Here's a look at 5 crucial constituencies in Maharashtra

Modi's acceptability remains high but MVA clearly has its tail up

24-BJP-supporters-at-a-rally-in-Mumbai Lotus position: BJP supporters at a rally in Mumbai | Amey Mansabdar
Kavitha Iyer Kavitha Iyer

There was not ever a sliver of doubt about how the BJP views its Lok Sabha campaign in Maharashtra. With a ‘400 paar’ target for the NDA, these 48 seats—next only to Uttar Pradesh’s 80—are a vital hunting ground. That the BJP was approaching its target of 40 Lok Sabha seats from Maharashtra in a brutally clinical manner became increasingly apparent as the second phase of polling concluded.

High-profile crossings of the aisle—former Union minister Milind Deora, former chief minister Ashok Chavan among them—have now been matched by unsentimental exclusions from the candidates list.

The BJP’s laboratory of experiments, which tests the limits of democratic systems, has returned to the hustings. One early conclusion: for the BJP, frustratingly, the Ajit Pawar and Eknath Shinde factions’ messaging is out-of-sync with the BJP’s thrust to return Prime Minister Narendra Modi for a third term. They spend precious campaign minutes on tales of betrayal and family sagas, a dissonance appearing almost geared towards state assembly elections later in the year.

As the battle hots up, THE WEEK takes a close look at five crucial constituencies in the state:

Chhatrapati Sambhajinagar: Maratha vote is key

In January, a month before he took his life, Manikrao Anant Godse, 38, was on the outskirts of Mumbai, braving the heat and dust of a two lakh-strong protest. Along with Sainath More—his neighbour from their village Babhulgaon Budruk in Chhatrapati Sambhajinagar’s Sillod block—he camped outdoors through the five-day journey and shouted slogans demanding reservations for Marathas in higher education and jobs.

Manoj Jarange-Patil has indicated he might field candidates in the assembly elections in October, against the Fadnavis-Shinde-Ajit Pawar government, if the quota implementation stalls.
Mid-level BJP and NCP (Ajit) leaders’ calculation is that the NCP cadre in Baramati is with the deputy CM; the region’s major farm cooperatives are with him; and that BJP votes will neatly transfer to the NCP.

On February 27, Abhishek, his son, appeared for a class 12 board exam in the morning and lit his father’s pyre in the evening. The enactment of a law to provide the once wealthy agrarian community a 10 per cent quota had done nothing to assuage Godse’s torment.

A truant monsoon in 2023 had shrunk the cotton harvest from his one-acre farm to a single quintal, a fifth of average yield, but it was college fees, donations for college admissions and a stable job for Abhishek that had continued to distress him.

Manoj Jarange-Patil, the leader of a series of recent statewide agitations for reservation, called the legislation a betrayal by the BJP and Chief Minister Eknath Shinde.

Godse’s brothers, neighbours and others said his worries mirrored the frustrations of lakhs of Marathas. They are nearly a third of the state’s population and their votes will be heavily impacted by Jarange-Patil’s command, particularly so in Sambhajinagar and the seven other seats of Marathwada. The central Maharashtra region is the heart of the demand for Marathas to be certified as Kunbis, a peasant sub-caste counted among OBCs.

Jarange-Patil’s war of words with Deputy Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis has suggested what direction he is pointing his voters towards. The BJP has erected large hoardings in Sambhajinagar city, listing what it claimed were Fadnavis’s contributions to the Maratha community since 2014.

It would be a mistake, however, to view the Maratha vote as being for one party or another, said Vinod Patil, coordinator of the Maratha Kranti Morcha and one of the petitioners and chief movers of the Maratha reservation movement. “Instead, Maratha leaders thrown up by the struggle, faces that Maratha voters now trust, will be heavily winnable candidates,” he told THE WEEK at his home in Chhatrapati Sambhajinagar city.

That was in March, when Vinod Patil himself was hopeful of a BJP or Shiv Sena (Shinde) ticket from this seat. Just how significant the Maratha vote will be is easy to see—no less than Chief Minister Shinde rushed to mollify Patil after the NDA announced that Shinde faction sainik and Cabinet Minister Sandipan Bhumare would contest from there.

26-Manoj-Jarange-Patil The maratha voice: Manoj Jarange-Patil in hospital after a hunger strike | Kavitha Iyer

Bhumare is in a triangular contest with four-term MP Chandrakant Khaire of the Shiv Sena (Uddhav Bal Thackeray), who lost in 2019 by fewer than 5,000 votes to the third major candidate in the fray here, incumbent MP Imtiaz Jaleel of the All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen.

Without any real Hindu voter mobilisation over the Ram Temple and in the absence of a Modi wave, the caste conflict is top of mind in the constituency.

In March, recovering at a private hospital in Sambhajinagar from a days-long hunger strike, the wiry Jarange-Patil, his mullet and goatee intact, told THE WEEK he would continue his agitation. “Raajkaaran ha maajha raasta nahi (politics is not the route for me),” he said, though he did not rule it out at a future date. More recently, he has indicated he might field candidates in the assembly elections in October, against the Fadnavis-Shinde-Ajit Pawar government, if the quota implementation stalls.

Union Minister of State Dr Bhagwat Karad, a prominent leader of the Vanjari caste (OBC) and a Sambhajinagar native, told THE WEEK that a series of Congress and NCP Maratha heavyweights had failed to do what the BJP had done for the community. Karad, who lost out in the race for the NDA candidature, said his priority was to ensure that the front’s candidate is elected.

Muddling the equation further is Manoj Ghodke, district (rural) leader of the NCP (Ajit Pawar) group and a Chhagan Bhujbal acolyte, who has filed his nomination papers as an independent.

27-Raju-Shetti The farmers’ leader: Raju Shetti with a young supporter who holds a photo of him with the leader some years ago | Kavitha Iyer

Hectic parleys are underway to assuage Ghodke, who is taking umbrage on behalf of Bhujbal. The latter was irritated and backed out of the race to be the NDA’s candidate in Nashik, where the NCP (Ajit) and Sena (Shinde) were in a tussle for the ticket. Bhujbal commands a very large OBC following, making the fly in the Sambhajinagar ointment a serious inner turmoil for the NDA campaign.

The urban part of the Sambhajinagar constituency has a sizeable OBC population, said Karad.

Sambhajinagar’s Muslim voters, nearly 21 per cent of the electorate, are keen on voting tactically for a single candidate as they did in 2019. Former journalist Jaleel became the constituency’s first Muslim MP since the 1980s. Whether or not the Maha Vikas Aghadi’s candidate Khaire is able to rally Muslim support could seal his fate.

In the neighbouring Beed constituency, BJP candidate, OBC leader and former state minister Pankaja Munde’s car was gheraoed by Maratha youth days before voting. In Sambhajinagar, Vinod Patil released a video message on May 4, indicating which way local Maratha voters could look. “I welcome yesterday’s statement by senior leader Rahul Gandhi saying they would do away with the 50 per cent ceiling for reservations,” he said, explaining that the ceiling was the key reason the apex court had overturned the Maratha quota when it was announced earlier. He said he hoped the declaration was more than mere political speech-making, and asked other parties to acknowledge how critical the issue was ahead of polling.

Hatkanangale: Farmers seek MSP guarantee law

“Raju Shetti is said to have won on account of just two activists,” writer and professor Sanjay Thorat said in a village near Islampur in Sangli. “Milk and sugar.”

In November 2023, Shetti, the founder of the Swabhimani Shetkari Sanghatana and former two-term MP, negotiated an agreement with sugar mills in the Kolhapur district. He wanted them to pay an additional Rs50 to Rs100 per tonne—over the government-declared fair and remunerative price (FRP)—for cane bought from farmers in the last season. The deal came after a protest led by Shetti, Maharashtra’s most influential farm leader, in which thousands of sugarcane farmers blocked the highway connecting Pune and Bengaluru. He has also taken up the cause of dairy farmers over the years.

PTI08_01_2023_000242B Right moves: (From left) Devendra Fadnavis, Narendra Modi, Eknath Shinde and Ajit Pawar | PTI

At 56, Shetti, who lost to Dhairyasheel Mane of the Shiv Sena in 2019, is preparing to contest without partnering with either alliance. Both have reached out to him, he said candidly. “I have seen both, the NDA and the Congress-led alliance,” Shetti told THE WEEK, “and I prefer to just contest independently.”

Shetti was hopeful that the MVA would not field a candidate against him, but former Shahuwadi MLA Satyajeet Patil-Sarudkar of the Sena (UBT) has filed his papers. This was an outcome of the party’s internal muscle-flexing within the alliance. The Sena had two sitting MPs in Kolhapur district—one is now with the Shinde faction and the other seat it ceded to the Congress. Unable to let go of another seat, the Sena (UBT) requested Shetti to contest on their symbol, an offer Shetti was quick to decline.

The Shiv Sena (Shinde) is repeating incumbent Mane.

Consisting of parts of Kolhapur and Sangli, Hatkanangale has a nearly 75 per cent rural voter population. And Shetti’s entreaty that both major alliances have failed farmers finds great resonance with them.

With the Sena splintered and a Modi wave absent, Mane is expected to struggle. Shetti was, in fact, ahead of Mane in three of the six assembly segments in 2019.

The momentary euphoria over the Ram Temple is no longer an emotive subject for voters, said farmers at a workshop organised by the Swabhimani Shetkari Sanghatana. They added that any residual Hindu identity polarisation will actually be countered by the Maratha identity polarisation. People in agrarian constituencies have every reason to vote on issues related to distress in agriculture and prices of commodities, Shetti said, adding that the demand for a legal guarantee for minimum support price for farm commodities is not limited to Punjab and Haryana.

Lone hand: Pratibha Dhanorkar at a rally in Maregaon taluka | Instagram@pratibhadhanorkar Lone hand: Pratibha Dhanorkar at a rally in Maregaon taluka | Instagram@pratibhadhanorkar

Sarkar dishabhool kar rahi hai (the government is misleading people) by saying that the cost to the exchequer rules it (MSP) out,” he said. His own private member draft bill moved in Parliament during his first term had recommended legislating a price that would be imposed, not unlike the minimum wages law or even the FRP for sugar. “The government does not need to buy at all,” he said.

When told that this approach was attempted, in vain, by Devendra Fadnavis in 2018, Shetti said it failed because the experiment was limited to Maharashtra. “In a one-nation, one-market scenario, traders will simply go to Karnataka if they cannot buy pulses, or any other commodity, below MSP in Maharashtra,” he said, adding that the law would have to be imposed for pan-India traders. “If there is a glut, the government, facing such a scenario only once every few years, may buy and export at a loss,” he said.

Shetti enjoys an easy camaraderie with rural voters, many of whom he is personally familiar with; he visits 15 to 18 villages every day during his campaign. A Muslim family he met on the outskirts of Islampur brought out an old framed photo of one of the children posing with a much younger Shetti. “My beard was still black then,” he laughed.

A delicate balance in agriculture is at threat from low productivity and deepening distress, he said, recollecting Shetkari Sanghatana founder Sharad Joshi’s words to Indira Gandhi. “He had told her that if something concrete was not done about prices, farmers would become terrorists,” he said. “Eventually, that is how she was killed.” The mood in rural India is dark once again, he continued, “and we should fix the problem of prices”.

Baramati: Back-channelling before a Pawar vs Pawar contest

On the evening of March 1, hours before Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s scheduled visit to Baramati town in western Maharashtra, a group of Bharatiya Janata Yuva Morcha activists held a ‘Yuva Chaupal’ opposite the Baramati municipal council building. The lotus symbol was featured prominently on the stage backdrop, alongside photos of Modi, Union Home Minister Amit Shah, party president J.P. Nadda and the Maharashtra BJP’s top brass.

Attendance was abysmal. A few young boys lounged restlessly on chairs, occasionally kicking empty plastic water bottles on the road, while incredulous Baramati residents stopped for a few minutes in between stocking up on their weekend tipple and biryani at nearby stores. One pre-speech Marathi song had a verse about ‘Adarsh ghotala’, the residential building scam that former Maharashtra chief minister Ashok Chavan of the Congress was the main accused in, until he joined the BJP. Nobody flinched.

For two hours, an array of BJYM leaders declared one by one that their sole motive was to ensure Modi was re-elected as prime minister. There was a studied silence on the local candidate for the NDA, Sunetra Pawar of the Nationalist Congress Party, wife of Deputy Chief Minister Ajit Pawar.

Ankitaa Patil Thackeray, the recalcitrant daughter of Harshvardhan Patil, a former Congress minister now with the BJP, was scheduled to attend, but was a no-show. Ankitaa, who is married to Nihar Bindumadhav Thackeray, Bal Thackeray’s grandson, recently buttonholed the NCP’s strategists demanding a quid pro quo—support for the NCP’s Lok Sabha candidate in return for a free pass in Indapur in the assembly elections, from where her father had won twice—later this year. The NCP (Ajit)’s Dattatray Bharane, now a minister in the Maharashtra government, had dislodged Patil in the 2014 assembly elections.

This was only one among several fault lines in the BJP-NCP-Sena alliance, but on a stage as central as this one, in Maharashtra’s most high-profile contest between sitting MP Supriya Sule, the daughter of Sharad Pawar, and her sister-in-law, the lack of cohesion was jarring.

Recently, the Sena’s Sanjay Raut claimed the Shinde faction, in a battle for survival in the state, is working to defeat Sunetra; legislator and the senior Pawar’s grandnephew Rohit Pawar has accused Ajit of using strong arm tactics against party-workers of the NCP (Sharad Pawar); and Ajit’s own campaign speeches have revolved around the entire Pawar clan abandoning him. At least in Baramati, there was no currency for the BJP campaigners’ speeches on mangalsutras and wealth redistribution.

Mid-level BJP and NCP (Ajit) leaders’ calculation is that the NCP cadre in Baramati, nurtured and raised by Ajit, is overwhelmingly with the deputy CM; the region’s major farm cooperatives are with him; and additionally, that BJP votes will neatly transfer to the NCP—the party has MLAs in the Daund and Khadakwasla assembly segments.

Sule, whose election outcome will be read as either a requiem for the Sharad Pawar era in Maharashtra politics or as a paean to his famously crafty statesmanship, knows it could be a close contest.

Sakshna Salgar, zilla parishad member from nearby Dharashiv and Maharashtra president of the Nationalist Yuvati Congress, Sule’s youth organisation for girls, told THE WEEK there was “an undercurrent of distaste at how the party was stolen from its founder”. During an afternoon of campaigning, Salgar said even long-time NCP voters who viewed both leaders with equal adulation can now see this as “a family of Kauravas and Pandavas”. Young women cadres of the NCP (Sharad Pawar), conducting a door-to-door campaign in Baramati town, said there was vocal sympathy for the senior Pawar. Even former deputy chief minister Chhagan Bhujbal, of the Ajit camp, told reporters there was a “sympathy wave” for the opposite side.

However, the newly registered voters in the peri-urban areas of the constituency, particularly in Daund and Khadakwasla, are traditional upper-middle class, urbane BJP voters; and the sizeable Dhangar community’s support is unclear. Their leader, Mahadev Jankar, and his Rashtriya Samaj Party, are part of the NDA alliance.

Sunetra has been a familiar face in Baramati, having lived a low-key but regular public life as president of a textile park and of an environmental NGO. However, her meetings with trade bodies and women’s groups seem somewhat antiseptic in contrast to Sule’s practised congeniality.

Incidentally, Baramati recorded the lowest turnout among the Maharashtra seats that went to the polls on May 7, leading both sides to now claim that the other side’s voters were a no-show.

Mumbai suburbs: Infrastructure, resources for Palghar’s adivasis

The suburban sprawl spanning the 80km stretch of Mumbai’s west-flanking outback—from Naigaon and Vasai-Virar till Boisar lying further north—easily counts among India’s most rapidly developing concrete boroughs.

In July 2018, the twin towns of Vasai-Virar remained marooned for nearly two days as torrential rains totalling 800mm over four days snapped rail and road connectivity with Mumbai. Since then, heavy rains have brought pangs of anxiety for residents, who know that the clogged drains and blocked natural water channels that cause tidal flooding have not really changed since.

All along this belt, former wastelands, mangroves and nearly 4,000 acres of salt pan land are under attack from frenetic construction activity. Sameer Vartak, an environmental activist and a Congress office-bearer, said poor planning and rampant illegal construction have blocked creeks and drains, causing rainwater to back up into the townships. “It has been the same story here for a long time,” he said.

Unplanned densification of these dormitory towns has not stalled despite climate concerns. The Rest of MMR population (excluding Mumbai) shot up from 18 lakh in 1971 to 106 lakh by the 2011 census. Most recently, revised electoral rolls data showed a smart rise in the number of registered voters in the Boisar and Vikramgad assembly segments. The 2023 revision saw the Palghar parliamentary constituency’s total voters rise by nearly 5 per cent.

None of the parties of either alliance has a very prominent candidate. Incumbent MP Rajendra Gavit recently left the Sena (Shinde) to rejoin the BJP. Notably, he had won the 2018 byelection to the same seat as a BJP candidate. There seemed to be friction within the alliance before the Sena (Shinde) and the BJP reached an agreement that the former would bow out of the race in Palghar. The BJP candidate in Palghar is Hemant Savara, son of former state minister Vishnu Savara.

The Hitendra Thakur-led Bahujan Vikas Aghadi, which has two MLAs in the Vasai-Virar belt that makes up nearly half of the constituency’s voters, has fielded its Boisar MLA Rajesh Patil.

The Shiv Sena (UBT) has fielded tribal leader Bharti Kamdi. Vartak said the INDIA bloc had held a long meeting in Palghar in January, and had resolved that members would work together irrespective of which party was allotted the seat.

Palghar district BJP functionaries said the seat has been a BJP bastion for decades, and reasoned that a slew of development projects in the region would keep the party’s traditional urban and middle-class voter base from straying. These include the bullet train project or the Mumbai-Ahmedabad High Speed Rail (MAHSR) that will have stops at Virar and Boisar, the four-laning of the Virar-Dahanu section of the suburban railway, proximity to the upcoming Vadhavan port in Dahanu, the proposed 12-laning of the Mumbai-Ahmedabad highway that cuts across the constituency, and a ring road connecting the municipal corporations of the region.

Chandrapur: Lone Congress MP’s widow stakes her claim

Outside the Chandrapur Lok Sabha constituency, few BJP functionaries knew Pratibha Dhanorkar. She is the MLA from Warora and wife of the Congress’s solitary MP from Maharashtra, Balu Dhanorkar, who died in May 2023.

In the summer of 2023, however, Dhanorkar burst on to the scene, travelling to almost all parts of the Lok Sabha constituency even when the Congress’s official candidate appeared to be a choice between her and Vijay Wadettiwar, leader of the opposition in the assembly.

In March, Dhanorkar, 38, attended a jangi shankarpat, or a competitive bullock cart race, in Yavatmal district, which has two assembly segments of the Chandrapur Lok Sabha seat. She took the yoke of a bullock cart and declared the games open. “I am glad to see women participating in the shankarpat shoulder to shoulder with men,” she said.

After months of visiting women’s self-help groups, students, farmers, worker organisations, colleges, medical institutions and trade bodies across the constituency, Dhanorkar, a first-time MLA in 2019, emerged as a more than able opponent to the BJP’s chosen candidate, the somewhat reluctant Cabinet Minister Sudhir Mungantiwar.

“There is definitely anger against the current regime,” said Namdeo Shedmake of the Gondwana Gantantra Party, a tribal leader based in Ballarpur who had previously lost from Chandrapur. Western Coalfields Ltd operates coal mines around Ballarpur, while local bamboo plantations make the town a hub for paper manufacturing. “Unemployment and prices are hitting the roof,” Shedmake said, “while cotton prices hit rock bottom.”

The anger of the people, said Shedmake, is directed towards the political machinations that led to the fracturing of the Shiv Sena and the NCP, and towards the induction of formerly scam-tainted leaders into the BJP. “People here are simple, but they feel the ideals they voted for have been thrown away,” he said.

Glimpses of the anti-incumbency were visible ahead of the prime minister’s rally in Yavatmal in the last week of February. Villagers in Wani erected a hoarding listing promises Modi had made to locals in 2014, most of them unfulfilled. They drank cups of black tea in protest, their twist on chai pe charcha.

Part of the paddy-growing ‘white gold’ belt east of Nagpur, the Lok Sabha constituency has an 18 per cent scheduled tribe voter base. Former Union minister Hansraj Ahir won Chandrapur in 1996. He repeated the victory in 2004, 2009 and 2014. In 2019, Balu Dhanorkar, with the Shiv Sena till then, won on a Congress ticket.

The Dhanorkars are Dhanoje Kunbis, an OBC caste which, along with other Kunbis, account for over seven lakh voters, said Pratibha Dhanorkar’s brother Pravin Kakade. This is in addition to a large percentage of other OBC voters. Instead of the Ram Temple being leveraged for Hindu votes, the mobilisation of the OBCs would aid Pratibha, he said.

In Warora, where the municipal council’s term ended two years ago and fresh elections were never called, a BJP corporator said, “There is some resentment among BJP workers, some of whom have worked since the 1990s to build the party in Vidarbha,” he said. “Party workers have got nothing in return.”

THE DRIVING NARRATIVE of the election campaign in Maharashtra may be rooted in the BJP’s single-minded and relentless pursuit of electoral conquest. However, key sub-plots are tugging the storyline in other directions—the Maratha vote, a few new Maratha leaders drawing socio-political support across party lines, and a Pawar versus Pawar battle-to-the-end.

Despite the atrophy experienced by two constituents of the Maha Vikas Aghadi, the gleam in their eye is evident. It is true that the Congress, NCP-SCP and Sena-UBT have all looked to grow at one another’s cost, but in rally after rally, they have packed the stage with at least a veneer of unity, an alliance designed with the singular objective of keeping out the BJP, seen by very large chunks of Maharashtrians as the party that has debased and cheapened Maharashtra politics and turned it into treacherous family dramas.

For now, Prime Minister Modi’s acceptability remains high even where voters find the BJP’s quest for power at any cost offensive. Rahul Gandhi’s yatras alone will not bring the MVA the result it desires, but it clearly has its tail up midway through the country’s longest-ever election.

Iyer is a senior journalist.