The results of the December 1 elections to the Maharashtra Legislative Council (MLC) have come as a big setback for the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). Of the six seats, three were graduates’ constituencies (Nagpur, Pune and Aurangabad), two were teachers’ constituencies (Pune and Amaravati) and Dhule-Nandurbar byelection to the local body.
The Shiv Sena-Nationalist Congress Party-Congress Maha Vikas Aghadi (MVA) won four of the six seats, and the BJP and an independent won one seat each.
The elections should have been a cakewalk for the BJP, especially in Nagpur where the headquarters of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) is situated.
For 58 straight years, much before the current advent of the BJP, and since its earlier avatar as the Jan Sangh, the party has been winning the Nagpur graduates’ constituency in the legislative council — even when the Congress was a dominant force and was winning assembly and Lok Sabha seats in the region. The December 3 results have shocked many, including the Congress which won the Nagpur seat.
Graduates’ and teachers’ constituencies entail that both the contestants and the voters be either graduates or teachers voting in those respective constituencies. Only teachers are allowed to vote in the teachers constituency even if they be graduates; similarly, a teacher, whether representing a government or private school, college or university, who is not a graduate cannot vote in a graduates’ constituency election.
The Nagpur graduate constituency seat was held for several terms by Union minister Nitin Gadkari before he contested the 2014 Lok Sabha polls. Before Gadkari, Gangadhar Fadnavis, the father of former Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis, had held the seat for multiple six-year terms.
This year, the BJP put up high-profile Nagpur mayor Sandip Joshi who has received some notice for his able handling of the COVID-19 crisis. Joshi was defeated by a substantial margin by the relatively little known Abhijit Wanjari of the Congress who was the MVA’s joint candidate.
It is not just the MVA unity or people’s satisfaction with the Uddhav Thackeray government that may be behind the BJP's defeat. There has been much infighting within the BJP in this region. The region is home to Devendra Fadnavis, who is allegedly at loggerheads with not just Gadkari for supremacy within the party, but also with several local stalwarts who were cut from the reckoning by Fadnavis during the 2019 assembly elections.
Moreover, there seems to have been an ennui among the discerning voters with the overtly Brahmin domination of the BJP in the region, and the caste factor seems to have played a role in Wanjari's victory as he belongs to the Other Backward Classes. Much of the voting population in the region is either Dalit or minorities.
At the 2019 assembly elections, the BJP's performance in the region was below par owing to the disenchantment of the OBCs with the upper castes, considered to be more attuned to the saffron party.
Wanjari also claims he had paid close attention to updating and registering fresh graduates on the voters' lists, adding 70 percent new names along with photos of the graduate voters to avoid any misrepresentation during polling. In that sense his campaign seems to have been as meticulous as that of the RSS-BJP, which always pays close attention to booth-wise voters' lists.
Nagpur has not been the only shock to the BJP. The party also lost the Pune teachers’ and graduates' constituencies after 20 years to the NCP, while the Aurangabad graduate seat was retained by the NCP. The Amravati teachers' seat was won by an independent candidate defeating the Shiv Sena, which was the single seat that party contested this election.
The BJP's singular victory was neither among graduates, nor among teachers. It won the lone local bodies' seat from Dhule-Nandurbar in North Maharashtra voted by members of local self-government such as municipal corporations, municipal councils and others. Here the victory seems to be rather pyrrhic, since the winner Ambarish Patel is a former Congress minister who recently defected to the BJP.
The results are significant in that this was the first electoral test for the MVA government which completed its first year in power recently. The sweep has come despite the constant haranguing and needling by the BJP, particularly Fadnavis, who has been describing the MVA as a three-wheeler incapable of effective governance. Perhaps the people believed in Thackeray's response when he said that the fourth wheel of his government was the general public who had faith in his governance.
The results do appear as a vote of confidence in the MVA, and bring into question Fadnavis’ leadership of his party in Maharashtra.