Maharashtra chief minister Devendra Fadnavis, in his quest for a second term, embarked on a state-wide ‘mahajanadesh yatra’ in August. By now, he has held several rallies, worn various costumes and turbans, taken bullock cart rides, sidelined some of his colleagues and vigorously attacked opposition leaders Rahul Gandhi and Sharad Pawar, all in a bid to win over voters.
Almost all big leaders of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), including Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Home Minister Amit Shah, have campaigned in Maharashtra, tomtomming the 'achievements' of the Modi government, such as the revocation of Article 370 in Kashmir and triple talaq as the chief poll planks.
There are hardly any talking points when it comes to Fadnavis’s performance in the last five years. Drought, floods, farmers' woes, economic slowdown, the closure of the PMC bank and environmental issues are conspicuous by their absence from the discourse.
Amid such nationalistic fervour, the entry of the poster boy of BJP’s Hindutva - Yogi Adityanath - in the last leg of the Maharashtra poll campaign is quite interesting.
The monk-cum-chief minister of Uttar Pradesh has been touring this state as never before. He has already covered big cities like Mumbai, Nagpur, Pune, Nashik, Yavatmal and Jalgaon, to canvass for the BJP and Shiv Sena candidates.
To make his point on Article 370, Kashmir and Pakistan, Adityanath repeatedly invokes Ram and the epic Ramayana. He ends his aggressive speeches with 'Jai Shri Ram', a cry which reportedly makes his audience jubilant. This is Adityanth's USP; he can divide votes on communal grounds in a way that Fadnavis and other leaders cannot match.
North Indians or the Hindi-speaking community from UP, Bihar, Jharkhand and Rajasthan, constitute a significant vote bank (estimated 15%) in the state but the BJP’s Maharashtra unit doesn’t have any North Indian leader face with mass appeal. Adityanath fills the gap well.
His assertion of his religious identity, his extraordinary love for cows and the inability to deal with criticism often leads to bad press but these are the very reasons his supporters love him.
Interestingly, Marathi-speaking voters also attend these meetings, to see and hear the saffron-clad leader. Perhaps he reminds them of the late Bal Thackeray, the Hindutva mascot who changed Maharashtra politics forever.
Cheers and applause aside, can the UP CM really make any difference in Maharashtra when his own track record in Uttar Pradesh is questionable?
On most socio-economic indicators, UP is ranked at the bottom. On law and order and atrocities committed by police, the northern state is the most notorious. In fact, three BJP leaders and one Congressman were gunned down in broad daylight in UP last week, as Adityanath campaigned in Maharashtra.
“Yogi’s appeal among North Indians, especially those who hail from eastern Uttar Pradesh, is almost intact. The lower and middle-classes, employed in industry or engaged in milk supply or taxi-driving are hardly concerned about these issues. They are simply in awe of him,” BJP insiders say.
However, UP voters don’t vote en bloc. Observers say, at the most, Adityanath can garner votes of the upper-caste Thakur and Brahmin communities, to an extent.
“His appeal is not just limited to the North Indian community. The BJP uses him in Maharashtra to woo the entire Hindu community, including the Maharashtrian, Gujarati and South Indian population who believe in right-wing ideology,” says senior journalist Rajkumar Singh.
In a closely fought assembly contest, where victory margins are often thin, the transfer of even a few hundred votes matters. Hence, Adityanath’s presence is crucial for the BJP and the Shiv Sena both, a senior BJP leader insists.
The BJP insists that the success rate of Adityanath in Maharashtra has so far, been encouraging. From the Palghar bypoll in May 2018 to the general elections in April to the state polls on 21 October, Adityanath has been a regular visitor to Maharashtra, ever since he bagged the top post in India’s most populous and politically significant state, two-and-a-half years ago.
For the same reason, UP’s deputy CM Keshav Prasad Maurya has also been sweating it out in Mumbai, as ‘coordinator’ for the Maharashtra polls. He is busy engaging the attention of UP natives in satellite towns such as Virar, Nalasopara, Kalyan and Thane. The softspoken OBC leader recently launched a helpline at his official residence in Lucknow, to address the issues of UP people living in Maharashtra.
The trend of UP CMs campaigning in Maharashtra began in the nineties. After the Babri masjid demolition, then UP CM Kalyan Singh had campaigned in the 1995 assembly polls of Maharashtra. This was the first time that the Shiv Sena-BJP alliance came to power in the state.
Akhilesh Yadav (Samajwadi Party) and Mayawati (Bahujan Samaj Party) too had campaigned for their respective outfits when they ruled Uttar Pradesh.
Nevertheless, Mumbai is missing Nitish Kumar this time. The Bihar CM was a regular until his Janata Dal (United) drifted from the Rashtriya Janata Dal to the BJP.