Maharashtra Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis during a BJP rally in Mumbai. (Pratham Gokhale/Hindustan Times via GettyImages)     
Snapshot
  • Maharashtra’s transformation into a politically saffron state continues, even as the Sangli win gives CM Fadnavis the political space to plan and prepare better for 2019.

On the polling day for the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, Pune was full of rumours that Congress was going to import thousands of voters from Sangli who will vote against bogus name in Pune. Such was the confidence in Sangli being a Congress bastion that several people assumed that Congress will not only win Sangli, but will be left with enough votes to send them to Pune.

Of course, the rumours were baseless – the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) won the Pune seat with a margin of over 300,000 votes. More importantly, Sangli, the Congress stronghold, itself fell for the first time in 2014, a seat it had won since 1962. Pratik Patil, sitting Member of Parliament (MP) and the grandson of first Maratha strongman Vasantdada Patil, lost by an eye-popping margin of 240,000 votes.

Vasantdada Patil played a huge role in shaping the cooperative movement in Maharashtra in the areas of sugarcane farming and education. Sangli and Miraj were the hubs of his cooperative movement. He started a big sugar factory in early 1950s in Sangli. He was also responsible for allowing private technical colleges in the state in 1980s. But Vasantdada Patil was not the only Congress stalwart from Sangli.

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Patangrao Kadam, a senior Congress leader, also hailed from the Sangli district. A minister in Maharashtra government holding various portfolios between 1999 and 2014, Kadam established the famous Bharati Vidyapeeth. His son Vishwajeet was the losing Congress candidate in Pune in 2014. After Patangrao’s death, Vishwajeet was elected unopposed from Palus-Kadegaon in Sangli as a Member of Legislative Assembly (MLA) in the state – no opposition party fielded any candidates against him as a tribute to Patangrao.

Rajarambapu Patil, another veteran Congress leader, was born in the Sangli district too. He set up several schools in the Sangli and Satara districts. He was also part of the cooperative movement of the post-independence era, working with tobacco and sugar farmers. He was appointed the president of Maharashtra state Congress in 1959. After he passed away in 1984, his son Jayant Patil took over his political legacy. Jayant Patil has been an MLA from the Walva and Islampur constituencies in Sangli district (though part of Ichalkaranji/Hatkanangale Lok Sabha seat) since 1990. He is now the state president of the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP).

Sangli is not just a sugar belt district, which supports Congress due to the legacy of cooperative movement. Sangli is literally the hub of Congress political ideology in Maharashtra, shaped and templatised efficiently in other areas of Western Maharashtra by an array of politicians in Congress and the NCP.

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When the BJP won a majority on its own in the Sangli-Miraj-Kupwad Municipal Corporation (SMKMC) on 2 August, it was not just another win. This victory at the local body level was a blow to decades of Congress legacy in the region. The 2014 Lok Sabha win for BJP was widely written off as an un-replicable Narendra Modi wave impact. But the summary rejection of the Congress-NCP alliance by the SMKMC voters in the municipal election is the strongest statement BJP has made since its meteoric ascendancy started in the state in 2014 under the leadership of Chief Minister (CM) Devendra Fadnavis.

SMKMC saw 62 per cent polling, with BJP winning 41 of the 78 seats. Congress and NCP fought together, but could only manage 20 and 15 seats respectively. In 2013, Congress had 41 seats, NCP 19, and BJP just six. Although Shiv Sena does not have sizeable presence in the SMKMC, BJP won this poll without an alliance with the Shiv Sena.

A stunned Congress has since reacted with familiar arguments. BJP has been accused of poaching leaders from other parties, similar to what it did in Pimpri-Chinchwad municipal elections in 2017. Congress alleged that almost three fourths of its newly elected municipal councilors came from other parties. Even then, the fact that BJP could actually attract these leaders in the home district of the incumbent NCP state chief and Congress ideological bastion shows that the party has finally made inroads at the local level.

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The victory for BJP was sweeter as it came in the backdrop of relentless caste agitations spurred by opposition. The Maratha agitation demanding reservations in education and government jobs was taking place even on 1 August – the day of voting in Sangli. In fact, the agitation has been brimming with anger to the point that CM Fadnavis did not even campaign himself in Sangli. He had led from the front in all municipal elections in the state until SMKMC. The BJP campaign was spearheaded more or less by Chandrakantdada Patil, minister in the Fadnavis Cabinet.

The SMKMC election result establishes Fadnavis as a pan-Maharashtra leader, whose appeal of a no-nonsense, pro-development CM transcends caste fault lines. Fadnavis seems to be hated equally by his political opponents, his political allies, and even other senior leaders of his own party. And that perhaps is the strongest statement of his public acceptance – he is doing a stellar governance job against all odds, against a large political mahagathbandhan, which effectively includes his BJP rivals too. City after city, the Maharashtra voters seem to be recognising this game and voting for the Fadnavis brand of urban, eloquent and focused politics.

The Congress-NCP defeat also shows the limitations of caste politics, especially the violent, agitation-led variety. Of course, the opposition may not give away this plank anytime soon, given it has been able to hold big cities like Mumbai and Pune hostage several times since January this year.

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The results from Sangli (and Jalgaon as well) are food for thought for Shiv Sena. The BJP dependence on Sena is reducing fast. Barring the Mumbai metropolitan region and isolated areas in and around Aurangabad, Sena is left with minimal political capital. Will it accept the BJP as a senior coalition partner in 2019 Lok Sabha and state elections? Contesting in an alliance, the BJP-Shiv Sena combination can have a realistic shot at 47 out of 48 Lok Sabha seats (barring Satara). Contesting separately, BJP can still match its 2014 own tally, but Sena may be reduced to a handful of seats. Congress and NCP are clawing into Sena’s Marathi manoos agenda via caste schisms, while BJP juggernaut seems unstoppable in urban Maharashtra.

The SMKMC win comes as a huge shot in the arm for CM Fadnavis. He will have more political space to deal with the morchas and agitations in the near future. The breathing space may allow him to focus on the 2019 political strategies better.

Maharashtra was always a saffron state at heart. It is now turning saffron politically, setting the stage for a thrilling 2019 election season.

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