Unlike in 2014, the 2019 Lok Sabha poll is an entirely different story. Anyone touring the state can tell that the persona of Prime Minister Narendra Modi has been relegated to the backseat despite his campaign blitzkrieg. This time, Maharashtra is grappling with the farm crisis, drinking water shortage, jobs and development. People are talking more about these vital matters than the Prime Minister. The emphasis is on bread-and-butter issues.
The Bharatiya Janata Party-Shiv Sena (BJP-SS) insiders concede privately that this election is different from the 2014 Lok Sabha polls, which gave a clear majority to the saffron party under Modi. The brute majority had helped the BJP to come out of the shadow of the Sena, which has now been relegated to a pale shadow.
However, this does not mean the electoral battle will be a cakewalk for the opposition either. It only means that the playing field has been levelled to an extent, as the Modi factor is not working. It is still evident the BJP has a well-oiled election machine and is flush with resources, unlike its rivals.
Heavyweights in the ruling BJP-Sena and the opposing Congress-Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) are facing a tough electoral battle tough as people are restive and want answers. Prakash Ambedkar’s Vanchit Bahujan Aghadi is openly playing the caste card, having calculated that this would make it relevant in the post-poll situation.
There is another phenomenon at play this time. Vote banks of major political parties are breaking up for various reasons. The fact is that Maharashtra is in a transition state. It has struggled to create its own political model since the start of the era of coalition governments in 1995.
And this is happening at a time when ambitious leaders believe that divisive politics will either help them retain power or come into it. Anti-incumbency is certainly a factor to reckon with in this election in Maharashtra, at a time when caste combines are working effectively in Uttar Preadesh and Bihar and the card of regional pride is being openly played in Andhra Pradesh, Telangana and Tamil Nadu, firmly arresting the inroads being made by national parties.
After the two phases of polling in Maharashtra, reports suggest that it may not be easy for Union Minister Nitin Gadkari (Nagpur), the Pradesh Congress chief Ashok Chavan (Nanded) and former union minister and Lok Sabha leader Sushilkumar Shinde (Solapur). People are talking less about Modi’s charisma or Congress president Rahul Gandhi’s campaign against corruption in the Rafale defence deal.
Nor are they enamoured by Shiv Sena chief Uddhav Thackeray’s aggressive Hindutva, Prakash Ambedkar’s social justice card or the MNS chief Raj Thackeray’s meetings. People are blaming leaders for their choice of candidates and for failure to take up issues close to their heart.
In Aurangabad, the BJP is passive about the Shiv Sena’s sitting MP Chandrakant Khaire, a fourth-termer, while the Sena workers are unenthusiastic about the Maharashtra BJP chief Raosaheb Danve fighting from the adjoining Jalna seat.
In Nagpur, the second capital of Maharashtra, Nitin Gadkari, was compelled to remain in his constituency to campaign for himself, instead of addressing meetings in other parts of the state. This is despite Gadkari’s image of being the most effective minister in the Modi dispensation.
Gadkari had to literally burn the midnight oil due to the consolidation of Dalit, Muslim and Kunbi (DMK) votes in this election. In Solapur, Sushilkumar Shinde, who has been in positions of power since 1972 and has enjoyed goodwill among various sections of society, faced a challenge from Prakash Ambedkar as the face of the Vanchit Bahujan Aghadi.
This has made the position of the BJP nominee, Lingayat seer Jaisiddeshwar Swami stronger . Shinde has recently said this would be his last election. Ashok Chavan, the former chief minister of Maharashtra and son of the late Congress veteran S B Chavan, was among the two Congress candidates who won the Lok Sabha elections in the face of the Modi tsunami in 2014.
But this time, he had to spend a lot of time on his home turf and he had to seek the help of MNS chief Raj Thackeray to expose Modi. In Mumbai, industrialist Mukesh Ambani is backing Mumbai Congress chief Milind Deora, who is known to be a member of Rahul Gandhi’s inner circle.
But he is being seen as the common candidate of the Congress and the BJP, in large measure, for being perceived by Jains as respectful of their religion and its beliefs. Jains and Gujaratis are traditionally BJP voters. The BJP-SS alliance candidate, Arvind Sawant, is from the Sena. It was the Modi wave that had put Sawant on the road to victory in 2014.
The BJP-Sena and its then ally, the Swabhimani Shetkari Sanghatana had together won 42 of the 48 Lok Sabha seats in 2014. This time, the ruling alliance is ruing that the Modi card is failing to click despite the failure of the Congress-NCP to get its campaigning act together.
(Venkatesh Kesari is a former sr journalist, The Asian Age)