Maharashtra: Can MVA halt BJP's juggernaut?

Good response to Bharat Jodo Nyay Yatra gives Congress hopes of a good election show

56-Farooq-Abdullah-and-Uddhav-Thackeray United front: Farooq Abdullah, Uddhav Thackeray, M.K. Stalin, Rahul Gandhi, Mallikarjun Kharge and Sharad Pawar at Shivaji Park in Mumbai | Amey Mansabdar

ON THE DAY RAHUL GANDHI’S Bharat Jodo Nyay Yatra entered the tribal district of Nandurbar on march 12, it was greeted with much fanfare. The mood of Congress leaders was upbeat, as Rahul addressed huge rallies in Nandurbar and Dondaicha. The jolt, however, came the next day―former minister Padmakar Valvi quit the party and joined the BJP.

Though hardly a heavyweight, Valvi certainly has some influence in the tribal belt of Nandurbar and Dhule Lok Sabha constituencies. The three-time legislator can damage the Congress’s chances in the Nandurbar constituency for sure.

Once a Congress bastion, Nandurbar and its tribals had a special place in Indira Gandhi’s heart. Rajiv and Sonia Gandhi carried forward the special bond. The UPA government chose Nandurbar district for the launch of its prestigious Aadhaar card scheme during its second tenure. The constituency, however, slipped away from the hands of the Congress in the Modi wave in 2014. Heena Gavit, a young BJP leader, has been representing the constituency since then. The Congress is keen on wresting it back.

The party has to play its cards deftly, though. It has to make sure that Prakash Ambedkar’s Vanchit Bahujan Aghadi (VBA) does not spoil the game. The efforts for an understanding with the VBA have not yielded any result as it refused to accept the two seats offered by the Maha Vikas Aghadi during the seat sharing talks.

A tacit understanding with powerful local leaders like Chandrkant Raghuvanshi would work well for the Congress. Originally a Congress man, Raghuvanshi shifted his loyalty to the Shiv Sena after the saffron alliance came to power in Maharashtra in 2014. After Shinde rebelled to form his own government and took control of the Shiv Sena, Raghuvanshi shifted to the Shinde camp. He is, however, not happy there.

The BJP has been winning Dhule, Nandurbar’s neighbouring constituency, since 2009, and the margins have been getting bigger. In 2019, the BJP’s Subhash Bhamre trounced the Congress’s Kunal Patil by 2.29 lakh votes. While Bhamre will contest again in 2024, the Congress has not yet decided its candidate.

Rahul’s first stop in Dhule was the residence of Rohidas ‘Dajisaheb’ Patil. A Congress veteran, he was minister many times. The popular leader has passed on the mantle to his son Kunal, who, many in Dhule say, is not as accessible as his father. Rahul met the senior Patil and made a phone call to Sonia Gandhi so that she could speak to him.

Rahul addressed two meetings in Dhule―one in the city and the other on the outskirts. Both were well attended. Like he did in Nandurbar, he announced five guarantees for women if the Congress came to power. Each of his announcements was greeted with thunderous applause from women.

“The response to Rahulji’s yatra has been phenomenal,” said Sachin Sawant, general secretary, Maharashtra Congress. “People are coming on their own to listen to him. People are tired of this politics of money and hatred. Now even the surveys for Maharashtra are saying that this election is not a cakewalk for the BJP.”

Sharad Pawar joined Rahul’s yatra when it entered Nashik district at Malegaon. His NCP will contest Dindori and Nashik, the two Lok Sabha constituencies in the district. Huge crowds received the yatra in Malegaon, a Muslim majority town of handloom and powerloom owners. The Congress had long been the first choice of the Muslims in the region. In the last election, however, Malegaon assembly seat was won by Asaduddin Owaisi’s AIMIM.

Dindori is an NCP stronghold―four of the six assembly segments in the Lok Sabha constituency were won by the united NCP in 2019. Even Bharati Pawar, Union minister and the BJP’s MP from Dindori, has her roots in the NCP. She was the NCP candidate in 2014 but lost. She defected to the BJP five years later and won the seat.

The divided NCP needs all the help it can get to win the seat back. Most senior NCP leaders in the region like Chhagan Bhujbal, whose Yeola assembly segment is part of Dindori constituency, are now with Ajit Pawar’s NCP, a BJP ally. In the scenario, Rahul’s yatra was the much needed booster dose that the local NCP cadre required to galvanise their support base of farmers and tribals.

From Nashik to Mumbai, Rahul travelled through Palghar, Bhivandi, Kalyan and Thane Lok Sabha constituencies. In Palghar he spent time with tribals, talking to them about how their rights were being trampled upon by the BJP rule. This belt is a traditional Shiv Sena stronghold. Most of these seats, barring Bhivandi, will see a fight between Eknath Shinde’s Sena and Uddhav Thackeray’s Sena. In Bhivandi, it could be BJP versus NCP like the last time.

As Rahul’s yatra left Bhivandi, another Muslim-majority township, the response became muted, despite Shiv Sainiks loyal to Uddhav joining in. Thane district is a Shinde bastion. MVA leaders are not hopeful of winning any Lok Sabha seat in this belt. The fact that they are banking on destiny for the victory of Rajan Vichare in Thane, that he has not lost a single election from municipal council to the Lok Sabha, says a lot about their lack of confidence.

But the MVA is betting on its combined strength to give the saffron alliance a tough fight. “The message that Rahulji’s yatra has succeeded in conveying is that the central government is against poor and backward people, it is undemocratic and wants to change the Constitution, it is favouring chosen few capitalists,” said Satej Patil, senior Congress leader and former minister. “All these factors will help the MVA perform well.”

In the alliance, the Shiv Sena (UBT) is likely to contest in 22 seats, the Congress in 16 and the NCP in 10. All three will have to accommodate smaller allies like VBA by sparing seats from their quotas.

During the Lok Sabha elections in 1998, when the Shiv Sena-BJP alliance was ruling Maharashtra, Sharad Pawar pulled off a miracle by stitching an alliance of anti-hindutva parties and the Congress won 33 of 48 seats the state. The current MVA might not be able to hold a candle to that alliance, but it is genuinely hoping that Rahul’s yatra will to bring handsome gains. Maharashtra’s 48 Lok Sabha seats is the second biggest kitty after Uttar Pradesh. If the MVA is able to halt the BJP juggernaut here, it could well turn out to be a game-changer.