Mumbai: After a string of defeats in last year’s Kolhapur assembly bypoll and the January elections to graduates and teachers’ constituency legislative council seats, the Maharashtra BJP Thursday pocketed a victory as it retained the Chinchwad assembly seat, the bypoll to which was held last month.
The triumph was, however, dimmed by its colossal loss in a seat that was considered its bastion — Pune’s Kasba Peth, a constituency that the party had held for almost three decades.
BJP’s Hemant Rasane lost to Congress’s Ravindra Dhangekar, the official candidate of the Maha Vikas Aghadi (MVA), by 10,915 votes.
BJP’s defeat in its stronghold came despite the party and its alliance partner, the Eknath Shinde-led Shiv Sena, having pulled all stops to campaign there.
Maharashtra Chief Minister Eknath Shinde and Deputy Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis had addressed multiple rallies at Kasba Peth while a battery of other BJP leaders such as Chandrakant Patil, Girish Mahajan and Ravindra Chavan also campaigned in the constituency.
Political observers as well as party insiders cite multiple factors for the loss.
Firstly, the BJP — historically known as a Brahmin-Bania party but which has been trying to expand its appeal to the Other Backward Classes and Dalits — may have gotten its caste calculations wrong in a seat with a sizeable Brahmin population, they said.
Secondly, the party made a mistake by attempting to metamorphose a local bypoll into a national election that was more about preserving the Hindutva ideology. The voters of Kasba Peth were really looking to pass a verdict on the BJP’s local work and the political happenings in Maharashtra over the last few months, according to the insiders and observers.
Finally, they said, the bypoll showed the power of a united MVA, comprising the Shiv Sena (Uddhav Balasaheb Thackeray), the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) and the Congress.
Speaking to reporters in Mumbai, BJP state president Chandrashekhar Bawankule said: “We have lost this election. We accept defeat. We will analyse where we fell short and where we need to improve.”
The Kasba Peth and Chinchwad assembly bypolls were the first elections since the BJP formed a government in Maharashtra with the Shinde-led Shiv Sena in June last year, and the Election Commission’s decision allotting the Shinde faction the Sena’s ‘bow and arrow’ symbol.
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BJP’s bastion of Brahmins
Kasba Peth is among Pune’s oldest areas, with its old wadas (heritage bungalows), congested bylanes and landmark structures such as Shaniwar Wada. The constituency has been with the BJP for 28 consecutive years since 1995, according to Election Commission data, represented for the party by Brahmin leaders.
BJP’s Girish Bapat, a Brahmin who is now an MP, was the Kasba Peth MLA from 1995 to 2019. In the 2019 assembly bypoll, the party fielded Mukta Tilak, also a Brahmin, who guarded the BJP’s fort. Tilak died in December last year due to cancer.
BJP’s Arvind Lele and Anna Joshi, both Brahmins, also represented the seat in 1978 and 1980, and 1990, respectively.
While Tilak’s family, said to be descendants of Indian freedom fighter Bal Gangadhar Tilak, was hoping to get candidature for the seat in this year’s bypoll, the BJP decided to nominate Hemant Rasane, its former standing committee chairman in the Pune Municipal Corporation. Rasane belongs to the Other Backward Classes just like Congress’ Dhangekar.
The BJP’s announcement of its choice of candidate was followed by posters put up anonymously, urging voters to opt for NOTA (None of the Above) in the bypoll. “Kasba ha Gadgilancha, Kasba ha Bapatancha, Kasba ha Tilakancha. Ka kadhla amchakadun Kasba? (Kasba belongs to the Gadgils. Kasba belongs to the Bapats. Kasba belongs to the Tilaks. Why did you take away Kasba from us?),” one of the posters read.
“The party kept the Tilak family hanging for a bit and then fielded Rasane. The Brahmin factor definitely contributed to the loss,” a BJP leader from Pune who did not wish to be named told ThePrint.
“The Brahmin community in Pune doesn’t insist on a Brahmin candidate all the time, but with the Tilak family’s apparent disappointment, as well as the posters, the sentiment was such that if the party can look at caste equations for certain castes in certain seats, why couldn’t the BJP look at caste equations and pick a Brahmin for this seat?” he added.
The Brahmin community of Pune was also reportedly upset with the BJP when it decided to drop sitting Kothrud legislator Medha Kulkarni, a Brahmin, to vacate the seat for party strongman Chandrakant Patil, a Maratha.
Bawankule denied that there was “a strong demand” from Tilak’s family for nomination for Kasba Peth.
“For Mukta Tilak’s son, Kunal Tilak, we thought he should first contest the civic election, work there and then go to the assembly. Rasane was a very good candidate, but there was a sympathy wave for Dhangekar as he had contested unsuccessfully prior to this,” he said.
BJP’s Hindutva pitch
Speaking to ThePrint, political analyst Hemant Desai said the BJP raised the Hindutva pitch in the last leg of campaigning, talking about the bypoll being a national and ideological fight, to pare any potential losses due to the optics of choosing a non-Brahmin candidate for Kasba Peth.
“It raised issues such as love jihad, Kashmir and the Punyeshwar temple (in Pune). These issues, however, do not seem to have worked,” Desai said.
Political parties such as the Maharashtra Navnirman Sena (MNS) have in the past claimed that the Punyeshwar temple was destroyed by a commandant of Khilji dynasty ruler Allaudin Khilji.
Some BJP leaders whom ThePrint spoke to on condition of anonymity admitted that Dhangekar, a former four-time corporator who had earlier been with the MNS and the undivided Shiv Sena, was seen as the more visible candidate compared to Rasane.
They also claimed that given Dhangekar’s history with the MNS, local MNS workers campaigned for him instead of the BJP candidate.
Dr Sanjay Patil, a researcher in the department of civics and politics at the University of Mumbai, told ThePrint that Dhangekar’s clear lead since the early rounds of counting showed that people across demographics and areas voted for him.
It looks like the BJP may have taken the voters in its assured constituency “for granted”, he said, adding that this can be seen as a verdict on larger issues, going beyond ideology and party affiliation.
“The BJP’s defeat in its bastion despite such strong campaigning also shows the voters’ perception of the party’s work when it comes to economy, employment, recent events in Maharashtra and at the national level, as well as the strength of a truly united MVA,” Patil further said.
(Edited by Nida Fatima Siddiqui)
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