BJP sweep in Sangli has left Congress ecosystem stunned in Maharashtra

Around the beginning of 2017, just before the big round of municipal elections in 10 cities of Maharashtra, the Modi posters began to disappear or at least became fewer in number. A new BJP poster was making its appearance, with the face of Devendra Fadnavis along with the words “Ha shabda mazaa aahe” (this is my promise). The young CM was taking full charge of the massive state, second largest in India by a number of Lok Sabha seats. In the elections that followed, the BJP shone bright, winning an outright majority in 8/10 cities (most prominently Pune) and holding the Shiv Sena to a draw in Mumbai.

What was amazing was that in most of these corporations, the BJP had stormed into power from nowhere, oftentimes starting with literally 0 seats in the last election. It was clear that a BJP wave was building up.

At that time the opposition prayed that the BJP wave would be limited to cities. First of all, that is cold comfort for the opposition anyway, since Maharashtra is heavily urbanized. If there is a BJP wave in the cities, it means BJP will win at least half of the 48 Lok Sabha seats already.

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But it was one thing for a BJP storm to seize Pune or Pimpri Chinchwad from NCP hands. Pune is a metropolis in waiting, with a mentality not very different from Mumbai. In fact, the real surprise is how a regressive regional party like NCP held on to Pune for that long.

It is quite another thing for the BJP to go into the Congress fortress in Sangli and toss the Congress aside like a toy. This time the BJP won a handy 41 of the 78 seats yesterday, kicking the Congress out of power.

What was the position in 2013? The BJP had ZERO seats. The Congress-NCP had 60/78. And you know what? Congress-NCP didn’t even fight together in 2013 because that is how confident Congress was in its fortress.

This time, however, the Congress was allied with NCP. And the BJP was fighting alone, without Shiv Sena. Honestly, if you had asked me yesterday, I would have said BJP has no chance at all in Sangli. That it would have been lucky to win 1-2 seats.

Because that is what the traditional wisdom would say. But it seems traditional wisdom is not working any more in Maharashtra. Which is awesome!

Something is happening in Maharashtra. There appears to be a churn and it is coming to the surface now.

For those who may not be familiar with Maharashtra politics, it is hard to put in words what kind of seat Sangli is. It’s a Lok Sabha seat that Congress never lost since independence until the Modi wave of 2014. Four years away from the enthusiasm of that famous summer, it would seem that Congress would easily take back its biggest strongholds. But that’s not happening.

There are two things that need to be emphasized here:

(1) We cannot forget that Congress is incredibly powerful in Maharashtra. Except for four years of Shiv Sena, the Congress has always ruled Maharashtra. It’s entire ecosystem and cadre structure is intact, except for the Mumbai-Thane region. Once you go out of Mumbai-Thane, the hinterlands of Maharashtra are full of seats like this: Sangli, Kolhapur, Karad, Satara … Congress strongholds where no other party could dream of winning since independence.  If Congress cannot recover in these places, believe me  … they cannot recover anywhere on the map of India.

(2) Local elections in Maharashtra are incredibly important. The state is run by local satraps and power is won by accumulating support from them, bit by bit, from one corporation to the next. If you remember the 15 years of Cong-NCP rule, you will see that the CM was always a local satrap himself who had won the support of his peers, with no pan-Maharashtra profile and mostly disposable in the larger scheme of things. Ashok Chavan was really the zamindar of Nanded. The Shiv Sena’s antics are all about their control of Mumbai’s BMC and of Thane Municipal Corporation. Even a guy like Raj Thackeray was kept relevant due to his control over Nashik until BJP ousted him from there in 2017.

This means that even a cooperative election is important in Maharashtra: because the tobacco and sugar barons control half the politics.

For what its worth, the BJP also handily won Jalgaon yesterday, picking up 57 out of 75 seats. The BJP was always expected to win in Jalgaon, but perhaps not by such a landslide.

Politics in Maharashtra is entering a very interesting phase.

(1)  The Maratha reservation morchas are at their peak right now … and the BJP still won a “near impossible” seat like Sangli in the heart of Maratha territory. It must be noted that demand for “Maratha reservation” also contains a surreptitious demand for Muslim reservation. Check their list of demands. This was the Congress’ M^2-strategy for Maharashtra: Maratha + Muslim. And on paper, it seems good enough to destroy the BJP.

Perhaps it is too early to celebrate, but there is now reason to believe that the Maratha card is not working. People are seeing through this. They are seeing that Congress sided with Marathas against Dalits in 2017, then sided with Dalits against Marathas in Jan 2018 and is now siding again with Marathas against Dalits. In other words, their only aim is to burn Maharashtra.

This is an incredibly rare phenomenon in Indian politics. Reservation always works to sway Hindu voters. Incredibly enough, Maharashtra is seeing through the game and that’s just wonderful. Perhaps this is due to the heavily urbanized nature of Maharashtra.

(2) Let us talk about CM Devendra Fadnavis. They have tried to hobble him in every possible way with daily caste agitations. Seems Fadnavis keeping his head down, staying humble and focusing on performance/delivery has struck a chord with the masses. The constant vilification coming from Shiv Sena has also made him out to be a victim.

By the way, the Sena couldn’t win a single seat in Sangli yesterday and lost miserably to BJP in Jalgaon.

For the first time in decades, a pan-Maharashtra leader could be emerging, with an image of his own that cuts across castes and regions of the state. This year Fadnavis celebrated Ambedkar’s birthday by giving electricity connections to numerous Dalit majority villages. The Congress celebrated Ambedkar Jayanti by raising JNU style slogans. Guess which one Dalits liked better?

In 2016, Fadnavis brought relief to parched Latur (another traditional Congress stronghold) by means of the very visible water train.

The rewards for the BJP were immediate. In April 2017, the BJP won Latur’s civic body. Possibly the first time since independence that a non-Congress party would rule there. And then Fadnavis made sure that things were planned well enough so that the need for an emergency water train would not arise in 2017. This is called performance. His Jal Yukt Shivir is a runaway hit in rural areas. These are simple tricks to reduce the misery of people … measures that should have been taken 40 years ago. What did Congress have to offer as a counter? Caste!!!! But, guess what? You can’t drink caste. But you can drink the water that has been harvested in your local Jal Yukt Shivir.

As Fadnavis said in his banners, “Ha shabda mazaa aahe.

Abhishek Banerjee is a math lover who may or not be an Assistant Professor at IISc Bangalore.

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