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The Lok Sabha election results from Maharashtra have set the stage for another political churn in the state before the assembly polls due in October this year.

Although the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the Congress would like to believe it was a test of Brand Modi’s popularity, for the four regional parties, born out of splits in their mother organisations, it was always about settling legacy issues and asserting dominance before the real battle begins for the control of an industrialised, cash-rich state that is home to the country’s financial capital, Mumbai, as well as its wealthiest civic body, the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation.

An Inevitable Verdict

For nearly four decades, the Shiv Sena and the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) – now split into Shiv Sena (Shinde), Shiv Sena (Uddhav Bal Thackeray, or UBT), NCP (Sharad Pawar) and NCP (Ajit Pawar) – have been the pivots on which Maharashtra politics turns. After two years of dramatic twists and turns in both parties, leading to a change of government in Mumbai, an ugly division in Maharashtra’s political first family (the Pawars), and Eknath Shinde from outside the bloodline laying claim to Bal Thackeray’s bequest, it was inevitable that the soap operas playing out in the Shiv Sena and the NCP would shape the Lok Sabha verdict.

It is evident from the results that the sympathy factor weighed heavily on the minds of voters as they gave the Maha Vikas Aghadi combo of the Shiv Sena (UBT), the NCP (Sharad Pawar) and the Congress the majority of the 48 Lok Sabha seats in Maharashtra. The NCP (Sharad Pawar) won eight of the 10 seats it contested, the Sena (UBT) bagged nine of the 21 it fought, while the Congress stunned by emerging as the largest party in the alliance with 13 seats out of the 17 assigned to it. That’s a grand total of 30 of Maharashtra’s 48 seats.

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The BJP-led Mahayuti, on the other hand, only managed 17 seats. The party was the worst sufferer as its tally fell to just nine from the 23 it won in 2019. Shinde’s Sena bagged seven seats out of the 14 it contested, and the Ajit Pawar faction of the NCP got just one seat from the five it fought in.
While on the face of it, the Shinde Sena’s strike rate is more impressive than that of its rival UBT faction, it was the battle in the six seats of Mumbai that has settled the bitterly contested emotive legacy question of which is the real Sena.

Can’t Ride On Sympathy Alone

Mumbai is the birthplace of the Shiv Sena founded by Bal Thackeray and has been the fiefdom of the united party for over three decades. The results prove that Brand Uddhav Thackeray, not the usurper, reigns supreme on his father’s home turf. The Sena (UBT) won three of the four seats it contested and helped its ally Congress win one. The BJP had to settle for just one seat – Union Minister Piyush Goyal’s Mumbai North – while Shinde’s Sena scraped through in the remaining seat by a meagre 48 votes that came through postal ballots right at the end in a nail-biting finish.

As the parties regroup for the upcoming battle to control Maharashtra, several other factors will come into play. After all, sympathy cannot be a permanent mood among voters. The BJP, for instance, will have to introspect why it lost so badly in its strongholds of Vidarbha and Marathwada, that too to the Congress, which was left virtually headless after an exodus of leaders to the BJP, including former chief minister Ashok Chavan.

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Agrarian distress has been rampant in these areas for several years and the Modi government’s flip-flops on agricultural policies deepened anger among farmers. It is also clear that the BJP lost much of its Dalit base in these regions following the Opposition-stoked controversy over plans to change the Constitution. Maharashtra is the home state of the writer of the Constitution, B.R. Ambedkar, and with Dalits forming 10.5% of the state’s population, any perceived attack on Ambedkar’s masterpiece was bound to alienate them. The BJP has paid a heavy price.

Then there was the running controversy over the Maratha demand for OBC status and accompanying reservation benefits. The delay in bringing a 10% quota for Marathas hurt the BJP and Shinde’s Sena, as well as Ajit Pawar’s NCP. Being partners in government with the BJP, the latter were seen as collaborators in a conspiracy to deny reservation benefits to Marathas.

Although the BJP tried to stoke communal sentiments with an aggressive campaign against ‘love jihad’, voters seemed as unmoved by this as they were by the opening of the Ram temple in Ayodhya.
Ajit Pawar’s humiliation at the hustings has settled the vexed issue long rocking the family of who Sharad Pawar’s political heir is. His daughter, Supriya Sule, can now firmly claim the mantle even as Ajit Pawar will have to contemplate his next move.

An Answer To The Legacy Question

The legacy issue in the Shiv Sena has also been settled in favour of Uddhav Thackeray. Analysts in Maharashtra foresee a run on Shinde’s party and predict that many of his MLAs could go back to join Uddhav’s faction. With assembly elections merely months away, desperation must be rising. Apparently, some of those leaders have already sent feelers to the Sena (UBT).

But it is the BJP that has to go back to the drawing board as it reviews the ruins of the strategy it crafted in 2022 to snatch the government from Uddhav Thackeray by breaking his party and later splitting Sharad Pawar’s NCP. Will it try to woo Uddhav back by dangling the carrot of restoring to him the coveted Shiv Sena election symbol, currently with the Shinde faction, and certain properties that are currently the subject of dispute between the two factions? Or will it heed the punishment meted out by voters to the politics of “jod-tod” that has marred the Maharashtra landscape for the past two years?

The stakes are high for all parties concerned because after the assembly polls, several long-pending local elections will also have to be held, including the polls for the coveted municipalities in Mumbai and Pune. 

(The author is a senior Delhi-based journalist)

Disclaimer: These are the personal opinions of the author