The BJP-Shiv Sena alliance may have won the Maharashtra assembly election, but it is Sharad Pawar who is having the last laugh.
There is a saying in Maharashtra – whichever party wins, Pawar decides the CM. Many senior leaders in the BJP would have surely told the greenhorn chief minister, Devendra Fadnavis, ‘not to take panga with Pawar’.
The voters in Maharashtra have given a very clear message to the BJP – people cannot be taken for granted. The party was confident of winning Maharashtra with a huge margin, but the not-so-spectacular victory is a wake-up call for everyone.
BJP strategy backfires
Devendra Fadnavis handled the Maratha agitation wisely. But he dared to challenge the might of the Maratha strongman Sharad Pawar on his turf, which backfired for the BJP in western Maharashtra. The NCP-Congress combine won 39 of the 70 assembly seats in the region.
The Enforcement Directorate case against Sharad Pawar, on the eve of the elections, was supposedly a signal that he should relinquish his throne. But as it turns out, it generated a massive sympathy wave for the NCP leader.
To add insult to injury, the BJP also lost the Lok Sabha bypoll in Satara Thursday.
Former NCP leader and a descendant of Chhatrapati Shivaji, Udayanraje Bhosale, had got elected to the Lok Sabha from Satara in May on an NCP ticket. Considered close to Sharad Pawar, he was poached by the BJP. He quit the NCP and resigned as an MP. The BJP decided to field him in the bypoll – this was supposed to be a message to the ailing Sharad Pawar that it is the BJP and not the Maratha leader who would decide his succession plan.
The voters clearly decided the opposite, with NCP candidate Shriniwas Patil defeating BJP’s Bhosale by more than 87,000 votes. This is the power and influence of Sharad Pawar. The Maratha strongman ensured that his nominees win and his citadel remains intact.
What will Pawar do next?
It is unlikely that Sharad Pawar would rock the BJP-Shiv Sena boat. Since his party in alliance with the Congress doesn’t have the numbers to form a government, Pawar would be content to be left alone.
This time, the general perception was that ‘Pawar saheb’ could be fighting his last election in Maharashtra. Many still believe that he doesn’t hold any grudge against the Centre, especially Prime Minister Narendra Modi (who incidentally is said to have come all the way to Baramati to meet the ailing leader two years ago). But one cannot overlook the fact that Pawar, like many leaders of his generation, is lonely at the top.
As the government formation drama unfolds, Pawar would probably sit back and relax and watch the fun. It is also possible that while keeping his party at a safe distance from the BJP-Shiv Sena combine in Maharashtra, he may offer to support the government at the Centre by allowing one of his MPs to join the cabinet.
This would also ensure a smooth tenure for the next Maharashtra government, especially when a third-generation Thackeray has just entered the House and made no secret of his ambitions.
BJP must rework strategy
The BJP-Shiv Sena combine has retained Maharashtra and is set to form the next government, but going by the strike rate and the perceived loss of popular votes for the BJP, the Shiv Sena will seek its pound of flesh in the days to come.
In the last five years, the Shiv Sena has been a vocal critic of the state as well as the central government, almost donning the opposition’s cap. While this robbed the Congress and the NCP of their legitimate opposition space, the BJP-Shiv Sena coalition came to a breaking point on several occasions.
But closer to the election, both parties realised the futility of contesting separately and getting their vote banks divided. Such a triangular contest could have greatly benefitted the Congress-NCP combine.
Yet, it will be foolish write off the BJP. There is some amount of voter fatigue, which should ring the alarm bells for the state BJP leadership. The revival of the Congress is yet to happen and these elections have suggested that such a revival could be triggered from the states, from the grassroots, and from the follies of the BJP.
Although the next Lok Sabha elections are still four-and-a-half years away, the BJP will have to rework its strategy in the states and look for new friends, manage the existing ones better, and project local leaders who can lead the party to victory in the states on local issues.
The author is a member of the National Executive Committee of the BJP and former editor of Organiser. Views are personal.