Maharashtra’s rural and agricultural regions have shattered the image of Narendra Modi and the BJP as an invincible political force, handing the party a series of defeats in local elections. This will shape not only present but also future of the state. Of the 289 Panchayat and Nagarpalika seats in Western Maharashtra, North Maharashtra and Konkan, the BJP could manage to win just about two dozen seats and Shiv Sena 55. The Congress came first by winning over 100 seats and its one time ally, the NCP, over 80. Together the two Congress parties won more than two-third seats in this large moffusil region. Only recently, the BJP and Shiv Sena had lost hugely in local elections in two other regions, Vidarbha and Marathwada.
The main reason for this result is the groundswell of frustration and anger at the total indifference, neglect and even disconnect with the agricultural community in the state. The BJP is still a party of the middle class. In the last thirty years, this class has spread even in the rural areas. The growth of educational institutions, the tentacles of taluka and district level government offices, the spread of the banking sector, the rise of the computer and mobile phone generation and the aspiration of becoming metrosexual, particularly in the age group of 16 to 30, has generated disdain for agriculture. This new, rural white collar, non-agricultural class provided political backing to the BJP. But the rural economy, which supports this class is still agricultural.
The cruel drought conditions and consequent devastation of the farmers, not only in Vidarbha and Marathwada, but even in the rest of the state, burst rudely the bubble of hope created by the blitzkrieg of the Modi campaign. Farmers were also lured by the promise of high remunerative prices for the agricultural produce and bonus made by the BJP. The party knew that it was promising the impossible. But they convinced themselves that in elections and war, everything is permissible. The Congress and the NCP, despite their corruption and power-centric politics are still rooted in the soil. They still communicate in the language that farmer understands.
The new rural middle class and it’s urban counterpart, with their eyes focussed more on Mumbai or Manhattan, had lost touch, not only with the soil but also with their poor or lower middle class past. They had forgotten the days when there were no schools, colleges, banks, computer classes and the consumer culture so evident today. Just about 25-30 years ago, there was no STD booth, no xeroxing facility, no two-wheelers and erratic state transport services. Those in the age group of 40-plus have seen the days of scarcity and famine. Most of Maharashtra is a rain shadow terrain. Irrespective of who is in power, life in many parts is severe. All this had faded from memories. But harsh reality began to dawn on them in just one year. That reality check came not because of any Congress campaign or change of guard in the party. The widespread failure of crops, the absence of the governance that was so loudly talked about and sheer lack of sensitivity or even comprehension of the farmers’ problems in the ruling dispensation led to popular frustration and anger.
The Congress must not think it is their victory or they have regained the faith of the voters. Just as people turned their wrath on the Grand Old Party last year, they have expressed their discontent again. The only difference is that the Congress and the NCP understand these issues and are still rooted in the soil. But the Congress has still not been able to reach out to the youth, armed with android and Apple and dreaming of non-agricultural opportunities. The first wave of such unemployed lumpens had created the Shiv Sena. But that was clearly a Mumbai phenomenon. The Sena could never become a regional party like the DMK, AIADMK, Telugu Desam or Akali Dal, because it had no base in the rural-agricultural community. In the last two decades, the lumpenisation spread to rural areas and the Congresss began to decline. Even today, the two Congresses may have won quite handsomely, but they are unlikely to see the glory of the 1960s and ‘70s, when they virtually had monopoly of power.
BJP in depression mode
Just one year ago, the BJP leadership in the state was so sure of its ascent to power in Delhi and in the state under Narendra Modi-Amit Shah duo that it was threatening the Shiv Sena with divorce. Modi and Shah were never really comfortable with the Sena, even when Balasaheb Thackeray was around. But now the mood in the BJP is going slowly into depression mode. They have already started privately wooing the angry Sena leaders for adjustment of seats in the Mumbai Municipal Corporation election next year. The Mumbai civic body is the richest one in the country and has a budget bigger than of many states. The luxury residential towers coming up all over the Metropolitan city are tall symbols of towering corruption which is the main source (mainly in black money) of fund raising.
The BJP had thought that the party would be the sole beneficiary of that huge monetary bonanza. They did not want to share the loot with the Sena, which is in power in the Mumbai corporation for over two decades. The real estate boom and the plot / flat prices literally shooting through the roof have ruined the metropolis even as a class of neo-super-rich corporator-politician has emerged.
In Mumbai-Pune-Nashik-Nagpur-Aurangabad, the alliance of this neo-rich is with the entrenched white collar middle class and the army of the lumpens. The BJP and the Sena are competing to conquer this territory. But the state is still agricultural, rain starved, poor, undernourished, underdeveloped and unemployed. The media’s focus on Mumbai and its Bollywood glamour and glitz, stock market and cricket gives a totally false picture of the state. A simple bus journey through the vast, dry tracts of the state will illustrate to the complacent media why everyone loves and hates droughts in Maharashtra.
Kumar Ketkar is a Mumbai-based political commentator