Maharashtra Assembly elections: BJP banks on Modi’s appeal, but faces challenge of farm distress, quota demands

The Assembly elections in Maharashtra and Haryana, scheduled to be held on 21 October, are particularly important as they will be the first ones to be held after the 2019 Lok Sabha election. Of these, Maharashtra arguably has more political significance, owing to the greater number of constituencies and the fact that the party that comes to power will be in control of the country’s financial capital, Mumbai.

Among the issues that are expected to resonate in the run-up to the Maharashtra Assembly election are a long-drawn farm crisis and a slew of grievances of the dominant Maratha community, apart from emotive issues appealing to religiosity and muscular nationalism. Here are the main factors that would decide the battle:

 Maharashtra Assembly elections: BJP banks on Modis appeal, but faces challenge of farm distress, quota demands

Prime Minister Narendra Modi looks on during the ‘Vijay Sankalp Rally’ in Nashik on Thursday. PTI

Narendra Modi’s persona

Although the upcoming election is to elect a new Legislative Assembly in Maharashtra, in the past few years, state polls have largely been referendums on the prime minister. Modi’s persona is both the centrepiece of the BJP’s campaign and the chief target of the Opposition’s criticism. Across several districts of Maharashtra, supporters of the BJP-Shiv Sena combine associated Modi’s name with reduced corruption and better implementation of government schemes.

Although the upcoming election is a state-level one, BJP’s aggressive nationalism is likely to affect voters’ decision. Article 370, Kashmir and Pakistan are some of references that are frequently made by people who support the saffron combine. The same people also castigate the Congress for “supporting” Kanhaiya Kumar’s alleged slogans of “Bharat tere tukde honge” (the veracity of the videos is seriously doubtful, though — see here and here).

This also reflects in the BJP’s political posturing in its rallies in the state. For example, at a rally in Nashik, Modi took a swipe at the Opposition parties Congress and NCP, saying that instead of supporting the government on the abrogation of Article 370, a decision taken in “national interest”, they are making comments for their selfish political interests.

Without naming Rahul Gandhi, Modi had also said the Congress leaders are making comments which are being used by other countries and terror outfits against India.

Such statements indicate one of the strategies for the BJP to tide over the farm crisis in Maharashtra — a strategy also seen during the 2019 Lok Sabha polls — ensuring that even those who are angry with the party’s agrarian policies exercise their electoral choice based on what is happening in New Delhi and Srinagar, rather than what is happening on their farms.

Representational image. Shrirang Swarge

File image of the Kisan long march. Shrirang Swarge

Agrarian situation

Two regions widely associated with chronic farm distress — Marathwada and Vidarbha — are located in Maharashtra, and so it is no surprise that the issue figures prominently in the state’s politics. In March 2018, the state was also the scene for the Kisan long march — which took place from Nashik to Mumbai. The march had foregrounded demands of peasants at a scale that was unprecedented in recent times, and it led to farmers’ grievances getting rare prime-time attention on mainstream media.

In 2017, the state government had announced a “historic” farm loan waiver, responding to large-scale protests. However, the waiver, which could have been a major selling point for the incumbent state government, has left it struggling to defend its implementation. As articles such as this and this point, the farm loan waiver scheme was plagued by errors due to fudged Aadhaar data and inexperienced people keying in information while racing against impossible deadlines.

The waiver process involved many farmers having to make repeated visits to government centres and status to apply and check the status of their applications. This, combined with the delays and uncertainty associated with the scheme, served to anger many farmers.

The Union and state government have, of late, announced a slew of measures to win the trust of farmers. Under the scheme, vulnerable landholding farmer families, having cultivable land up to 2 hectares, are to be provided direct income support at the rate of Rs. 6,000 per year. The Centre has also announced a pension scheme for farmers. Under the scheme, people between 18 years and 40 years can contribute to the pension fund, and the Central government will contribute an equal amount. When applicants attain the age of 60 years, they will get a monthly pension of Rs 3,000 per month.

Another move that may help the BJP-Shiv Sena alliance is an increase in the minimum support prices for 14 Kharif crops announced in July 2018. MS Swaminathan, an agricultural expert who had headed an important committee on farmer distress, had said that the MSP hike was a “welcome first step.” He said that while it was higher in absolute terms, it was still below the recommended level.

File image of Devendra Fadnavis and Uddhav Thackeray. PTI

File image of Uddhav Thackeray and Maharashtra chief minister Devendra Fadnavis. PTI

Quota demands

In the past five years, among the biggest challenges for the Devendra Fadnavis-led government was in the form of demands for reservation by two numerically dominant social groups — Marathas and Dhangars. The first demand has been partially fulfilled for now — while the state government had sought to introduce a 16 percent quota for the Marathas, the Bombay High Court directed that the quota should be 12 percent in education and 13 percent in government appointments. However, petitions against the high court’s decisions are presently pending in the Supreme Court.

In August 2018, Fadnavis had said that the Maharashtra government is “committed and taking every effort” to provide reservations to Dhangars in the state. However, this is easier said than done. The Dhangar community, presently classified as a nomadic tribe, wants the government to include it in the list of Scheduled Tribes so that its members can avail reservations earmarked for Scheduled Tribes. However, this runs the risk of antagonising communities which already have ST status, as the inclusions of Dhangars would effectively reduce their share. Indeed, in June 2014, an all-party delegation of 25 MLAs and ministers from tribal areas of the state had met the then Governor K Sankaranarayanan asking him not to recommend to the Centre the inclusion of Dhangar and other non-tribal communities in the list of Scheduled Tribes of Maharashtra.

In sum, the Maharashtra Assembly election will test whether the BJP still retains the momentum that it had during the Lok Sabha battle. The incumbent state government benefits from the goodwill of the Central Government and a lacklustre Opposition, but faces the challenge of rural distress and addressing community-specific demands.

Updated Date: Oct 09, 2019 22:51:10 IST

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