In Maharashtra, an election like never before

As soon as the model code of conduct for the Lok Sabha election 2024 was announced, political movements picked up pace in Maharashtra. The pace with which permutations and combinations have been worked out between political parties and the ways they have been wooing allies have confused even seasoned observers who are hard put to figure out who is in which camp. By design or otherwise, this chaos has already ensured that the stories of the 2024 Lok Sabha election will be told for a long time.

Make no mistake, there is no visible wave for any one side this time. There is a battle on for each seat. A few months ago, many would have imagined Maharashtra 2024 as a straight clash between two alliances. But this is not the case. The 48 battles across Maharashtra have several cross-connections and are influenced by local equations, communities, family ties, and interests.

Pick any constituency, it will give you an idea that more than the national political narrative, the local “politricks” are more important this time. In the first phase on April 19, voting will take place in five constituencies. BJP stalwart Nitin Gadkari is contesting from Nagpur. Against him, the Congress has fielded its city chief and MLA Vikas Thakre. The party has three major camps in Nagpur city, but Thakre is the consensus candidate for all three, not for his popularity or achievements, but because he is a weak choice against Gadkari. In return, it is alleged that Gadkari will stay out of Vidarbha.

The VBA confusion

Prakash Ambedkar’s Vanchit Bahujan Aghadi (VBA) has given its support to the Congress in this seat, the only one the Congress will fight in the first phase. Political observers know well that this support counts for nothing, but in return, Ambedkar has fielded candidates in the other four seats in the first phase. Interestingly, the ground situation in these four constituencies, Bhandara-Gondia, Gadchiroli-Chimur, Chandrapur, and Ramtek, suggests that this time the BJP can survive only if there is a division of votes between the Congress and the VBA.

It is now clear that there will not be an alliance between the INDIA bloc and the VBA. After talks went on for almost three months, the alliance did not take off, due to the contradictory claims of both the Maha Vikas Aghadi (MVA) and the VBA.

On the other hand, Ambedkar immediately moved to Manoj Jarange-Patil, the leader of the Maratha reservation protest, and proposed an alliance. Earlier, Jarange had appealed to the public to vote for one Maratha candidate in each seat. This appeal was seen as another possibility for the division of votes against the BJP-led NDA. If Ambedkar and Jarange-Patil continue their plan to contest the elections together, it will certainly create another headache for the MVA.

Also Read | Maharashtra: Season of hard bargains

However, this move to form an alliance between the VBA and Jarange-Patil could prove counterproductive too. As the election is going to be polarised on pro-BJP and anti-BJP lines, Jarange-Patil and Ambedkar will be risking their political capital. Jarange-Patil is the leader of the Maratha community, and Ambedkar, though he tried to spread his influence among all deprived castes, is mainly the leader of scheduled castes. Many political theorists have written about the history of political competition between these two communities for many centuries. The situation has not changed even today. In such a case, the anti-BJP and pro-BJP votes in both communities–the Marathas and the Scheduled Castes–would most likely move directly to the INDIA bloc and the NDA, respectively.

BJP’s multi-pronged strategy

The division of anti-BJP vote blocs has been a principal strategy of the BJP in Maharashtra over the last three years. After engineering splits within the Shiv Sena and the NCP, and poaching Congress leaders, the BJP is now aiming to bring Raj Thackeray, Uddhav Thackeray’s estranged cousin, into the fray. The saffron party has offered one Lok Sabha seat and 12 Assembly seats to Raj Thackeray’s Maharashtra Navnirman Sena.

The desperation to bring Raj Thackeray into its fold has come after the party realised the possible anger of Marathi voters. Since the BJP broke the two important regional parties of Maharashtra, the Shiv Sena and the NCP, the opposition has been heavily campaigning over the BJP’s anti-Maharashtra stance. To counter this, the BJP wants Raj Thackeray. But Raj Thackeray has not agreed to the BJP’s offer so far and is reportedly demanding two Lok Sabha seats.

But the BJP succeeded on another front, the Rashtriya Samaj Paksha (RSP), a party created by Mahadev Jankar, an influential leader from the Dhangar (shepherd) community, which has been in alliance with the BJP for the last 10 years. Recently, Jankar levelled allegations against the BJP for neglecting him and was seen meeting the NCP(SP) chief Sharad Pawar.

Also Read | Can the two Aghadis join hands in Maharashtra?

There were talks that Jankar could contest from the Madha Lok Sabha constituency in western Maharashtra, which was represented by Sharad Pawar between 2009 and 2014. The Dhangar community is also sizeable in the Baramati Lok Sabha constituency, which has been a bastion of the Pawar family for the last five decades. But after the split in Pawar’s family, it is Deputy Chief Minister Ajit Pawar’s wife Sunetra who will contest against Supriya Sule, her sister-in-law and Sharad Pawar’s daughter.

Jankar coming into the INDIA bloc would have helped Supriya in Baramati and Praniti, the daughter of heavyweight Congress leader Sushilkumar Shinde, who is contesting from Solapur, adjoining Madha. The BJP realised the possible damage and quickly pacified Jankar.

Union Minister and BJP candidate Nitin Gadkari with Maharashtra  Deputy Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis and others at a rally before filing his nomination papers for the Lok Sabha elections in Nagpur on March 27, 2024.

Union Minister and BJP candidate Nitin Gadkari with Maharashtra Deputy Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis and others at a rally before filing his nomination papers for the Lok Sabha elections in Nagpur on March 27, 2024. | Photo Credit: PTI

That, however, has made the BJP’s case more complicated. The party had declared its current MP Ranjitsinh Naik-Nimbalkar as its candidate, but there was a clear rebellion against Nimbalkar, chiefly from two prominent families of western Maharashtra politics. First is Nimbalkar’s own family, with Ramraje Naik-Nimbalkar, his uncle and a leader of Ajit Pawar’s NCP, refusing to work for him. The second big family is Vijaysinh Mohite-Patil’s, prominent in Akluj in Solapur, who has also refused to work for Nimbalkar. Patil had joined the BJP in 2019. Now, he has joined hands with NCP veteran Sharad Pawar and by March 27, it became clear that his nephew Dhairyashil Mohite-Patil will be the NCP(SP) candidate from Madha. This is a major jolt for the BJP in western Maharashtra. The Mohite Patil family is strong in the Solapur district and has pockets of influence in Pune and Satara districts.

There is a buzz that the erstwhile royal families of Maharashtra are slowly turning against the BJP. The wheels have turned in the last five years. First, Kolhapur King Shahu Maharaj became a Congress candidate. Later, Ramraje Naik-Nimbalkar, who parted ways from Sharad Pawar to join Ajit Pawar eight months ago, openly refused to work for the BJP. Another descendant of King Shivaji, Udayanraje Bhosale from Satara, is also in two minds over being with the BJP.

Royal shifts

These movements of royal families are not just a reaction. They look like a plan designed over the months. Shahu Maharaj of Kolhapur entered politics for the first time at the age of 75. He led the rebellion within the BJP. The party’s politics to push ideologically committed cadres into key positions has disturbed the prominent families of western Maharashtra. Shahu reportedly convinced Ramraje Naik-Nimbalkar and Vijaysinh Mohite-Patil to distance themselves from the BJP at the right time. Patil’s son Ranjitsinh is the son-in-law of Nagpur’s Bhosale clan.

Shahu Maharaj of Kolhapur was born in Nagpur’s Bhosale kingship but was adopted by the Kolhapur royal family. Therefore, Mohite-Patil is directly related to Shahu Maharaj. Udayanraje Bhosale of Satara, who ditched Sharad Pawar in 2019 to join the BJP, subsequently lost the byelection and it is Shahu Maharaj who is now convincing him to return to the Sharad Pawar fold. All four families have a huge influence on the voting populations of western Maharashtra.

Shiv Sena (Uddhav Balasaheb Thackeray) Chief Uddhav Thackeray addresses a public meeting ahead of the Lok Sabha elections at Vasmat in Hingoli on March 18, 2024.

Shiv Sena (Uddhav Balasaheb Thackeray) Chief Uddhav Thackeray addresses a public meeting ahead of the Lok Sabha elections at Vasmat in Hingoli on March 18, 2024. | Photo Credit: ANI

These developments look good for the opposition alliance MVA. However, the infighting within the MVA is a matter of concern. Uddhav Thackeray, in a unilateral move, announced candidates in Sangli, Mumbai South Central, and Mumbai North West constituencies. The Congress is demanding all three constituencies in seat-sharing. As soon as Uddhav Thackeray’s list of candidates came out, the entire Congress leadership became vocal against Uddhav Thackeray, asking him to follow alliance ethics and not announce candidates unilaterally on contentious seats. Sanjay Nirupam, a Mumbai Congress leader eyeing Mumbai North West, suggested a “friendly fight” in such seats. This development has the potential to break the MVA now. How the Shiv Sena (UBT) and Congress senior leadership will resolve the issue needs to be seen.

Also Read | INDIA bloc’s Vanchit dilemma in Maharashtra

ED, as usual

Making the Maharashtra affair murkier is the Centre’s use of investigation agencies on State leaders. Within two hours of Uddhav Thackeray announcing the candidature of Amol Kirtikar in Mumbai North West, the Enforcement Directorate issued a summons to him. Kirtikar is accused by the BJP in the COVID-19 hospital meals scam. Questions are being raised about the timing of the ED notices, and are seen as signs of how graceless the Maharashtra election is going to be this time.

In 2014, the BJP and Shiv Sena alliance clinched 42 of 48 seats in Maharashtra. Fast forward to 2019, and the alliance secured 41 seats. However, the landscape has since shifted dramatically. The BJP has now forged new alliances while its oldest ally, Uddhav Thackeray, has turned adversary. Determined to maintain the coalition’s strength, the BJP employs every stratagem at its disposal. Meanwhile, for Uddhav Thackeray, Sharad Pawar, and the Congress, this election has become a pivotal showdown. Maharashtra is in the throes of an electoral battle unlike any it has seen before.

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