BJP’s superstar campaigner, PM Modi kicks off the first leg of the party’s poll drive in Mumbai

The sights of all those in the business of politics are trained on the meeting to be addressed by the Prime Minister and  ‘superman’ of the Bharatiya Janata Party, Narendra Modi, at the Turf Club grounds, Mahalaxmi Racecourse on Saturday evening. The future course of Maharashtra politics, particularly of the forthcoming state assembly elections, would be decided based on the line taken by Modi in his speech.

This is Modi’s first speech in Mumbai after his return from a successful US visit. It is also his first since the falling apart of his party’s 25-year-old alliance with the Shiv Sena. Modi being the only star speaker for the BJP, all party leaders and workers have been eagerly awaiting his entry into the election campaign. It is learnt that Modi has planned over two dozen campaign meetings in Maharashtra prior to the October 15 poll. This is the first leg of the campaign.

The BJP-Sena alliance broke 48 hours before the deadline for the filing of election nominations. Obviously, both parties had to scramble around for candidates at the nth hour. The BJP decided to carry along three allies from the erstwhile ‘Mahayuti’ just to make things difficult for the Sena, leaving it without a friend. The Sena chief, Uddhav Thackeray, made a last-minute public appeal to Ramdas Athawale of the Republican Party of India (RPI), leader of the strongest Dalit outfit in the state, offering him the post of Deputy Chief Minister. Athawale, however, stuck to his guns. The breakdown of the grand alliance has surely weakened the main partners, the Sena and the BJP.  However, the opponents, the Congress and the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP), are in no position to take advantage of this situation, as their alliance too broke up within just two hours after the Sena-BJP parted ways.  Events happened as though they were part of an unscripted, but well-conceived and rehearsed drama.

While the Sena is banking on its bastions in Konkan, Marathwada and on Marathi-speaking voters in the Mumbai metropolitan region, the BJP sees itself in a position of strength in Vidarbha, North Maharashtra and among the non-Marathi-speaking voters in Mumbai. The Congress-NCP has its strongholds in the sugar belts of western and southern Maharashtra. Sensing the danger in that region, the BJP has maintained a strategic alliance with the Swabhimani Shetkari Sanghatana of Raju Shetti, the Rashtriya Samaj Paksha of Mahadev Jankar and Athawale’s RPI. While Shetti has a sway over small and medium-level sugarcane growers in three southern districts, Jankar, a leader of the Dhangar (shepherd) community, has considerable influence in Western Maharashtra and parts of Marathwada. Dalits loyal to Athawale are spread out almost all over the state. This makes BJP the strongest among the four near-equal contenders in the fray.

However, despite this fact, the party has failed to project any of its leaders as the future chief minister. It still seems to be floundering after the sudden demise of Gopinath Munde. There are at least five strong contenders for the post. Devendra Fadnavis, president of the party’s state unit, Eknath Khadse, Leader of the Opposition in the Assembly, Vinod Tawde, Leader of the Opposition in the Council and Pankaja Munde, daughter of Gopinath Munde, are already in the fray. Moreover, Union Minister Nitin Gadkari, who has publicly expressed his reluctance to return to the state, will certainly throw his hat into the ring at the last minute.

It would be interesting to see if Modi sends out any signal to party workers and voters about his possible choice for the post. Before his city address, he is scheduled to address two meetings in Marathwada, one of them in Beed, Munde’s district. Is that any indication?

Another issue likely to surface is that of a possible ally for the BJP, were it to fall short of the golden figure of 145 to form the government on its own. In that case, the Sena would seem the natural partner. However, politics is often far removed from simple logic. The fact that Gadkari has reportedly had a secret meeting with Raj Thackeray of the Maharashtra Navnirman Sena has fuelled new speculation. To add to the confusion, the NCP’s Sharad Pawar is making ambiguous statements, all open to interpretation.

One can bet on the fact that Modi’s rally will only fuel further speculation, instead of clearing the air on state politics.

Bharatkumar Raut

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