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Mainstream, Vol XLVII, No 47, November 7, 2009

Outcome of Maharashtra Legislative Assembly Election 2009

Saturday 7 November 2009, by P R Dubhashi

Maharashtra, one of the larger States in India, went to polls on October 13 for electing 288 representatives in the Legislative Assembly. The electorate was 7 crore 8 lakh 11,245 strong comprising 3 crore 60 lakh 76,460 female voters and 3 crore 97 lakh 34,770 male voters. As many as 3559 candidates set up by 92 political parties as well as independents stood for election. The Congress put up 174 candidates, NCP 114, Shiv Sena 169, BJP 119, MNS 143, Third Front 258. Of the candidates only 221 were female, 276 had criminal background, 225 were ‘karodpati’, 150 belonging to political dynasties.

Pre-poll Violence and Use of Money Power

Though voting was by and large peaceful, it was not without violent incidents. A few days before the elections, a worker of the BJP was shot dead at Akkalkot. The suspicions pointed to Siddharam Mhetre of the Congress who was also a Minister in the incumbent government. Criminal cases were filed against him and his associates. Another BJP candidate was shot at Pune though he escaped death or injury. There was a terrible Naxalite violence in Gadchiroli in which 17 policemen, including an Assistant Police Inspector, were killed. Mercifully, in the course of election no Naxalite violence took place and the elections were conducted, by and large, peacefully.

Money power was fully evident in the elections. More than Rs 3000 crores were allegedly splurged by the candidates. It was openly talked that a “Gandhi” (note of Rs 500) was offered per voter in the slums and a “Hazare” (a Rs 1000 note) in difficult constituencies.

Low Percentage of Voting

The apathetic and lackadaiscal attitude of the the Mumbai voters was once again apparent. The percentage of voting in Mumbai was less than 50 per cent, in Pune it was not much better while it was more than 60 per cent in the rural areas. Even in the Naxal affected Gadchiroli it was 55 per cent. Though the voting day was declared a holiday by not only the government but also commercial establishments including malls and multiplexes, the voter turnout was just about 60 per cent for the State as a whole. There was more than 56.9 per cent voting in the recently held Lok Sabha polls, whereas it was less than 63.44 per cent voting in the 2004 Vidhan Sabha elections. “The Mumbai voters enjoyed 100 per cent holiday, but voted only 50 per cent,” said a newspaper.

One reason for the lack of voter interest in the urban areas was the alleged lack of confidence in any of the political parties and candidates they set up. The lacklustre performance of the ruling Congress-NCP alliance over the last ten years inspired no confidence. Nor did the Opposition Shiv Sena-BJP combine which failed to play the role of an effective Opposition. The Shiv Sena was badly affected by the bitter feud between the cousins—Uddhav and Raj Thackeray —with the latter’s newly founded outfit, the MNS. It was said Uddhav’s main opposition was the MNS and vice versa! Obviously Marathi voters were confused and divided. There was a large number of rebel candidates, especially of the NCP, and the rebels were expected to tilt the balance in case of a hung Assembly which was widely expected. Raj Thackeray with his aggressive speeches and agenda (“Vachaknama”, that is, threating manifesto issued on the eve of voting) confidently boasted that no government could be formed without his support.

All this, however, cannot condone the irresponsible attitude of the voters of Mumbai and other cities towards the process of democracy. After the 26/11 attack on Mumbai, some citizens of Mumbai indulged in meaningless gestures like candle-light display and human chain extending over the city but they failed to see any connection between dealing with terrorist attacks and electing a government which can take energetic steps to prevent and counter such attacks in future.

The exit polls predicted a hung Assembly with an edge for the Congress-NCP alliance, though the BJP-Shiv Sena commissioned their own exit polls which gave them an edge. Ultimately, as in the case of the recent Lok Sabha elections, the Congress got results even beyond their expectations. The pre-poll Congress-NCP alliance bagged 144 seats, that is, half of the total of 288 seats. Thus the alliance did not have to depend on any other political party and group of parties to get a majority. There were enough number of independents and rebels from both the constituent parties of their alliance who could be brought back to get a comfortable majority and form a stable government.

Congress-NCP Tussle

Unlike the last time when the NCP had an edge over the Congress, this time the Congress with 82 seats was way ahead of the NCP with 62 seats. Last time the NCP, which captured marginally more seats than the Congress, insisted on and got their pound of flesh. They grudgingly conceded the post of the Chief Minister to the Congress but in return got major departments like Home, Finance, Energy, Irrigation, Public Works and Higher Education. As a result the government bore the stamp of the NCP and the Congress had to put up with such an anomalous situation. With Narayan Rane breaking away from the Shiv Sena with some of the MLAs supporting him, and joining the Congress, the Congress strength rose to 75 ahead of the NCP’s 71 seats but the Congress could not wrest back the important portfolios conceded to the NCP.

Now the time has come for the Congress to cut the NCP to size. The process had already begun after the Lok Sabha elections with a dismal performance of the NCP—getting eight seats against 17 won by the Congress. The NCP suffered major losses. Sharad Pawar, the wily and shrewd politician, the founder and unquestioned leader of the NCP, quickly adjusted to the new situation. At the time of the Lok Sabha elections he hobnobbed with the Opposition leaders like BJD leader Naveen Patnaik without openly parting company with the Congress as Laloo and Paswan did to their own disadvantage. It was reported that in Maharashtra, he was even hobnobbing with Shiv Sena leader Uddhav Thackeray to gain control in the State were the Congress to lose. Once the Congress came out with flying colours bagging 206 seats in Parliament, Pawar saw the writing on the wall. He lay low and was rewarded with the same number of seats in the Union Cabinet with the same portfolios. After the Maharashtra Legislative Assembly poll results he said in an interview that the post of the Chief Minister would go to the Congress and the number of seats for the NCP in the Cabinet and their portfolios and giving the post of the Deputy Chief Minister to the NCP were all matters which would be amicably settled through consultations between the two alliance partners at the local level.

But the Congress would not let off the NCP leaders so easily. Already on the way to elections Congress leaders like Digvijay Singh, the General Secretary in Congress in charge of Maharashtra, openly asked the NCP to end their independent identity and merge into the Congress. When the NCP hesitated, leaders like Vilasrao Deshmukh, the former Chief Minister and now a Minister in the Union Cabinet, openly expressed their preference to go it alone. The Congress kept Pawar and other local NCP leaders on tenterhooks till just before the filing of papers, the word came from 10 Janpath approving the alliance. This and the large number of rebels from both the parties was expected to have an adverse effect on the results for the ruling alliance. But this did not happen.

Pathetic Performance of Opposition Parties

In contrast to the hesitancy regarding the Congress-NCP alliance, the Opposition Shiv Sena-BJP alliance was announced well in advance. The young Shiv Sena leader Uddhav Thackeray, the anointed successor to Bal Thackeray, the founder and source of inspiration of the party, went about in the State holding well-attended public meetings in Vidarbha and Marathwada, exposing the shortcomings of the ten-year-long rule of the Congress-NCP alliance—farmers’ suicides, power cuts and load shedding, poor infrastructure and above all the dismal performance at the time of 9/11 terrorist attack on Mumbai in which many lost lives or were badly injured. The BJP leaders, Gopinath Munde and Nitin Gadkari, stressed the same theme. Uddhav Thackeray was so sure of success after the enthusiastic response at the public meetings that he confidently predicted that the saffron flag would flutter over the Mantralaya—the seat of the Maharashtra Government. But the results were a bitter disappointment. The Shiv Sena fought 174 seats but won only 44—the lowest amongst the four parties—below the tally of its ally BJP which won two more, that is, 46 seats, though it contested much less number of seats, that is, 114.

The Shiv Sena supremo attributed the debacle to renegade young Marathi voters in Mumbai and Thane regions, the stronghold of the Shiv Sena. In two articles published in Saamna, the Marathi newspaper which is the mouthpiece of the Shiv Sena, Bal Thackeray lamented that the Marathi people ran to the Shiv Sena at times of need for help but deserted it at the time of voting. He poignantly moaned that it was the Marathi people who had “thrust the dagger in his back” by their betrayal. He spit fire against his own nephew, Raj Thackeray, and the latter’s outfit, the Maharashtra Nav Nirman Sena (MNS), for stealing his platform of Marathi Manoos (Marathi Man).

It was apparent at the time of the Lok Sabha elections itself that Raj and the MNS would make inroads into the Shiv Sena vote-bank of Marathi voters. Raj Thackeray proved to be a more charismatic leader than Uddhav Thackeray. His rabble-rousing style of speaking, resembling that of his uncle, Bal Thackeray, outshone the comparatively mild-mannered style of Uddhav Thackeray. The Shiv Sena under Uddhav Thackeray tried to befriend the ‘North Indians’ by participating in functions like Chhatpooja in order to widen its support base. But this created a vacuum in the radical Marathi Manoos advocacy which was filled in by the MNS whose workers beat up North Indians—the so-called “Bhayyaas”, vegetable vendors on the streets of Mumbai, and the candidates from Bihar-UP who had arrived on the station to appear for the Railway Board recruitment examinations. This utter rowdyism, called ‘Rada culture’ in Marathi, created a sense of disgust amongst sane people but excited the xenophobic tendencies amongst the Marathi youth who were unemployed and held, though wrongly, the North Indian immigrants as being responsible for depriving them of employment opportunities.

Ultimately Raj Thackeray’s eloquence and Marathi xenophobia gave the MNS a handsome dividend in the form 13 seats that he won in the Vidhan Sabha. To be sure, most of them were from the urban areas of Mumbai, Thane, Pune and Nasik. In the rest of the State the MNS drew a blank though 143 candidates were set up by it all over the State. But the capture of 13 seats in the very first attempt was no mean achievement. Raj had boasted that no government would be formed without his support. He was possibly banking on a hung Assembly. Now that the Congress-NCP would have a clear majority and would not have to depend on other small parties, his boast has proved empty. But he now asserts that his 13 sainiks would hold the government to account especially for ensuing justice for the Marathi Manoos. He has threatened that his MLAs would hold the Assembly to ransom and he himself would come out ‘on the street’ to support them from outside. A bold and decisive government can certainly call his bluff. But what would happen has to be seen.

The Shiv Sena-BJP leaders held Raj responsible for depriving them of victory in about 43 seats where but for the MNS taking away the Marathi voters, they could have had a handsome win. Some elder leaders like Manohar Joshi fondly wished that the two warring cousins would forget their feud and join hands. But that was not to happen. The feud between the two became more and more bitter and found expression in vitriolic personal attacks. The fact remains that Raj caused a serious erosion of the vote-bank of the Shiv Sena-BJP alliance. The Marathi people have a historic memory of ‘Bhaubandaki’, that is, feud between brothers which ruined family fortunes. This was the latest example of a ‘Bhaubandaki’ which ruined the fight for the Marathi Manoos.

If the Congress-NCP registered a handsome victory despite lacklustre performance over the last ten years, it was, analysts argue, because of a weak Opposition. The BJP was seriously crippled after its failure to gain victory in the recent Lok Sabha elections. There were better quarrels between the leaders leading to interjection of RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat. Advani, the “Lauhapurush”, became a pathetic figure and lost the influence of a leader capable of leading the party. Rajnath Singh proved to be an atrocious party head with the traits of a provincial chieftain. His high-handed dealing with the cases of Jaswant Singh and Vasundhara Raje tarnished the image of the BJP.

The national leaders of the BJP made only a fleeting appearance in the Maharashtra elections which were mainly handled by the local leaders. Yet the latter blame the happenings at the BJP headquarters which caused severe setback to the party in the State elections. After all, the BJP calls itself a national party and the central leaders of the party cannot shake off their responsibility.

Indeed a dark future lies ahead for the BJP. The second-level leaders do not see eye-to-eye with each other and there is no clear successor. The end of Rajnath’s tenure in December will gave a sense of relief to the BJP. But what next? Who will lead the party? By now it is becoming clear that the BJP, which calls itself an “ideological party”, has in fact no ideology, no clear thinking on national issues and no programme. Such a party is bound to flounder unless it completely rejuvenates itself.

Questions are being asked about the future of the NCP. Views have been expressed that the NCP has no future as an independent party and the best course for it is to merge into the parent party from which it broke away. But this is not going to be easy because some leaders have a vested interest in the existence of a separate party. If the NCP merges into the Congress, what will be their future in the Congress? They would have to play second fiddle to the State leaders of the Congress party.

Something should be said about other small parties—the socalled “Redalos”, a ragtag of Opposition groups led by Ramdas Athavale, who, embittered by the defeat in the Lok Sabha elections in the Shirdi constituency, severed his ties with the NCP leader, Sharad Pawar, and formed an alliance which got an initial setback when Prakash Ambedkar refused to join and Rajendra Gavai, another Dalit leader, deserted it to join the Congress. The remaining alliance won not an inconsiderable 11 seats. More notably, the BSP supremo’s dream of gaining a foothold got a setback when the BSP drew a blank.

Profile of the Assembly

What will be the new Assembly like? First of all, it must be said that the low percentage of voting, especially in the urban areas, and the first-past-the-post-system deprive the elected members of a representative character. Secondly, half the elected members are said to be having criminal background. How can they serve the interests of the people? Thirdly, there was a free flow of money to gain votes with several individual candidates spending far beyond the limit of the Rs 10 lakhs set by the Election Commission. Fourthly, it was said that questionable methods were used to collect votes. Entire Self Help Groups (SHGs—Bachat Gat in Marathi) were bought over to get group votes. The SHGs have been converted from being economic entities to political vote-banks. Acts like these make a mockery of democracy.

Many individual candidates are hardly representatives of the common people. The candidate of the MNS, who won with a thumping majority in Khadakwasla on the outskirts of Pune, went about canvassing with two kilos of gold on him—two string like chains round his thick neck, four golden rings round his fat fingers and two golden bracelets on his wrists. He has subsequently promised his party head, Raj Thackeray, that he would stop wearing them now that he would be an elected representative of the MNS.

Raosaheb Shekhawat, the son of the President, was elected from Amravati. He was a resident of Mumbai but nevertheless was set in place of incumbent MLA and Minister Sunil Deshmukh. The propriety of the son of the President standing for election was called into question. The incumbent representative and Minister, Sunil Deshmukh, had, by all accounts, rendered yeoman service to the people of his constituency and yet he was defeated. What does it show? What considerations govern voter behaviour? Good work and clean character are not always rewarded. The son of the President of India was not the only dynastic candidate to stand and win. There were many others, notably Amit, son of Vilasrao Deshmukh, and Praniti, daughter of Sushilkumar Shinde, both Union Cabinet members. It is said that Maharashtra politics is in the hands of 40 political dynasties. The latest election has strengthened the dynastic grip over the Maharashtra State politics. This is in tune with the dynastic grip over the Congress party. Sonia Gandhi has emerged stronger than ever with her word deciding who the next Chief Ministers in the States would be.

Tussle in Government Formation

The expectation that with a clear majority, government formation would be a smooth process has not materialised. The Congress wants the number of Ministers in the Cabinet to be in proportion to the number of candidates elected. Also important portfolios like Home, Finance and Energy should no longer remain with the NCP when the Congress is way ahead of the NCP. But the NCP is reluctant to concede any advantage to the Congress for its clear numerical superiority. It has even threatened to remain outside the government and only give outside support! This has delayed the process of government formation, an indication of the shape of things to come!

Dr Dubhashi, IAS (retired), is a former Secretary to the Government of India and erstwhile Vice-Chancellor, Goa University; he is currently the Chairman, Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan, Pune Kendra. He can be contacted at dubhashi@giaspn01.vsnl.net.in

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