If there is one theme that I keep talking about, it is stressing on the difficulty of political parties muscling their way across state borders. It is only during rare political upheavals that parties can grow in geographical reach. All the way until 2009, the BJP continued to function entirely in what I call “Advani territory” : the lands where BJP spread during the Ram Rath yatra. For nearly two decades, the BJP didn’t spread further.
The next expansion of the BJP’s electoral catchment area came in 2014. Modi created new space for the party in Haryana and Assam. He renewed the party in Uttar Pradesh where it’s stream had long run dry. And finally, he spread BJP to every corner of Maharashtra. No more a junior partner to Shiv Sena.
But one huge blow is not enough, definitely not in a massive state like Maharashtra. Modi needed capable generals who would successfully build on the opening that had been created and let the party organization strike roots in every corner of the state. And this is what Devendra Fadnavis has done, which has made me into a fan.
Consider first, the importance of Maharashtra, especially in the Congress scheme of things. While the headlines often go to the rabble rousing politics of Shiv Sena and its hooliganism based cousin MNS, people tend to forget how important Maharashtra is to the Congress ecosystem. Before 2014, the Congress had its Chief Minister in Mumbai for all but the period from 1995-1999. While everyone talks of the spectacular 73/80 in Uttar Pradesh in 2014, the real body blow to the Congress came from Maharashtra, where the NDA swept 42/48 seats. There would likely be several seats among these where Congress has always won since 1952.
I have always seen Maharashtra and (undivided) Andhra Pradesh as the two reserve bunkers of the Congress. The 2004 victory of Sonia Gandhi would simply have been impossible without them. In 2004, the Congress did very poorly in the Hindi heartland, but it was Maharashtra and Andhra Pradesh that got them their six seat edge over the BJP. As of now, the Congress has been finished in Andhra Pradesh and Devendra Fadnavis is squeezing the life out of them in Maharashtra. Take these two states away from Congress and they cannot repeat 2004.
Maharashtra has certain features that make it unique. It is one of the states that is deeply feudal in its politics despite being highly industrialized. This feudal power structure, mostly kept in place through cooperatives loyal to local politicians, results in very powerful local governments. In Maharashtra, the local elections really matter. Every little nagarpalika is hotly contested, because there is a lot of power at stake. For instance, Mumbai’s BMC is practically a state on its own. The only other state I know of where local elections matter so much is West Bengal.
So, the real task before Devendra Fadnavis was to bring BJP to the grassroots in Maharashtra. At the grassroots, the BJP had always been party No. 4, even behind Shiv Sena. The only time before 2014 when saffron forces formed the government in Maharashtra was when the Sena+BJP combine swept 33 out of 34 seats in Mumbai in 1995. Both saffron parties were effectively missing in most of the state. With Sena+BJP unable to repeat their performance in Mumbai (thanks in major part to MNS), they didn’t have a chance in 1999 nor in 2004 nor in 2009.
Outside Mumbai, the secular forces have deep roots everywhere in Maharashtra. Quick…name a city in Maharashtra other than Mumbai. Did you say Pune? It might come as a surprise to people that Pune is a stronghold of the NCP. Yes, an aspirational urban area can be an NCP stronghold. Did you say Nagpur? Surely Nagpur, the fountainhead of the RSS, is a stronghold of BJP? Wrong again! Nagpur is a stronghold of the Congress party. It is only in 2014 that secular bastions in Pune and Nagpur were demolished by the Modi wave.
What about Kolhapur? LOL! Congress/NCP has never lost it since 1952 and BJP lost there even in 2014!! Would you believe that Navi Mumbai…yes…right on the edges of the Maximum City is also an NCP stronghold? I hope that by now, readers who are not from Maharashtra, would have an idea of the strength of Congress-NCP in the state.
This is the mountain that Devendra Fadnavis was expected to climb. And he would have to do it with the Shiv Sena snapping at his heels. Fadnavis understood that the real target of BJP is the NCP. The NCP…or as Modi aptly described it… the “Naturally Corrupt Party” is totally dependent on the power of these cooperatives and local satraps. With the NCP out of power both in the state and the center, it makes sense for the local satraps to gravitate towards the ruling party. Fadnavis would have to dissolve the NCP at the grassroots. This is what he pulled off in remarkable fashion in the first phase of the municipal polls where as many as 167 councils were at stake. With a 72% voter turnout, these polls richly deserved the title of “mini-Assembly election”. Here are the results.
That’s simply staggering. From No. 4 to No. 1 in one giant leap. The picture is even more stark if you look at the Mayoral elections for the 167 councils that were held directly. The BJP was by far the No.1 with 55 Mayors whereas Congress was a poor 2nd with around 25 seats.
The next two phases were much smaller, involving just 14 councils and 19 councils respectively, compared to the mammoth 167 in the first phase.
Here’s the performance in the 2nd phase:
Mayors : BJP 5 Cong 3 NCP 2 Sena 1 Others 3 (Total = 14)
And wardwise, here is the performance:
NCP 94 BJP 89 Cong 44 Sena 25
What? How come BJP is behind NCP? Well, look at the position from 2011:
Yes, BJP was a poor 4th here with just 17 wards compared to 86 of the NCP and 72 of the Congress. Quite simply, the BJP was nowhere. Now it has the maximum number of mayors and just a shade behind NCP in number of wards. The BJP has arrived in rural Maharashtra…finally.
Here is the third phase, results for which came out yesterday. A total of 19 councils went to polls. Among them were 11 councils in Nanded, the bastion of Ashok Chavan. Nanded did not fall even in 2014. But here are the results now:
Cong 8 BJP 7 NCP 1 Sena 0 Others 3 (Total 19)
Can you believe that the BJP had won just 25 wards in this region across 19 councils in 2011? Again, BJP was nowhere. Now it has 119 wards, just behind the 126 of the Congress.
Add up the 3 phases and you have the results for the whole of Maharashtra:
BJP 1097. Congress 917 NCP 786. Shiv Sena 596.
As for Mayors, the BJP has won 67 while the Congress has got a mere 35. This is the story of Devendra Fadnavis’ remarkable battle to make BJP the No. 1 party in the state.
Side note: As expected, Shiv Sena’s performance has been pathetic. I knew that people would punish the Sena for enjoying power and continuing to criticize the government. Such hypocrisy is detested by the common man. BJP’s big new challenge is to make the Shiv Sena eat humble pie in the BMC polls.