Three against one was always going to be a tall order for the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). That was only reinforced by results of elections to the local self-government bodies last fortnight. Perhaps that is why no one in the party fought to retain its grip over these bodies, in the first round of elections held recently in Maharashtra after the Shiv Sena-Nationalist Congress Party (NCP)-Congress party combine formed the government in November 2019. But it is more than just three against one, the mismanagement by the BJP and particularly former Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis must be held equally accountable.
The Congress and the NCP have excelled at zila parishad polls, and the Shiv Sena has managed reasonably well. Prakash Ambedkar's Vanchit Bahujan Aghadi (VBA) posted a clear victory in the Akola Zilla Parishad. From all these it is clear that most of the votes were won by Left-of-centre parties, indicating a shift in the mood of the people at the grassroots.
However, even though Fadnavis tried to spin the odd victory over the Shiv Sena-Congress-NCP Maha Vikas Aghadi (MVA), particularly in a couple of North Maharashtra districts, when it came to the people continuing to repose their faith in the BJP, the party was at a loss for words.
Perhaps the most shocking defeat for the BJP was in the Nagpur Zilla Parishad where the Congress effortlessly posted a majority on its own. Of the total 58 seats in Nagpur, the Congress won 31, the BJP won 15 and the NCP won 10. Nagpur is not just the headquarters of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) but also the home turf of Fadnavis and former BJP President and Union minister Nitin Gadkari. The BJP lost in most of the constituencies from which its past ministers represented, including Dhapewada, Gadkari’s ancestral village, which the BJP held for three terms.
What explains the shift in the fortunes of the parties? While most regions have welcomed the MVA government and seem to have voted without fear of repercussions — this was not always the case during the BJP regime — the isolation of the state party leadership could also have been a major factor which contributed to the defeat.
Fadnavis — after he had denied many local leaders tickets to contest in the recent assembly polls — had to struggle during the local self-government elections without the support of these leaders. It is said that Fadnavis denied local leaders tickets in order to cut his competitors within the party down to size.
On the other side, the Congress and the NCP leaderships left the show to the local leaders who ensured that they retained their home turfs. This helped in better co-ordination between the parties and minimal clashes between different leaders. Newly-minted ministers in the MVA government such as NCP’s Anil Deshmukh and Congress’ Sunil Kedar dug in their heels and did not move out of their constituencies until the last was cast to maximise their chances of wresting these local bodies from the BJP.
Apart from Nagpur, the BJP was shocked in Palghar, where it was locked in a bitter contest of one-upmanship with the Shiv Sena even before the 2019 Lok Sabha polls. Palghar, which is a reserved tribal seat, saw a keen battle after candidates shifted loyalty to rival parties. Following the death of sitting MP Chintaman Wanga in January 2018, the BJP chose former Congressman Rajendra Gavit over Shrinivas Wanga, Chintaman’s son. Gavit had lost to Chintaman in the 2014 Lok Sabha polls. Gavit won the bypolls against Shrinivas who was fielded by the Shiv Sena. This is why Shiv Sena’s victory in the zilla parishad polls over the BJP is significant.
The BJP can draw comfort for wresting Dhule in north Maharashtra from the Congress-NCP combine. The Congress-NCP was rightly ousted because they mismanaged its administration. However, the BJP’s continued its bad run in Beed. After losing her Parli assembly seat to her estranged cousin Dhananjay Munde of the NCP, Pankaja Munde, had to see her presidential and vice-presidential candidates lose to the NCP candidates.
The Congress and the NCP have done well despite the previous loss of a substantial voter base among the Dalits and the Muslims, indicating that NCP President Sharad Pawar's efforts to woo them back might be working. The BJP might have to worry about how the Shiv Sena has managed to hold its own despite the alienation of the saffron vote, which had been a force multiplier in combination with the Sena's regional vote-bank.
Union minister and former BJP Maharashtra President, Raosaheb Danve, bitterly stated that the MVA won because it was ‘a government of Amar, Akbar and Anthony’. It was meant as an insult, but it might actually be a compliment to the three parties now together representing all sections of society. The BJP is isolated in more ways than one.Sujata Anandan is a senior journalist and author. Views are personal.