle his own astuteness as a leader, by and large clean governance evident to the masses and enormous economic muscle. What factor was to prevent his rise?

As stated in one of the foregoing paragraphs, the narrow margin in the BMC elections quite possibly set alarm bells ringing within the regional parties in Maharashtra. It evidently became a matter of survival. Who would have otherwise imagined the Shiv Sena entering into an alliance with the INC? Sooner or later, the BJP would very well have managed to defeat the Shiv Sena in BMC. Who, then, is to say that the BJP would similarly not capture the NCP stronghold, namely, Baramati? And so far as Congress was concerned, it had been reduced to a non-entity in Maharashtra.

That is not all. One Saket Kumar on Quora has written a brilliant answer accentuating the BJP’s political strategies, which I shall be using extensively in the following few paragraphs. The single most important trait about the BJP is its unceasing and untiring ambition. It shall accept nothing short of domination, and even forgoing power ad interim is acceptable to it in furtherance of its long-term vision.

The BJP began to rise as a political party in a noticeable manner in the 1990s. Lal Krishna Advani (now 92) and late Atal Bihari Vajpayee were already septuagenarians. Evidently, they must have realized that they could not rely much on themselves to conduct unceasing groundwork in furtherance of the BJP’s expansion. Accordingly, they began forming one alliance after another with regional parties. To them, it was perhaps worth being an insignificant coalition partner in government as opposed to being in the opposition.

But the BJP never ever ceased its groundwork. To that end, the BJP no longer needs many of the alliances it had earlier (mentioned in the linked Quora answer).

The results of the 2014 Lok Sabha elections evinced the beginning of a new chapter in India’s political history. With a phenomenal increase from 116 seats in the previous elections, the BJP won 282 seats in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, and the Congress descended from 206 seats to a paltry 44 seats — never in its history had the Congress been so powerless. It was only a marginal increase for the Congress from 44 to 52 in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, while the BJP went from 282 to 303.

It is reasonable to observe that the BJP is now confident of securing seats well past the requisite half-mark at the national legislature; wherefore, its attention shall now be dedicated to sweeping state after state. That it no longer needs an alliance with the BSP in a crucial state like Uttar Pradesh should indicate its substantial growth.

The ultimate result of the 2019 Maharashtra State Elections — the formation of an SS-NCP-INC government — must be viewed as a golden opportunity for the BJP to dominate Maharashtra in the future. Rest assured that Shiv Sena and NCP can never become dominant in the state, save for the constituencies wherein they have historically won, as well as an aberration or two in some or the other constituency. Given the propensity of people to vote for a robust government, they are not likely to vote for an SS-NCP-INC alliance in the future.

Now I draw your attention to the COVID-19 times. I need not highlight the extremely perilous situation in Maharashtra. Regardless of one’s inclinations, one can safely contend that the Maharashtra government has not been adept in its response to the pandemic. The Maharashtra government’s refusal to hand over to CBI the investigation of actor Sushant Singh Rajput’s mysterious demise has only added to its unpopularity. Amidst all this, Devendra Fadnavis is travelling far and wide in the state connecting directly with the people. He is set to gain public faith and regain popularity.

It is difficult to arrive at any conclusion other than that the Shiv Sena has shot itself in the foot in its pursuit of short-term gain. It would have been in its long-term interest to be aligned with the BJP. Perhaps, in company of the BJP and being proximate with its abilities to gain popularity on ground, it could have learnt and arisen as an alternative to the BJP insofar as Hindutva is concerned. An alliance with the NCP and the Congress merely makes that possibility remote. Unless an unforeseen circumstance blesses the fortunes of the Shiv Sena, these shall prove to be its final few years of any discernible relevance.

One would do well to not trivialize the strategists at the helm of affairs in the BJP. As stated earlier, the BJP secured a majority in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections on its own. It would not be past the national leadership to now focus on planning its electioneering strategies in such a manner as to be able to secure majority even in the states without relying on allies. In the future, therefore, the BJP may well not need the Shiv Sena to secure a majority in Maharashtra.

Eternal as evolution is, I cannot purport to have grown in full measure, and I hope to augment my acuity in the company of beings far more erudite than me.