State scan: BJP shows it is the strongest force in urban Maharashtra

BJP members celebrate the party’s victory in the Sangli civic polls | Photo: PTI
The BJP’s opponents in Maharashtra are becoming wary of the growing clout of the party in urban areas of the state, sending alarm bells among friends and foes alike when the Lok Sabha and Assembly polls are not far away.

The victory of the BJP in the Sangli-Miraj and Jalgaon municipal elections has come as a bolt for the rivals of the ruling party. Sangli-Miraj is part of sugar-rich western Maharashtra, considered the turf of Sharad Pawar’s Nationalist Congress Party (NCP). Not long ago, it was the stronghold of the late Vasantdada Patil, a Congress veteran.

The Jalgaon civic body was controlled for many years by controversial Suresh Jain of the Shiv Sena through a local front. Interestingly, 13 candidates put up by the Shiv Sena have all won despite the spectacular show by the BJP. Jalgaon is part of northern Maharashtra, bordering Gujarat.

There have been ups and downs in Maharashtra politics since May 2014. In the Assembly elections held five months later, the BJP fell just 22 short of an absolute majority in the 288-Member House. The Assembly elections were different in that for the first time, the BJP, which generally used to be at fourth spot for years in the Congress-dominated state, jumped to first place.

The Narendra Modi-Amit Shah combine left nothing to chance as the Prime Minister campaigned feverishly in a virtual do or die battle, in which it marginalised the Congress and NCP on one side, and the Shiv Sena, which was the “elder brother” in the Sena-BJP tie up in the state so far, on the other. The objective was to show that the Lok Sabha success was no flash in the pan.

Dynastic rule in the Congress and NCP, even at district and tehsil levels, has worked against the parties.

What also helped the BJP and Modi is the changing demographic structure as also rapid urbanisation, in which the state was bound to take the lead amid growing industrialisation and migration from the countryside and other states.

India is urbanising and experts expect by 2030 nearly 50 per cent of the population will live in urban areas. For example, in Maharashtra, India’s most urbanised state, 47 per cent of the population live in urban constituencies and yet, these constituencies account for only 31 per cent of the assembly seats. The BJP’s assessment is that 55 per cent of Maharashtra is urban and covers some 160 of the 288 Assembly seats, including small cities having municipal councils.

Unlike any other party, the BJP succeeded in projecting that it would pay greater attention to the needs and aspirations of people who have been uprooted from their places, state party leader Madhav Bhandari says.

The Assembly polls in Gujarat in 2012 helped change the mindset of the people, says Bhandari, the chief spokesman for the party in Maharashtra, indicating that Modi’s Gujarat model worked wonders in the spread of the party.

He says the party had secured 29 per cent of the votes in the Assembly polls, and that has subsequently risen to 33-34 per cent if the aggregate of the votes polled in various local government bodies — from gram panchyats to municipal corporations — is taken into account.

Opposition leaders in the state, including those of the Congress and the NCP, admit in private they have a hard task cut out in the urban areas, where they lack both the depth of leadership and organisation. The refrain is that in urban areas like Mumbai, Thane, Pune, Nashik, Aurangabad, Nagpur and other smaller cities, the control is that of the BJP, followed by that of the Shiv Sena.

The tacit admission is that when the Congress-NCP was in power, it ignored the cities as their base mainly lay in the countryside.

The appointment of Devendra Fadnavis as chief minister went in favour of the BJP because he, being a former mayor of Nagpur, could understand the problems in these areas better than many others.

Shiv Sena leader Sanjay Raut says Fadnavis might be a man of integrity but his “USP is to buy victory” in whatever polls, a charge the BJP stoutly rejects. 

All in all, Maharashtra is going to witness an interesting battle in the Lok Sabha and Assembly polls, which are expected to be held together. The biggest anti-Modi lineup is taking place, with opposition veteran Sharad Pawar virtually leading the charge. With just seven months for the polls, economic issues like rising prices of petrol and diesel and unemployment are becoming prominent. The way the Modi dispensation handles these issues would decide which way the wind blows.

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