Tale of two yatras

It is the return of the political yatras in Maharashtra with less than 75 days to go for the assembly elections. Political yatras are not new in Maharashtra politics. Sharad Pawar had gone on a “Parivartan yatra” during the Lok Sabha 2019 election, but the only parivartan (change) was for the worse. NCP won just four seats in the Lok Sabha (same tally as 2014) and got an independent candidate elected with their support. Worse Narendra Modi returned to power with 303 seats of his own. This effectively ended all hopes to Sharad Pawar to be Prime Minister of the country. He would be 80 years plus by 2024 and possibly retired from electoral politics. The Congress had a “Jan Sangarsh Yatra” of their own but they were nearly wiped out of Maharashtra, winning just one seat that too by an ex-Sena MLA. Worse they are now leaderless and listless in Maharashtra with no control over what their MLAs are doing. They haven’t been able to get a new party president elected nationally after Rahul Gandhi resigned, so less said about their state leadership the better.

Fadnavis Maha Janadesh Yatra
Maha Janadesh Yatra of CM Devendra Fadnavis

While Sharad Pawar licks the wounds inflicted in the Lok Sabha election and Congress is in stupor, the BJP and Shiv Sena have gone on the offensive. Not only are they attracting opposition MLAs to their parties, but both parties are aggressively trying to maximise their potentially winning seats to claim the coveted Chief Minister post in the state. The Sena is still smarting after losing their big brother status in Maharashtra post the 2014 assembly election. Sena used to fight 171 seats in the state assembly election till 2009, while the BJP fought on 117 seats. Post the spectacular victory of Modi in the 2014 Lok Sabha election, BJP asked for extra seats in the assembly election. Uddhav could have had his party’s Chief Minister had he given 20 odd extra seats to the BJP. He didn’t and BJP went alone in the elections. The rest is history.

There is considerable ambiguity about the negotiations that happened between the BJP and Shiv Sena before the Lok Sabha. They decided to contest the upcoming assembly election together as well but the terms were never made clear. While the BJP claims that the party with the larger tally will have their CM, the Sena claims that the CM post will be shared for a duration of 2.5 years each. I guess this ambiguity is to enthuse their cadre to try their best to get more MLAs elected for each party.

Now this friendly competition has culminated in both parties starting yatras of their own. Shiv Sena launched the Jan Ashirwad Yatra of Aditya Thackeray. This is a multi phase yatra where he would travel approx 4,000 km across the state. He has started from the North Maharashtra region and is visiting Jalgaon, Dhule, Nashik and Ahmednagar districts. Sena has indicated that Aditya may contest the assembly election (from Worli assembly seat in Mumbai) whcih makes him the first member of the Thackeray family to fight election. This appears to be a strategy of Prashant Kishor who is advising Sena right now. Aditya is being highlighted as a Chief Ministerial candidate by the Sena, to counter the current Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis of the BJP.

Jan Ashirwad Yatra of Sena scion Aditya Thackeray

The BJP has also kick started a Maha Janadesh yatra of Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis. The first phase of the yatra will be from August 1-9 during which Fadnavis will cover Vidarbha and Nandurbar in North Maharashtra. The second phase will be from August 17 to 31 covering areas between Aurangabad and Nashik. The yatra will cover a distance of 4,232 km spread across 30 of the 36 districts in the state. Fadnavis will hold 104 rallies during this yatra. Fadnavis had started out as one among the equals in the BJP in 2014. But once Modi elevated him to the post of Chief Minister, Fadnavis has consolidated his position as the tallest leader of BJP across the state.

Fadnavis’s five year tenure has been a huge success. He has been able to run a minority government for a full tenure. Fadnavis has been able to maintain his popularity across the urban as well as rural areas. His metro railway and infra push in cities like Mumbai, Pune and Nagpur has won him huge support among th urban population. The focus on micro irrigation via the #JalYuktShivar campaign has also influenced NGOs and voluntary organisations like Paani Foundation (actor Aamir Khan is associated with it), AOL, Naam Foundation to work towards this capacity. The second stage of river linking has just been undertaken by the state government. The plan to make Marathwada drought free is audacious and no state government in Maharashtra had ever tried such a thing. Good rains in most areas of Maharashtra in the last few days will help the incumbent BJP government in the assembly elections.

Fadnavis did a major surgical strike on the opposition especially the NCP, by getting the Maratha reservation passed and then fought in the High court to maintain the reservation. The previous few chief ministers who came from the Maratha community were not successful in getting this done. The shift of many Cong and NCP leaders towards the BJP including Maratha leaders points to a gradual shift of Maratha voters towards the BJP. This could close Pawar’s casteist shop called the NCP. In the last five years, Devendra Fadnavis has emerged as the strongest politicial leader in Maharashtra.

Aditya Thackeray on the other hand has the image of a youthful and urban politician. The kind of yuppie politician that the crusaders in Bollywood would like to support. Based on the advice of Prashant Kishor, the Shiv Sena is trying to establish Aditya as a pan Maharashtra leader through the current Jan Ashirwad yatra. This is sound political move as they need to counter Fadnavis in the long term. However in the upcoming assembly election, Aditya Thackeray simply does not have the stature to challenge Fadnavis. His disadvantage is that Fadnavis through his work as the Chief Minister has earned a lot of goodwill in the last five years. Aditya does not have any substantive work on his resume, except leading agitations for student issues.

The culture of BJP and Shiv Sena is brought out in sharp contrast by these two personalities. Fadnavis is known for efficiently running a war room for carrying out massive infra projects and micro irrigation projects across Maharashtra. He has teamed well with the Narendra Modi government at the centre to bring development projects to the state. Fadnavis is in the numero uno position today due to his good performance. Aditya on the other hand is the heir apparant of his dynastic party. The Shiv Sena rules few urban municipalities (and is junior partner in the state) and hence the scope to do a significant project is limited. So Aditya has to depend more on agitational politics (like the one against insurance companies to release money to drought hit farmers) and PR by his party and experts like Prashant Kishor.

Both leaders are getting good response to their yatras currently, with their parties going all out to ensure good response. The focus on the competing yatras by the saffron allies is due to the fact that the semi-final of seat sharing (between the saffron allies) is likely to be more difficult that the actual final fight against the Congress-NCP.

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