Who will sweep Maharashtra this Lok Sabha elections?

It’s an open fight, with the rifts and splits in the state politics

16-A-shopkeeper-arranges-scarves-bearing-symbols Spoilt for choice: A shopkeeper arranges scarves bearing symbols and names of political parties in Mumbai | Amey Mansabdar


Something unthinkable happened in Baramati a few days ago.

Sharad Pawar, founder of the Nationalist Congress Party, visited the family of late Sambhajirao ‘Lalasaheb’ Kakde, ending his 55-year-old political rivalry with the Kakdes and their supporters. The feud between Pawar and the Kakde clan is one of the fiercest rivalries in Maharashtra politics, be it in Lok Sabha polls or assembly polls or elections to sugar cooperatives in Pune district. But this Lok Sabha elections is a different story altogether. Pawar, now head of the NCP (Sharadchandra Pawar), had to knock on the doors of the Kakdes to seek support for his daughter, Supriya Sule, who is facing the toughest battle of her political career. Sule is contesting against her sister-in-law Sunetra Pawar, fielded by the Ajit Pawar-led NCP faction which is part of the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance.

Sharad Pawar had to knock on the doors of the Kakdes to seek support for his daughter Supriya Sule, who is facing the toughest battle of her political career.
Top BJP leaders admit that Chandrapur is one of the most difficult seats, owing to the anti-incumbency against the Union government and the sympathy for Pratibha Dhanorkar.
Uddhav has started addressing his rallies with “my patriotic brothers and sisters”. Earlier it used to be “my Hindu brothers and sisters”. This change has gone down well with the MVA constituents and also with Muslims.

Similar unimaginable scenarios are playing out across the state as the BJP-led NDA and the Congress-led INDIA bloc (Maha Vikas Aghadi in Maharashtra) are battling it out for every vote in each of the state’s 48 Lok Sabha constituencies. Maharashtra politics has taken near-chaotic twists and turns between 2019 and 2024, following the splits in the Shiv Sena and the NCP, toppling of the MVA government and swearing in of Eknath Shinde-led Mahayuti government. In 2014 and 2019, the saffron alliance (with the Shiv Sena intact and then part of the NDA) swept the Lok Sabha polls in Maharashtra, winning 42 of the 48 seats. Such a sweep is next to impossible this time though. And that is why political leaders have realised the importance of burying old rivalries.

Within the MVA, the Shiv Sena (Uddhav Balasaheb Thackeray) is contesting 21 seats, the Congress 17 and Sharad Pawar’s NCP 10. In the Mahayuti camp, the BJP is contesting 29 seats, Shinde’s Shiv Sena 15 and Ajit Pawar’s NCP five, of which one—Parbhani—has been given to Mahadev Jankar from the Rashtriya Samaj Paksha. Maharashtra is voting in five phases, with the last one on May 20.

While the politicians are busy fighting for their share of the pie, many voters are disgusted. Nothing captures it better than a poem by prominent Marathi actor and poet Sankarshan Karhade. In the poem, a grandfather narrates the story of his family members who feel that their votes have been wasted because of the ‘allies-turned-foes and foes-turned-allies’ kind of politics in the state in the last five years. The poem ends with the poet asking the grandfather why he thinks the vote for ‘lotus’ (BJP’s symbol) was wasted, as it is the only symbol that is intact. The grandfather replies that the ‘lotus’may have grown, but now it is in the very hands of the leaders against whom they had voted. Karhade wrote this poem at the start of the election season and its recital has been getting him and actor Spruha Joshi standing ovations wherever they recite it.

18-Sharad-Pawar Feud ends: Sharad Pawar (centre) visits the family of old rival and former MP Sambhajirao Kakde in Baramati | Rahul Deshmukh

The split in the Shiv Sena and the NCP and the alliances that followed have caused this disgust and anger. An NCP office-bearer close to both the Pawars told THE WEEK that he had to convince his wife to vote for the ‘clock’ (symbol retained by Ajit Pawar’s NCP) and not the ‘man blowing the trumpet’ symbol (given to Sharad Pawar’s NCP). “I have decided to go with Ajit dada, but my family is firmly with Pawar saheb,”he said. “I can’t tell my parents whom to vote for, but I did tell my wife. It took a lot of effort to convince her to vote for the ‘clock’.”

IN COASTAL KONKAN, BJP activists, who belong to the sangh parivar, have reluctantly agreed to work for Narayan Rane, whose elder son, Nilesh, had contested on a Congress ticket against the saffron alliance’s Vinayak Raut in 2019. Raut, a die-hard Shiv Sainik, had won the Ratnagiri-Sindhudurg seat with the help of the BJP then. This time, Raut is contesting on an MVA ticket, while Rane, a Union minister, got the BJP ticket. “Ask BJP workers what Rane’s men did to their karyakarta (activist). They chopped off his hand ahead of the voting in 2019. This resulted in huge anger against Ranes in my constituency that year. Now you know why BJP workers are reluctant to work for Rane,”Raut told THE WEEK in Kharepatan in Sindhudurg district.

Kharepatan resident Chandrakanth Shinde agreed. “Raut is a people’s man,” he said. “He may not have grand works to show or announcements to make, but he is at least not a nuisance like others (read Ranes).”

PTI03_09_2024_000124B Rivals under a roof: Supriya Sule (left) with sister-in-law and political opponent Sunetra Pawar at a temple in Baramati | PTI

Chandrapur in Vidarbha—the far-eastern region of Maharashtra—is more than a thousand kilometres from Kharepatan. Here, minister and senior BJP leader Sudhir Mungantiwar is contesting against Congress’s Pratibha Dhanorkar. Her husband, Suresh, was the lone Congress MP from Maharashtra in 2019. He died in 2023. Top BJP leaders admit that this is one of the most difficult seats, owing to the anti-incumbency against the Union government and the sympathy for Dhanorkar. To make matters worse for the BJP, Mungantiwar does not get along with Kishor Jorgewar, the independent MLA from Chandrapur, whose constituency has given the crucial lead to the BJP whenever it has won the Lok Sabha seat. It was only after the intervention of senior RSS leaders from Vidarbha that Mungantiwar patched up with Jorgewar and asked for his help just a few days before the polling on April 19.

If Jorgewar’s example proves the importance of votes from one assembly constituency, the importance of votes from one community can be best explained with the NDA’s candidate for Parbhani—Mahadev Jankar, who belongs to and has a huge following in the Dhangar community (shepherds). He has traditionally been with the BJP, but was sidelined when the BJP lost the state in 2019. When it returned to power with the help of Shinde in June 2022, Mahadev expected to be rewarded. But that did not happen. He was all set to join the MVA and be its candidate from Madha. The constituencies of Solapur, Madha and Baramati have a big population of Dhangars, and Mahadev joining the MVA would have certainly made things difficult for the BJP. After hectic last-minute parleys, the BJP mollified Mahadev with the ticket from Parbhani in Marathwada from Ajit Pawar’s NCP quota.

PTI04_30_2024_000230B Rallying point: Prime Minister Narendra Modi at a public meeting in Latur. Also seen are Maharashtra Chief Minister Eknath Shinde (second from left) and Deputy Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis (far right) | PTI

As one Jankar was being pacified, another revolted. Uttam Jankar, also a powerful Dhangar leader from Madha, had offered support to the Mohite-Patils, who have jumped from the BJP to Sharad Pawar’s NCP. Uttam was flown to Vidarbha to meet Fadnavis, who ensured his support for the BJP. Despite pacifying the two Jankars, the BJP is still unsure of winning Madha. That is because of the opposition to its candidate—sitting MP Ranjitsinh Naik Nimbalkar—from the Mohite-Patil clan and Ramraje Naik Nimbalkar’s family. The Mohite-Patils, a powerful political family in Solapur, left the BJP over Ranjitsinh’s candidature. Their home turf of Akluj-Malshiras is part of the Madha Lok Sabha constituency. Likewise, Ramraje’s family control Phaltan assembly seat in Madha. Ramraje and Ranjitsinh are sworn enemies. While Ramraje is with Ajit Pawar’s NCP, Dhairyasheel Mohite-Patil has joined Sharad Pawar’s NCP and is its candidate against Ranjitsinh.

While the BJP may lose Madha due to rebellion by the Mohite-Patils and Ramraje Naik Nimbalkar, the MVA sabotaged its own prospects in Sangli when the Congress ceded the seat to Shiv Sena (UBT). Sangli has long been a Congress bastion till it was breached by BJP’s Sanjaykaka Patil, a former Congressman, in 2014. The Congress was forced to give up Sangli in exchange for Kolhapur, where it has fielded Shahu Chhatrapati, head of the Kolhapur royal family. Kolhapur was a Sena stronghold. This exchange has shocked Congress cadre and leaders in western Maharashtra. The Sena (UBT) candidate for Sangli is Chandrahar Patil, a famous wrestler and politician, who is close to Jayant Patil, president of Sharad Pawar’s NCP. Chandrahar’s candidature led to the revolt of Congress’s Vishal Patil, who is now contesting as an independent candidate. Vishal—grandson of the late Vasantdada Patil, a Congress giant, former Union minister and three-time chief minister of Maharashtra—has found a swell of support among Congress cadre in Sangli. This means the anti-NDA votes will be split between the two Patils here.

THERE IS A SENSE of desperation in both camps in Maharashtra. Mahayuti leaders are trying every trick to make sure that the alliance equals the 2014 and 2019 record. On the other hand, the MVA leaders are going all out to expose what they call the corrupt BJP rule in the state and at the Centre.

23-Uddhav-Thackeray-and-Rahul-Gandhi Talking heads: Uddhav Thackeray (left) with Rahul Gandhi during his Bharat Jodo Yatra rally at Shivaji Park in Mumbai | Amey Mansabdar

In all his speeches, Deputy Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis focuses on how various Central schemes have benefited the people of the state, how the double-engine government has greatly improved infrastructure in Maharashtra through game-changer projects like Atal Setu and Samruddhi Mahamarg, and how Maharashtra’s successful march towards a trillion-dollar economy will generate jobs in lakhs. He also does not fail to lash out at the MVA for its failures on various counts during its two-and-a-half-year rule. “MVA leaders even made money from coffins during Covid-19,”he said. Fadnavis is clinical and brutal when he launches an attack on the Shiv Sena (UBT). “Your party split because you loved your son more than your father’s ideology,” he said. “The ideology of late Balasaheb Thackeray and his Shiv Sainiks are with us; those left around you (Uddhav) are your chamchas (cronies).”When it comes to Rahul Gandhi, Fadnavis lists the names of senior Congress leaders who left the party when Rahul Gandhi’s yatras were passing through their states. “Those who are still there, they will join us ahead of assembly elections,” he said.

On the other hand, Uddhav, Sharad Pawar and senior leaders of the Congress like Prithviraj Chavan are highlighting the dangers that will follow if Narendra Modi and the BJP are given yet another chance. MVA leaders are constantly hammering a message that if voted to power again Modi will change the Constitution and end reservation. This has found resonance among dalits and tribals, forcing the BJP top leadership, including Amit Shah and Modi, to assert that they have no plans to do so. Even RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat recently remarked in Maharashtra that the RSS supports reservation as it is meant to uplift the dalits and downtrodden.

The importance of the 48 seats in Maharashtra is such that Modi has addressed 12 rallies, six of them in two days in the seats that were being seen as danger zones by the BJP leadership. In his Pune rally, Modi called Sharad Pawar a “bhatakti atma (wandering spirit)”that has been a curse to Maharashtra for the last five decades. But he is soft on Uddhav. He told a news channel, “I can never forget what the late Balasaheb Thackeray did for me. I am indebted to him forever. And, if Uddhav calls for help any time in the future, I will be the first one to rush to help him.”

Uddhav, on the other hand, has started addressing his rallies with “my patriotic brothers and sisters”. Earlier it used to be “my Hindu brothers and sisters”. This change has gone down well with the MVA constituents and also with Muslims. He recently apologised for supporting Modi in 2014 and 2019. “He is a dictator and the future of democracy is in grave danger if he comes back to power. The elections will not happen in 2029,” said Uddhav. In speech after speech, Uddhav plays the victim card by claiming how Shinde stole the party from him with the help of the BJP and the Election Commission of India.

After the party split in 2022, people wondered whether Uddhav will still be able to call the shots in coastal Konkan, once a Sena bastion, and whether his candidates will win. Muslims form a sizable section of voters in Mumbai and the rural belt. Here, Uddhav has reverted to his Marathi pride strategy as it works well with Muslims, too.

MVA leaders are targeting Modi and the BJP as “Maharashtra haters”by citing the list of industrial projects that went from Maharashtra to Gujarat. They are also blaming the state and Central government for failure to address farmer woes. “Every problem that the farmers are facing in the state, I had raised it in Parliament in 2023,” said Supriya Sule. “I had warned them (Central government) that Maharashtra farmers were going to face these problems in the coming days and they need to act, but they did not.”

Nitin Birmal, professor of political science and coordinator of Lokniti-CSDS in Maharashtra, told THE WEEK that inflation, farmers’woes and unemployment are the issues in this election in Maharashtra. He has a point. Cotton prices have halved to Rs7,000 per quintal. Onion export was banned when onions were fetching a good price. Then suddenly the Union government allowed white onion from Gujarat to be exported, further upsetting farmers from Maharashtra. Soybean growers are suffering, too. All this could affect the BJP in Vidarbha and Marathwada region.

“People whom we surveyed told us that their situation had not improved much during the last five years,” said Birmal. “Another significant aspect is that there is no Ram Mandir factor playing out here. This could possibly be because of the influence of local deities like Khandoba, Biroba, Jotiba and Tulja Bhavani, the goddess at Yermala. For centuries, there has been a tradition to worship these deities. Also, because of the great influence of the Warkari sect, the significance of Lord Vitthala is far more in Maharashtra.” Birmal also pointed out that there was sympathy for Uddhav and Sharad Pawar. “But whether they have the machinery to convert this sympathy into votes remains to be seen,”he said.

The MVA is playing this victim card to the hilt to gain sympathy and turn it into votes. Amit Samant, Sindhudurg district president of NCP (Sharadchandra Pawar), said that the split in the NCP and Shiv Sena engineered by the BJP has not gone down well with the people of Maharashtra. The BJP will pay a big price for it, he said.

Another political analyst said that Ajit Pawar’s NCP and Shinde’s Sena are more interested in assembly elections six months down the line. If they want to keep the BJP in check at the time of assembly elections and stake claim on more number of assembly seats, there is a possibility that they could sabotage the BJP’s chances in some Lok Sabha constituencies.

One thing is certain though, this election is no cakewalk for the BJP-led alliance in Maharashtra. BJP leaders might not openly admit to anti-incumbency, but it is very much there. Moreover, even if the BJP does well in its seats, will Shinde’s Sena and Ajit Pawar’s NCP perform well in the seats allotted to them? Even the BJP is not sure about it. “We are comfortably placed in 30 seats,” said a top BJP leader. “But there is a strong fight for the remaining 18. We hope to win at least five to six of them to cross 35.”

Sharad Pawar expressed confidence that the MVA will do very well. “I will not be surprised if we win more than 20 seats,” he told THE WEEK.

Claims and counterclaims aside, this is one of the most interesting elections in Maharashtra. If Modi’s juggernaut suffers a setback here, then ‘Ab Ki Baar, 400 Paar (This time we will cross 400)’will remain a mere slogan.