The results of polls held in more than 2,300 gram panchayats in Maharashtra are out and have instantly become the subject of debate – can these be viewed as the litmus test of political trends in the state?
The debate is complex because these polls are not held under any election symbol given to political parties. However, MLAs from various parties form their own panels and contest the polls through their representatives. Whether this can be seen as a victory of a particular party is arguable but certain conclusions can be drawn based on the results that emerged on Monday.
The elections to over 14 municipal corporations and 25 district councils in Maharashtra have been pending for more than 18 months now. There have been several political twists and turns, with leaders changing sides, political parties shifting their stand and a change in government, too. All these events happened under circumstances termed ‘unethical’ or ‘illegal’, by a section of politicians. Thus was fostered the sentiment about the outcome of the next polls indicating whether or not there was public acceptance of the actions of various leaders.
Since the municipal polls have been repeatedly postponed, many turned to the gram panchayat polls for some indication of the public mood. These polls do not matter much for mega cities like Mumbai and Pune or other urban areas in the state, so not much attention was paid by the national media to the poll results declared on Monday. However, these polls have definitelyset the trend for the upcoming bigger state assembly and Lok Sabha polls, as these gram panchayats or selfrule bodies are the basic building blocks of the assembly constituency.
Just as the assembly polls in the five states are seen as a semi-final for the big 2024 Lok Sabha polls, these panchayat polls are seen as a curtain raiser to the 2024 Maharashtra assembly polls.
What conclusions may be drawn, based on the panchayat poll results?
The first and perhaps the most important one is that the Shiv Sena under Eknath Shinde has fared well in these elections, in most parts of Maharashtra.
There was some skepticism about whether Shinde would be able to carry the weight of the party and the 40-plus MLAs who decided to part ways with Uddhav Thackeray and go with him. There were doubts that people were likely to view him as the traitor who had backstabbed Uddhav Thackeray and vote against him. There were also doubts about how his 40 MLAs would convince the people of their constituencies about their action of splitting the Shiv Sena, forming their own group and then going on to also bag the original party’s election symbol and name. But the overall trends seen in the gram panchayat polls clearly show that Shinde has overcome most of these hurdles. In most places, MLAs from the Shinde camp floated their panels in the panchayat polls and won with a comfortable margin.
The second obvious point is that of Deputy Chief Minister Ajit Pawar gaining confidence on his home turf of Baramati. Around a couple of months ago, it became clear that Ajit Pawar and Sharad Pawar had finally reached a stage where battle lines had been drawn between them. The big question was what they would do in their political bastion and home turf of Baramati. Would they take on each other there? The answer is evident from the poll results, where they fought each other for the control of 33 village bodies in the Baramati area and Ajit Pawar’s supporters won in 30 of the 33 bodies. It is now clear that Ajit Pawar has not only come out in the field against his uncle Sharad Pawar, no holds barred, but has also proved that he has more mass support in the region.
The third conclusion to be drawn from these polls is the apparent success of Devendra Fadnavis and his team BJP in managing coalition partners Shinde and Ajit Pawar. The BJP currently has the largest number of MLAs in the state assembly and as a result, can command most assembly constituencies where its panels were fielded. Usually, the sitting MLA has an advantage in the local polls, having control over resources. The party took full advantage and got maximum numbers in the panchayat polls. In that sense, the results come as a shot in the arm for the BJP, which was not entirely confident about how the public had accepted the Mahayuti in the state and the party’s decision to include Ajit Pawar in their government.
In conclusion, the poll results have given an indication about the lay of the land, so to speak, in the state’s rural and remote areas. In municipal or rural panchayat polls, usually national issues don't matter, it is mainly fought on issues related to development and infrastructure, such as roads or hospitals. Next in line are local socio-political equations of caste and community. The opposition parties, the Congress, the Uddhav Thackeray Shiv Sena and the Sharad Pawar-led NCP did not do too badly in these polls either, manag - ing to win over 750 village panchayats all over the state. But the ruling alliance undeniably has a slight ed - ge, having notched up wins in over 1,200 panchayats.