The formation of the Sena-NCP-Congress coalition government has major implications in Maharashtra politics, especially in the crucial Mumbai-Thane-Konkan belt that has 75 assembly seats. Could it be advantage BJP in this region? I explore the possibilities.
The government formation exercise in Maharashtra which had come to a complete standstill in Maharashtra in the fortnight after the assembly election results on 24th October, suddenly came to life on Saturday (10th November) evening. Since then it has again gone into a never ending loop with the Congress-NCP yet to decide whether they should ally with the Shiv Sena. Pawar is doing everything to reduce Uddhav’s bargaining power. Government formation seems 2-3 weeks away in the state.
Once the BJP informed their inability to form government in the absence of adequate number in the assembly, the Sena officially started it’s discussion with the UPA parties. The bargaining is going on behind the scene as Congress and NCP try to extract more than a fair pound of flesh from the Sena. However much Congress and NCP cry about secularism, but they don’t want to miss out on the unexpected chance they have got to share power in an important state. So I expect a Sena-NCP-Congress government to be established in Maharashtra. I don’t think this government will last for the full five year term, given the inherent contradictions and the Modi-Shah led BJP that would pounce on the first sign of weakness.
The Sena has finally exited the NDA alliance with the resignation of Sena cabinet minister Arvind Sawant and it’s sitting arrangement being made along with the opposition in Lok Sabha and Raya Sabha. The elaborate break-up between BJP-Sena in the gram panchayats, zilla parishads and in the municipal corporations around the state will play out in the next month with mayoral elections scheduled for major municipal corporations. The Sena will be embarrased over their stand on the Ram Janmabhoomi, Uniform Civil Code and Citizenship Amendment Bill issues. But the Sena will find some way to side step these issues to capture power in the state. This marks a re-alignment in Maharashtra politics and also signifies a paradigm shift in state politics and dare I say national politics.
Let us briefly cover the different cycles in Maharashtra politics. Maharashtra was a predominantly Congress state till the mid 1990s with opposition provided by Janata Dal, Peasants and Workers Party, Communists etc. Pawar himself had rebelled and briefly run a minority government, before returning back to the Congress. The BJP and Shiv Sena had just started making their presence felt in the state. The 1992 post Babri demolition riots and 1993 serial bomb-blasts propelled the Shiv Sena – BJP alliance to power in the state in 1995, with 138 seats (simple majority mark 144). They were backed by about three dozen independents, mainly Congress rebels. In the 1995-1999 time period, the Samajwadi Party (SP) and Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) make their foray in the state. The SP and BSP damaged the Congress by eating the minority vote in Mumbai and Scheduled Caste Buddhist vote in Vidarbha, respectively. The Janata Dal had faded from the politicial scene by then. A pure non-Congress government ruled Maharashtra for the first time ever.
The split of the NCP from the Congress and their subsequent post-poll alliance after the 1999 assembly election, meant that the NDA victory in 1995 remained a stand-alone victory. The Congress’s Muslim and Hindi speaking votebank in Mumbai and the consolidated Maratha votebank in Western Maharashtra heped the UPA stay in power for three terms. The 15 year Congress-NCP rule was aided in it’s last term by the emergence of the MNS in the urban areas of Mumbai, Thane, Nashik and Pune. The MNS destroyed NDA chances of about 30-35 odd seats (of which the MNS itself won 13 seats) in the 2009 assembly election.
The emergence of Modi at the national level in 2014 meant that the Congress-NCP rule was ended, despite BJP and Sena fighting seperately. They came together to form a post poll alliance which commanded 185 seats in the assembly. Unlike the 1995 NDA government, this was essentially a BJP government with the Sena playing a supporting role. A repeat of the NDA government looked likely in 2019 and the election results gave a clear majority to the NDA with 162 seats. However, the Sena’s survival instincts led it to bargain hard with the BJP on the Chief Minister post. After the BJP refused to blink, the Sena has started discussions with the Congress and NCP. Nearly a week has passed since and yet there is no decisive breakthrough in the talks. That a Sena-NCP-Congress government will be formed looks a formality, but the negotitations for spoils of power will be hard.
If the negotitations are delayed by two more weeks, the newly elected MLAs will start feeling jittery and the BJP may be back in the game. But I anticipate a Sena led NCP and Congress government running for minimum of 15 months to two years. Depending on this government’s performance, the future politics of Maharashtra will be shaped. If the government does a bad job, then it might unravel on it’s own. Or the BJP may fish in troubled waters with a lot of disgruntled MLAs floeating around. However, one thing is clear that the BJP-Shiv Sena alliance is over for the moment. This has major implications on the Mumbai-Thane-Konkan region (I would abbreviate it to MTK) which has 75 assembly seats. This region is the bastion of both the BJP and the Shiv Sena. In the recent assembly election, BJP (contested 32 seats) and Sena (contested 43 seats) got 29 seats each in this region. The mega municipal corporations of Mumbai, Thane and smaller ones like Kalyan-Dombivali, Navi Mumbai, Mira-Bhayander, Ulhasnagar municipal corporations have been ruled mainly by the Sena along with the BJP.
The split in the saffron alliance leaves the field open for the BJP to expand aggressively in this region. This region has turned staunchly anti- Congress since 2014. The Congress which had won 17 assembly seats in Mumbai in 2009 (aided indirectly by the MNS) is restricted to 4 seats in Mumbai in the 2019 assembly elections. All these seats have been won in areas with heavy Muslim and Buddhist population. The party could not open it’s account in Thane and Konkan regions. The Congress votebank was mainly the Muslims and Hindi speaking voters from UP and Bihar. However, the Hindi speaking voter shifted towards the BJP post the rise of Modi at the centre and Yogi Adityanath in Uttar Pradesh. This has made Congress as the new Muslim League in Mumbai. The NCP is virtually absent in the city and their base is depleted in Thane, Raigad and Ratnagiri districts. Hence, the main fight going forward will be between the BJP and Shiv Sena, in future elections.
Most of these voters who vote for the BJP-Shiv Sena in the MTK area have staunch anti-Congress leanings. This makes the situation tough for the Shiv Sena which is trying to ally with the Congress and NCP. If the Sena has a pre-poll alliance with the NCP and Congress in the future, the staunch Sena voters and cadre may still vote for the party but the “yuti” voters (who either voted the Sena or BJP) would shift largely to the BJP and the MNS. This may hit the Sena in several seats of Mumbai and Thane district. Also alliance with the Congress and NCP in this region would mean that Sena might face rebellion in the seats given to the Congress and NCP. In case the Sena fights alone against the BJP and the Congress-NCP government then the losses for the Sena would be heavier. An important point to be noted here is the percentage of Sena voters voting for the BJP has been much less than the percentage of BJP voters voting for the ally Sena. Thus, the impact of the break-up would be felt much more by the Sena.
The BMC mayor poll is happening this month. Given the party strengths in the house, the Sena would have to take support of Congress and NCP to win a majority. However, the second largest party BJP has decided to stay away from the mayor election, indirectly helping the Sena. The BJP rightfully believes that it has a very good chance of winning over the BMC in the 2022 polls. They are working towards this long term goal. Mumbaikars are sick and tired of the Sena rule over the BMC, but a discredited opposition like the Congress has helped Sena to retain the urban body. A strong opponent like the BJP could turn out to be the game changer for the voters. This split means that the Gujarati and Hindi speaking voters will completely desert the Sena along with a huge split in the Marathi speaking voters. An alliance with the Congress and NCP would help it aquire Muslim voters and Buddhist voters, but these may not be enough to cover up for the losses caused due to split with the BJP.
The Sena would have to show good progress in the infrastructure projects currently goign on in Mumbai and Thane district. Any delay in implementation of these projects could bring the public ire on the Shiv Sena. Also a hostile centre may follow up with more raids on BMC contractors or in future on the BMC officers too. A bad governance record in the next one year could severely hurt the Sena, as the voters may get the perception that Devendra Fadnavis was very good at driving infra projects and unfairly robbing him of the mandate caused the infra mess. This could reduce the Sena to below 10 seats in Mumbai (current strength is 14).
If elections are to be held now between BP and the pre-poll alliance between the Sena-NCP-Congress, then BJP may still win 18-20 seats by conservative estimates. Even if we do not consider the sympath vote factor, currently BJP is in a position to win 18-20 seats in Mumbai as against 11 for the Sena. Below are the seats won by BJP and Sena in Mumbai in the 2019 assembly election and the green and orange colors indicate probable loss if a mid-term election is held in the next six months.
The BJP would retain all it’s seats except Versova. Versova was won with a small margin of 5,186 votes as the Sena rebel got 32,706 votes. Combined strength of Sena and Congress is high in the seat, though Congress may demand this seat as it is the second largest party on this seat and the Congress held it till 2014. Thus, no gain to the Sena accrues on BJP’s expense. Rest of the BJP seats are very strong and mostly won without active work of the Sena machinery.
The Sena may lose the Andheri East and Kalina seats to the BJP. In Andheri East, the BJP rebel Mulji Patel got 45,808 votes. The Sena got a lot of votes from the BJP voters (Marathi and non-Marathi speaking voters) as well. The Sena would lose Marathi voters to the BJP or MNS and the non-Marathi speaking voters to the BJP. In Kalina, the Sena will lose a lot of BJP voters (Hindi speaking) and votes from the Congress may not help it compensate the loss. Here again the MNS would be a beneficiary of the Sena’s Marathi votes. In Mahim, the BJP had polled 33,000 odd votes in 2014 and hence may hurt Sena enough to allow MNS to emerge victorious. The MNS consistently gets 40,000 odd votes in Mahim. The Sena may also have to leave the Chandivali seat for Arif Naseem Khan of the Congress, who was defeated by a narrow margin of 409 votes to the Sena candidate. Thus, Sena seems to be losing four seats without considering any sympathy vote for the BJP.
Quantifying the sympathy vote for the BJP is difficult at this stage but depending on the extent of sympathy created for Fadnavis, it may add further 2-3 seats for the BJP. A haul of 23-25 seats in Mumbai could help the BJP win 35-40 seats in MTK region. If we assume that the BJP puts it’s house in order in Vidarbha, they can easily touch the peak of 44 seats won in 2014 (current strength 29). This would mean 80-85 seats for the BJP in just two regions of the state. These are the regions where the Sena-NCP-Congress alliance will have the weakest vote transfer. The Congress is weak in Thane and Konkan while the NCP is weak in Mumbai and Vidarbha. The Sena also has a marginal presence in Vidarbha. This would leave the BJP needing 60-65 seats in Marathwada (46 seats), North Maharashtra (35 seats) and Western Maharashtra (70 seats). Even if the BJP gets 50 seats in these three regions, it will have 130-135 seats and act as a magnet for the independents and other smaller parties.
The Sena has 29 out of it’s 56 MLAs from the MTK region and a loss of 10-12 MLAs could dent the Sena severely. But as I said the necessary conditions for this are a weak non-performing govt run by Sena-NCP-Congress trio and mid-term elections happening within 1-2 years. In conclusion, the Sena has got itself in a tangle and the only way out is good governance, something on which the Sena’s track record is quite poor. The BJP on the other hand will be in a pole position in the crucial urban region of the state.