The poll bugle has been sounded, in just less than a year, the world’s largest democracy will go to polls to elect it’s Prime Minister. While the Modi-Shah duo led BJP has prioritized every state and every seat and perhaps this is the secret to BJP’s stunning rise in recent times. However, they both know that two states hold key to 2019, the state of Uttar Pradesh and Maharashtra. Maharashtra is the second largest state in terms of Lok Sabha seats with 48 seats and is set for an intriguing battle and a possible four-way contest. So will the BJP come out trumps or will it cede ground to the Congress-NCP alliance and it’s disgruntled ally Shiv Sena? Maharashtra is a box full of surprises and lets take a look at possible scenarios and combinations:-
Scenario 1:- BJP against Congress-NCP combine and Shiv Sena (likely)
This on paper looks like a nightmare scenario for the BJP and Devendra Fadnavis. The alliance between the Congress-NCP will ensure consolidation of their voter base and any anti-incumbency votes. Importantly, minority vote won’t be split like it did in UP assembly elections and with Shiv Sena breaking away from the BJP. Hindu consolidation will only remain a dream thus hurting BJP’s prospects in the state. However, ever since the BJP came to power in Maharashtra, be it Municipal polls or Panchayat polls, BJP has come out trumps. The BJP has been in this situation before and is quite aware of the potential pitfalls. In Feb 2017, the BJP faced Shiv Sena and the NCP-Congress combine in the BMC elections and surprised everyone with its performance. Mumbai is a traditional stronghold for the Shiv Sena and BMC is the cash cow keeping the party afloat. The Sena’s organisational strength is unmatched in the mega city and everyone expected the party to retain power on its own. However, the Shiv Sena could bag only 84 seats out of 227 and BJP bagged a whopping 82 seats thus ending the Sena monopoly in the BMC and forcing the party to got to the BJP for every major decision. The Congress-NCP alliance on the other hand somehow managed to reduce their ever-shrinking tally despite the division of BJP and Shiv Sena and finished on a meagre 40 seats. The BMC elections proved to be a watershed moment for Devendra Fadnavis and his government considering the fact that a trouncing at the hands of Shiv Sena would have seen his government fall prematurely.
While some would argue that BJP’s main strength is in the urban areas and it is hard to disagree with that. But to think that BJP is only limited to urban areas is foolhardy. The NCP and the Congress used to be a formidable force in rural areas until Devendra Fadnavis took reigns of the state.
Let’s take a look at the party’s performance in rural areas since 2014:-
NCP’s core strength lies in rural areas and Pune, Pimpri-Chinchwad, Akola etc are considered to be its bastions. In the same year, BJP completely trounced NCP in Pune and won 100 seats out of 162 and NCP could only manage to muster 38 seats. In Zilla Parishad elections which were also held at the same time, the BJP emerged as the single largest party winning 403 seats out of 1470 followed by NCP at 350, Congress at 303 and Shiv Sena at 266. The BJP breaching the rural fortress of NCP-Congress is of huge significance and underlines the people’s faith in Modi and Fadnavis.
In October 2017, Maharashtra went to polls in 7,576 Gram Panchayats spread over 34 districts across the state, the BJP yet again emerged as the single largest party winning 2,768 seats while Congress could bag only 613 seats finishing second, while Shiv Sena finished third bagging 517 seats. The NCP could muster only 491 seats finishing last. The gap between the BJP and the rest is simply too huge to ignore. And for the record these elections were essentially BJP vs The Rest as NCP-INC fought together and had a tacit understanding with Shiv Sena at many places and hence didn’t field any candidate. The total combined seats garnered by the opposition is 1,621 way below BJP’s tally and gives hardly any backing to the theory that a united opposition will stop the BJP’s victory in Maharashtra. Yet again, in December 2017, the BJP won 6 out of 10 Municipal Councils that went to polls.
While 2017 seems to be a distant memory and given the Indian polity a few months can completely change the country’s mood. However, this doesn’t seem to be the case in Maharashtra where in April 2018, the BJP won four out of the six municipal elections that went to polls. It seems that BJP is well prepared to take on the NCP-INC combine and a rebelling Shiv Sena as far as Maharashtra is concerned.
Scenario 2:- The troika of NCP-INC-Shiv Sena combine to take on the BJP (unlikely)
An ideal scenario for the BJP but for this to happen Uddhav Thackeray will have to perform like Rahul Gandhi. Sharad Pawar has publicly stated that he will not form a coalition with Shiv Sena despite the latter sending feelers to both the Congress and the NCP. The core idea behind the INC-NCP alliance is to consolidate minority votes which will be thrown out of the picture if Shiv Sena joins the coalition. Educated Muslims have been softer than ever towards the BJP especially in the light of the party’s stance against Triple Talaq and in the UP elections, not even the ardent Congress fan can deny the fact that Muslims voted for the BJP. It might not be a significant or decisive chunk but an important indication. Muslims can never vote for the Shiv Sena due to its radical opinions on some issues and this might result in drifting away of minority votes to BJP or AIMM if it decides to contest in Maharashtra. While the BJP might be in for a huge Hindu consolidation because an average Sena voter is much likely to gravitate towards BJP than the other way around. The birth of Shiv Sena stemmed from the anti-Congress sentiment and Bal Thackeray’s tirades against the Congress are folklore. Uddhav will have a tough time explaining it’s voter base for his sudden love for Congress and especially NCP. This will certainly lead to BJP cutting the voter base of Shiv Sena as most of the Shiv Sena voters are staunch supporters of Bal Thackeray and can never vote for Congress. Also, Nationalism will be one of the main issues in 2019 and by siding with Congress, Shiv Sena’s nationalist image will take a huge hit. Never mind the seat sharing chaos that will certainly ensue. The arrogance of Uddhav, the foolishness of Rahul and the greediness of Pawar will certainly result in an explosive combination albeit for the BJP.
Scenario 3:- One Nation, One Election (most likely)
It is no secret that PM Modi wants to hold all elections be it state or centre at once which will see the nation save a large chunk of money and not be in a constant state of elections. Unfortunately, 2019 will be a little bit early for this ground-breaking reform. However, PM Modi is not the one who easily gives up on his dreams. In all probability, he will ensure that most of the BJP ruled state assemblies who are supposed to go to polls around the Lok Sabha elections, be dissolved and fresh polls be conducted together in May 2019. Maharashtra happens to be one such state with elections taking place just 6 months after the General Elections. In all probability, Maharashtra will go to polls in May 2019. This would spell trouble for the likes of NCP and Shiv Sena. There’s a reason why almost all the regional parties are opposing this reform, if the Lok and Vidhan Sabha polls are held together, the regional parties will have to battle for survival. In the Modi-era, the regional parties except for Congress, BJD and TMC have been turned into non-players with Modi trying to make the 2019 election a US-Presidential style election which will greatly benefit him and his party. Post demonetization parties like BSP and TMC lost a lot of money almost emptying their coffers. This means that regional parties would now have the funds to fight any one election if both the elections are held together. With all bets being placed on BJP and Modi to retain power, it is unlikely that regional parties will find sizeable donations. The parties will be forced to prioritise one election over the other and most likely the regional parties will be forced to focus on the Assembly elections as their Lok Sabha prospects look bleak and a wipe-out in the state legislature would mean Amit Shah writing the political obituary of SS and NCP. The biggest benefit of this reform would be that PM Modi will be able to garner votes directly in his name. Any local sentiments against the state leadership will be superseded by the presence of Modi. This will make the elections more centralized which the regional parties simply cannot afford.
While the prospects of a BJP-SS alliance for 2019 elections look increasingly bleak but it is not impossible. Together the BJP and SS hold almost every meaningful body in the state and have absolutely decimated the opposition. Simply put they have a lot to gain together then fighting against each other. However, Fadnavis has proved to be an able administrator and an election-winning machine who has done irreversible damage to NCP and Congress in just 4 years. The BJP can well look at Maharashtra to offset losses if it faces any losses at all in the Hindi heartland.