“May the better man win because there literally isn’t a single woman contesting in my constituency,” regretted Rujuta Date, a 24-year-old anthropologist. She added that she went to vote “knowing full well that only bad things have happened since people my age started voting in 2014.” She is referring to having voted in the state assembly election of Maharashtra, which was held on October 21, 2019.
The state of Maharashtra has always been an important one in the national political landscape. I think that the state owes its stature to its tall leaders, its geographical size and the clout that comes with housing the commercial capital of India, Mumbai. It has 288 elected seats in its state assembly, and a political party or an alliance needs at least 145 seats to earn a majority so as to form the executive government.
Previously, a bumpy saffron alliance between the Bharatiya Janata Party and the Shiv Sena ruled the state with a comfortable majority of 217 seats (142 + 75), even though they fought the 2014 state assembly election separately. This time around, the BJP-Sena alliance managed to win only 161 seats (105 + 56). The opposition alliance of Congress-NCP bettered its performance by winning more seats (44 + 54) this time, with the NCP emerging at the forefront.
The BJP’s Devendra Fadnavis, the incumbent CM, in my opinion, was clever to stitch a pre-poll alliance with the Sena this time around, a move which might serve to further cement his leadership in the state. Since the inception of their alliance in 1989, the Sena has always had the upper hand in terms of seat-sharing numbers. But it chose to settle for 124 seats against the BJP’s 150 seats for the 2019 state election.
I view the Sena’s ‘deference’ as a sign of its recognition of the growing influence of the BJP nationally. In the 2019 general election, the saffron alliance managed to clinch victory in 41 out 48 seats in Maharashtra. The alliance seemed confident of repeating its success in the general election in the state election. Exit poll predictions had rightly predicted that the BJP will emerge as numero uno in the state, closely followed by its ally, the Sena.
“I know that the BJP-Shiv Sena alliance is going to be at the helm, no matter who I vote for. There is an undeniable saffron wave all over the country,” asserted Apurupa Vatsalya, a 27-year-old sex educator and the author’s sister. It should be noted that the exit polls enthusiastically predicted a clean sweep for the BJP, whereas the BJP couldn’t even manage to win the same number of seats as last time, let alone improve its own performance.
What does this mean for the Indian National Congress (INC)-led alliance? The alliance managed to secure mere 56 seats in the 2014 state election. It was expected to improve its seat count this time (which it did, by winning 98 seats). The dismal numbers of the Congress by itself (44) suggest that the opposition needs to up the ante with respect to public engagement, so as to revive its support base in Maharashtra.
Varun Patil (name changed to protect identity), a 23-year-old mental health professional said, “I chose to vote for the BJP-Shiv Sena candidate in my area because the media created a negative impression about the Congress in my mind. They have been the ruling party for more than 50 years but the development has been slow and there were a lot of scams. I don’t see the Congress as worthy or capable anymore.”
The state was an erstwhile, undisputed bastion of the Congress party. I attribute the downturn in the Congress-NCP’s sway in the state to its failure to adequately raise the real issues of the people and to capitalise on these issues by making them a part of public discourse. For instance, many villages in the state are drought-stricken and going through an agrarian crisis. The ‘Kisan Long March’ saw 50,000 farmers marching to the state capital of Mumbai to express their grievances.
The 2019 state election was fought in the backdrop of an economic slowdown and the scarcity of jobs. Yet, the opposition was unable to amply use these issues to create a dent in the public perception of the ruling government’s image. The opposition should have used anti-incumbency sentiments of the people to its advantage but it wasn’t able to do so.
The grand old party of Indian politics (INC) has failed to inspire confidence in the voters of Maharashtra. There is a need for it to pull its socks up and tackle the BJP-Sena head-on. NCP’s stalwart Sharad Pawar actively campaigned for the opposition (in the face of several of its senior leaders like Sachin Ahir defecting to the saffron alliance) and has been touted as a major reason for it picking up some momentum. But the Congress-NCP needs to vigorously work as a responsible opposition over the next five years so that it can challenge the BJP-Sena’s dominion in 2024.
In my judgment, people who support the Congress largely do so because they disagree with the BJP-Sena’s legitimisation of an outright Hindutva agenda and not because they see merit in the Congress-NCP’s agenda. “I voted for the Congress this time because I was sick and tired of the BJP flaring communal tensions. I didn’t want to vote for the Congress but there was no other option,” said Abhishek Vatsayan, a 24-year-old copywriter.
The voter turnout in Maharashtra was only 61% approximately (which is lesser than the turnout of 63% in the 2014 state election). Representative democracies perform better when more people vote because increased participation in political processes is indicative of a more active, interactive and hence willing citizenry. There was a sense of despondency amongst the youngsters I spoke to, cutting across the political spectrum. This doesn’t bode well for the state of Maharashtra and the country in general.
Nihar Nair, a 26-year-old entrepreneur, one of the founders of Vagabond, said, “(I) took part in my democratic duty to feel like sh*t, to feel that illusion of power that I may make a difference, to feel that utopian altruism I once bred… slowly morph towards apathetic pragmatism.”
In fact, South Mumbai’s Colaba constituency (where I voted from) registered the lowest voter turnout, which is personally disheartening.
The results are out and the BJP-Sena alliance, also known as ‘Mahayuti’, has won a total of 161 seats. This means that they have crossed the half-way mark of 144 and are going to form the next executive government in Maharashtra. But, their tally has dipped, when compared to the 2014 state election. The alliance fell short of their desired target of winning 220+ seats in the state assembly.
It remains to be seen if the BJP will honour the 50-50 power-sharing formula that was agreed between Uddhav Thackeray of the Sena and Home Minister Amit Shah before the elections, such that Thackeray scion Aaditya (who won from Worli with a margin of 70,000 votes) will be sitting in the Chief Minister’s (CM) chair for 2.5 years.
Speculations are rife about Aaditya Thackeray being offered the Deputy CM’s chair now that the BJP faces a greater need to appease its ally the Sena, after its underwhelming performance. The results tell me that banking solely on the magic of Narendra Modi and his ‘popular‘ decisions (such as revoking Article 370 in J&K) to win seats in state assembly elections is proving to be inadequate.
Even though the BJP won a thumping victory nationally, it didn’t live up to its own standards in the states of Maharashtra and Haryana. This should rightly be treated as a wake-up call by the BJP.
Note: The author is part of the current batch of the Writer’s Training Program.